μεταcole

Explaining RSS Feeds and Aggregators

Posted in rss, story by coleman yee on May 31, 2007

Once upon a time…

I was teaching a course entitled “Discover News Aggregators & RSS” to a group of librarians last week.

Because most of them did not know anything about RSS, I wanted to make sure that every one of them left the course not just understanding what RSS was about, but remembering it for a very long time.

What better way than to tell a story.

But even before the class started, I got them curious: I crushed about 8 sheets of paper into individual paper balls, and placed them in front of random participants (there were about 25 participants).

“What are they for?” some of them had to ask.

“It’s for an activity later. Don’t throw them away; don’t eat them.”

So when the class finally started, after I gave a brief introduction, I scared them with the Wikipedia definition of RSS:

RSS (an acronym for Really Simple Syndication) is a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated digital content, such as blogs, news feeds or podcasts.

I also gave the Wikipedia definition of web feed:

A web feed is a data format used for serving users frequently updated content. Content distributors syndicate a web feed, thereby allowing users to subscribe to it. Making a collection of web feeds accessible in one spot is known as aggregation.

This was useful to help them appreciate my story better, since nobody could really grasp these definitions.

Before I started the story, I showed them the cast of characters:

Me (Coleman) – the user
You – the user’s favorite blog/website
Paper ball – new content

And I started my story (story words in italics):

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Coleman.

Every morning, he would turn on his computer, and access the internet.

Now he had around 25 favorite websites that he would visit every morning.

He would go the the first website, to see if there’s any new content. Any new content? (I went up to the first participant and asked her.) No?

Then he would go on to the next website. (I stepped up to the next participant.) Any new content? No?

Then to the next website. New content? (The 3rd participant had a paper ball.) YES! (I held up the ball.) Coleman would read the new content.

Then he would go on to the next website? Any new content? No?

So on and on he would go, visiting each of his favorite websites to check if there’s new content so that he could read it.

This, as you can see, is very inefficient, and wastes a lot of time, so Coleman was VERY SAD.

Then one day, the fairy godfather visited Coleman, and taught him about RSS feeds and RSS aggregators.

Armed with that knowledge, Coleman used his RSS aggregator (I produced and raised a dustbin)…

(And on the slide:)

Me (Coleman) – the user
You – the user’s favorite blog/website
Paper ball – new content
Dustbin – RSS aggregator

Coleman used his RSS aggregator to subscribe to the RSS feeds from each of his 25 favorite websites.

With that, every morning, when Coleman turned on his computer, he would open his RSS aggregator (raise the bin), and the new content from his 25 favorite websites would… (I motioned for those participants with the paper balls to throw them towards me, and I caught all of them with the bin)

and the new content from his favorite websites would automatically be collected by the RSS aggregator (raise the bin), so that he could read the new content from his favorite websites (I took out the balls one by one) without having to visit them one by one, ever again.

And so, Coleman lived happily ever after.

They loved it.

Update:

I forgot to thank those who gave me their views when I first sounded this idea, including Siva, Ivan, and Vanessa.

Feel free to use and modify this idea for your own purposes, as long as animals are not harmed in the process.

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15 Responses

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  1. billy said, on May 31, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    fantastic explanation. totally going to use it for school myself, man.

  2. Qiaoyun said, on May 31, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    That’s a great way to teach a class. I wish I had someone to do the same for me when I was struggling to understand RSS a year ago. Reading a million pages about RSS on the Internet only made me more confused.

  3. vantan said, on May 31, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Smashing. I may borrow this idea when (or if) I finally give a talk to my organisation.

  4. seaotter said, on May 31, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Glad it worked, yaay!

  5. jianhui said, on June 3, 2007 at 1:32 am

    brilliant

  6. theory said, on June 3, 2007 at 10:58 am

    Not bad. Quite similar to my idea of teaching folksonomy by having participants tag themselves with post-it notes. I think the bottomline is to make analogies tangible, so they can live it out. Let’s see what else we can demo in real-life settings. Good idea stream going 🙂

  7. spacecake said, on June 3, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    Hehe, your tale also include the hazards of what happens when you subscribe to too many RSS feeds too! 🙂

  8. Walter said, on June 3, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    Nice touch there on the use of RSS. I think we need more simple explanations like this to demystify the world around us. The use of jargons, “insider language” and indicipherable tech-talk sometimes alienates those around us.

  9. […] Explaining RSS Feeds and Aggregators « μεταcole Teaching RSS using crushed balls and dustbins… Keywords: rss, teaching, web2.0 […]

  10. […] Explaining RSS Feeds and Aggregators « μεταcole Once upon a time, there was a young man named Coleman. […]

  11. Ivan Chew said, on June 7, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Solid! The only thing I’d modify is to leave the dustbin in the centre of the room, and have the participants walk up and place the balls of paper in it (to show that content is automatically pushed to the bin). Excellent work. Will use this if I get the chance. And I’ll definitely point them back to your post, ‘cos that’s also another way to show how there’s sharing among bloggers.

  12. Lam Chun See said, on June 17, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    I think it is very creative of you to come up with the dustbin analogy. But I think the dustbin is not very appropriate becos we tend to associate it with junk. I like the Blogger explanation where they used the inbox as analogy. Instead of going to each of your friends to ask if they had sent you and email, now you only need to check you inbox.

  13. Verena said, on June 27, 2007 at 9:30 am

    Wow! That was indeed the best part of the course. For like the longest time since I came in (late), I was clueless about what you’re saying. The story was a very good analogy. Did you actually manage to catch all the paper balls with the bin? That must be quite a sight.

  14. coleman yee said, on June 27, 2007 at 10:36 am

    The catching of the paper balls was really a cinch for me. I didn’t think anything about it until some people started gasping every time I caught a ball – a distraction really!

  15. Chris Foot said, on October 7, 2007 at 10:44 am

    Hey, that is real teaching. Now that I understand RSS feeds and aggregators, I would make these changes for teaching clarity and fun.

    Each student representing a website gets a pussycat name. (name suggestions, please, picture each student holding a new info paper ball sporting a huge name tag with a cat name) Hire a specially trained dog that doesn’t harm pussycats. On command, the special dog (breed suggestions, please) trots to each website in turn, and upon arrival, says “What’s new, pussycat?” Purring sounds = nothing new. Nice meow = look what I have! Dog collects each ball and returns them to master Coleman.

    Heck, for Hallowe’en dress up the dogs and cats! 🙂

    OK, the garbage can is easier, but this is more fun!!


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