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Making the most of change

One advantage of information gleaned from the internet over that available in school resource centres or libraries is the currency of the data. Instead of using statistics from an old set of encyclopaedias you can provide your class with the latest data. Yet this very advantage can sometimes also be the internet’s most frustrating characteristic.

Staying current in an ever-changing environment can be a full-time pursuit, time we teachers can ill afford. So how can you keep track of new material published continually without having to do a new search everyday? This is where we introduce a nifty little utility called RSS.

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a small piece of software, or utility, which delivers updated content straight to you when a favourite source is revised. RSS feeds automatically update and alert you as soon as new content such as additional material or blog and forum comments are posted. That means you can stay in touch with what’s going on without having to remember to visit the site daily.

For example, if you are teaching general education and training grades (up to grade nine) using a theme of space travel and are using the progress of a Nasa space craft as it travels through the solar system it is worth subscribing to Nasa’s site feed and collecting the updates as soon as the latest news on that vessel’s progress is posted. Another example where you might want to track changes is in a blog or forum discussion. If you are following a discussion in Thutong’s History Learning Space forum on history teaching-related topics and would like to be notified when teachers add to the discussion then the RSS feed comes in handy.

Sounds simple? Well, it is. It’s easy and free to subscribe: look out for, and click, either of these symbols on the website you want to track…
The program that contains the RSS utility is your internet browser (MS Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Opera). Each browser alerts you in different ways to the availability of an update. In Internet Explorer 7 (www.microsoft.co.za) you will find your RSS feed updates tucked away as a subsection of your Favourites folder. In my experience this is a little bit too subtle and I often forget to go and have a look. My updates pile up without me realising.

Firefox 3 (www.firefox.com) places the RSS notifications in places where you notice them more obviously. The subscribed sites are listed in the menu bar where the updates can be accessed with a simple click. Firefox also offers you the option of receiving email notifications. This last option I find the most useful.

A number of Web 2.0 or social networking sites now offer you notifications by email. Facebook (www.facebook.com) is a popular social networking site that alerts you via email when friends or contacts want to interact with you. This type of syndication is not the same as RSS but it offers a similar service. Thutong (www.thutong.org.za) also offers an email service for its forum discussions. Simply click the “Email Subscription Enabled/Disabled” icon located above the forum discussion. Every time there is an addition to the discussion you get a notification in the post.

If computers are going to add value to our lives as teachers then we must learn a few productivity enhancing behaviours when using them. This one is real simple.

Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has an MEd degree in computer assisted education. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company

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