Once I started following more than a couple blogs, I realized that I needed a more efficient system to read blog posts than just visiting each blog one at a time. An RSS feed reader acts as a repository for all your subscriptions to other blogs, or anything else that features an RSS feed, usually designated by this icon: . A blog or other syndicated medium will usually have this icon indicating that you can subscribe to it using a feed reader (sometimes called aggregator).
There are numerous options for aggregators; here are two links describing several of the most popular choices: Lifehacker, “Best RSS Newsreaders” and Gizmo’s Freeware, “Best Free RSS Reader-Aggregator”. I ended up going with Google Reader, mainly because I like Google’s apps and I appreciate the simplicity of the Gmail like interface that Google Reader uses. It has served me perfectly well so far. Here’s a good introduction from Lifehacker on “How to Get Started with Google Reader”.
The only feature that Google Reader is lacking for me is that it cannot subscribe to a feed that is password protected. I ran into this problem when trying to subscribe to the feed for the password protected PBworks page I set up for one of my classes. The PBWorks user manual describes the issue and recommends several alternative feed readers that do support password-protected feeds.
After using a feed reader for several months I can say that it would be impossible for me to keep up with the various sites that I follow without it. The reader pulls together the titles of all the new entries that have been posted since the last time I checked, and I can quickly browse through and see which entries interest me and expand them to read within the reader itself. One thing I realized is that once you start following a few blogs, you really do have to add some regular reading time into your routine. I also realized that even with a reader, there really is a limit to how many blogs you can realistically follow. After going for several days without opening up Reader and finding about 100 unread entries, I realized that I needed to cut out some of my subscriptions and also read a bit more regularly. But again, a good reader allows you to quickly skim through the titles and chose to bring up only what you want to read. I can’t imagine manually loading up each of the different blogs and trying to determine which posts were new. In this regard, RSS is an essential technology for someone who’s trying to keep track of multiple sources of information.
Within the Classroom
In the classroom, a feed aggregator would be absolutely essential for a teacher who has students create and post to their own blogs. I am planning to incorporate student blogging into one of my classes this fall, and I cannot imagine having to routinely visit 50 different blogs to see what students have written. With a feed reader, I can see all the new student entries in one convenient place.
I can also have students subscribe to the RSS feeds for certain blogs that address topics of interest to the class, and require them to write responses to entries of particular interest in their own blogs. These activities would address NET-S #2 (Communication and Collaboration) and #3 (Research and Information Fluency) respectively.
Here is the feed address for my own Reasonable Answers blog. I kind of “upgraded” the feed for my blog by putting it through Feedburner (which was also recently acquired by Google). The primary reason I ran my feed through Feedburner was because it provided the option for people to easily subscribe to my blog through e-mail. I felt that this would provide a simple and convenient option for those who did not desire to set up a feed reader. You can enter an e-mail addy in the box under “Feed Subscription” on the left side of the page (under the hand holding the Earth) and follow the instructions in the pop-up box that will appear, and then whenever a new entry is posted on Reasonable Answers you will receive an e-mail. Feedburner also provides some neat tools for “promoting” a blog, and it also provides tracking information so that you can see who is subscribed to your feed.