This whole syndication thing is sucking me down the drain…



RSS Fountain, originally uploaded by Orin Optiglot.

It was more than four years ago that Stephen Downes whipped up a custom version of his edu_rss application for the Merlot conference being held here in Vancouver. It scanned the posts of what was then pretty much the entire education-technology blogosphere (granted, it was smaller then, but it had a ton of feeds), and anytime anyone mentioned “Merlot” in a post it was republished onto a custom page that Stephen had pirated repurposed from the official Merlot site. It worked beautifully, it was dead easy for the users, and I remember thinking it would only be a short while before this sort of functionality was available to everyone.

I’m still waiting. What I want is the ability to take any number of feeds, filter and re-organize them with minimal stress on user behavior, and republish them where I wish.

There’s no shortage of tools that promise this functionality. Most of them break down if you add more than a half dozen feeds. Few of them seem to like OPML. Other approaches require ordinary users to employ arcane techniques to facilitate the process (and they may not work anyway, hello Technorati tags), or an editor to manage even simple sorting and filtering. We never could get Stephen’s edu_rss to run on our local server. We developed our own system via a guerrilla in-house project that got tantalizingly close to fulfilling the EduGlu dream, but it fell victim to a lack of ongoing funding and student programmers’ inexplicable desire to graduate and get on with their lives.

The past year has seen the introduction of mash-up editors from major players like Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, IBM among others, and the processing and filtering of feeds should be trivial for them, but all that my experiments with these tools have yielded to me is literally days of my life poured irretrievably down the sinkhole of wasted time.

And yet I blog merrily along, talking about the power of syndication to anyone who will listen… and I’m still trying to achieve what seemed to be just around the corner four years ago.

There has been some promising progress on the ‘RSS portal’ approach, and I had begun to recommend this method to most people as the best available technique. A librarian here wanted to create a simple portal of relevant journal feeds for a course, but has found the technology buggy at best (tabs of feeds disappearing, funky rendering in some browsers) and is uncomfortable with depending on it for a course. Oh yes, it also doesn’t seem possible to export OPML from Pageflakes, so if things go wrong it’s laborious to reconstruct. I have had some success with sharing Netvibes tabs (like this — Add to Netvibes), but that system requires viewers to set up a Netvibes account to do more than preview content. It’s gotten to the point where our working plan is to handcode HTML tables and paste in Feed2JS javascript for each source… which just strikes me as an insanely laborious way to provide simple RSS rendering with a stable, public URL.

Add this into the mix — I’ve had remarkably good luck the past few years with grant applications and conference proposals. But so far, each submission that’s focused on RSS or syndication in any way has been rejected — come to think of it, these have been my only failures. I recently suggested a paper to some peers proposing to articulate “The State of Syndication” and that idea seemed to strike absolutely nobody as worth doing. It’s as if I’m raving about professional wrestling as the future of online learning or something. I honestly wonder if my enthusiasm and interest in syndication is grievously misplaced.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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