An exploratory study into the use made of RSS by academic staff at MMU.
Aims & Objectives
Information technology has transformed, and continues to transform, the ways that data, information and knowledge is created, stored, managed and used. The overwhelming availability and supply of information demands mechanisms for accessing, filtering and sorting within work-flows both for research and teaching within higher education. Some of those mechanisms (email, library databases) are well established but may be creaking under the strain of increasing quantity. Others, such as the family of formats known as RSS are emerging. The aim of this study is to explore the uses of RSS in facilitating the management of information and assess its potential as a tool to improve research and teaching activity. It will do so in the context of academic members of staff at Manchester Metropolitan University. Three objectives will inform this initial exploration: 1. an assessment of the adoption of RSS by academic staff 2. an understanding of the present uses made of RSS in learning and teaching 3. to understand the potential for RSS in learning and teaching at MMU Whilst these are the immediate objectives of this study, it is invisaged that the findings inform discussions of, and strategic developments in, information management in academic practice.

While the promise of fifteen years ago that the world wide web would become the pre-eminent global platform for information exchange has largely been realised, it is less clear whether the promise of five years ago that RSS1 would be the 'killer app'2 (Harrsch, 2003), revolutionising the processing of that exchange, has occurred. It seems that interest in using RSS is certainly growing 3, its visibility is increasing3 and its potential in Higher Education in the UK is being explored5, particularly by educational technologists6 and libraries. It may even be true that, as William Gibson argued, 'the future is already here - it's just unevenly distributed'. However, there is little evidence concerning the adoption of RSS by academics in the UK, or research examining how those who have adopted it make use of it in their learning and teaching. RSS is an enabling technology/family of formats that is playing a central role in changing the nature of the world wide web from a series of static web pages created and visited on web sites to a distributed network of active, dynamic flows of information. Initially inspired by the notion of news subscription services and conceived as an antidote to email spamming7, the idea of aggregating news updates remains central to RSS. Users subscribe to content using an RSS reader or aggregator which automatically checks for and downloads new content. Without having to visit numerous web sites users can quickly and effectively access new content from information sources that they are interested in. With RSS metadata information can be accessed, collected, mixed and republished in a variety of forms and viewed on a variety of platforms (Windows, Linux, OS) and devices (iPods, PDAs, and smart phones). Described variously as a 'pipe' through which information courses, a radio channel


tuned to users' idiosyncratic tastes, and a 'river of information' navigated by users in different ways, RSS provides a way of delivering and (re)distributing new content. RSS, along with other technologies of the 'live' web, has placed user control central to information management. Users can specify what type and level of information they want to receive updates of and then re-publish selections of that content in customised personal or institutional web spaces. This link between aggregation and syndication, between the 'pushing' and 'pulling' (and subsequent re-pushing) of information has become the primary driver in spreading RSS. Such is the ubiquity of RSS that from its beginnings in a narrow technology community it has moved through desktop applications to incorporation into web browsers and recently into operating systems. Many users are now, arguably, subscribing to and reading feeds without being conscious of the facilitating technology. The 'News Feed' in the social networking site, Facebook, has probably introduced more users to feed reading than all the stand-alone applications and help pages that preceded its massive take-up. RSS is attracting online news and information publishers around the world to offer multiple feeds of varying granularity in an attempt to push information, attract and track readers. Whilst RSS has become ubiquitous in commercial news websites, on blogs, wikis and and podcasts, its use in Higher Education has been much less visible. This is perplexing considering the dynamic complexity of increasingly active distributed data that universities not only now have access to but which is increasingly seen as a sine qua non of effective research, scholarship and teaching. Managing the 'data deluge' a has become the focus of much research examining technological/structural needs, information literacy skills, as well as its pedagogical implications. In the UK, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) has been exploring and facilitating the adoption of emergent technologies in higher and further educational settings for some time. Two projects give a flavour of the kinds of work being supported by JISC at the moment in an attempt to harness the power of (amongst other technologies) RSS. The Virtual Research Environment (VRE) programme 'aims to build and deploy collaborative multi-disciplinary VREs [Virtual Research Environments], bringing together tools and technologies to demonstrate how researchers can better manage their increasingly complex tasks' 7. Feedforward is a project currently developing a desktop content aggregator harnessing the popularity of RSS metadata formats 'to support a synthesis of user-created and curated content within a simple workflow' 8. JISC recognises the importance of integrated simple services that can exploit the power of networks and network effects to increase the flow of information in and out of UK FE and HE institutions. Equally, its publications and reports point to the importance of responding to the implications of a 'live web' where a plethora of technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of information production and consumption 9, 10. Clearly, those working in institutional information systems appreciate the problem and are examining possible solutions. Educational technologists, particularly those more innovative members of the community, have been aware of the issues for a long time and have been experimenting with the latest generation of web and network tools to forge creative responses. Information 'addicts' have most obviously embraced the opportunity to 'subscribe' to all those resources that until recently were only available at great expense. A great many, particularly those attracted to social networking sites such as Facebook, have realised the power of dynamic news feeds and make use of them. However, it is unclear how aware the majority of academic staff are of RSS and if they are, what uses they make of it. Informing JISC's Google Generation report 10 is an extensive review of research by Rowlands and Fieldhouse into scholarly information behaviour from 1995 to 200711. Despite the importance that


must be given to disciplinary variation in user-behaviour, they document a number of studies which show that: • academics are inherently conservative in their adoption of new formats and innovative access modes in their research activity • researchers are not technically proficient at searching for information in digital collections and rely on coping strategies to navigate those collections • a consequence of the growth in literature available with the onset of digital publishing has been the lower attention paid 'per unit' (journal article) and a reduction in time spent on individual journal articles According to Odlyzko 12, this growth will see electronic formats becoming the dominant medium in less than ten years and with the emergence of Open Access initiatives and the rise of Institutional Repositories, Borgman13 feels that the 'unit' itself will become increasingly disaggregated. Borgman's recommendation is for research that examines how this disaggregation and re-aggregation (syndication) could be facilitated. Odlyzko is more extreme and contentious: 'Authors like to think of their articles as precious resources that are absolutely unique and for which no substitutes can be found. Yet a more accurate picture is that any one article is just one item in a river of knowledge' 14. The metaphor is telling and recalls the ways in which RSS has been described above. The report by Rowlands and Fieldhouse examines scholarly information behaviour largely in terms of research activity. Although there are some recommendations for the development of information services to respond to the changing needs of the 'Google Generation', no studies are reported that explore the ways in which academics are aggregating and syndicating content in the student curriculum. However, both FutureLab15 in the UK and EDUCAUSE16 in the US document ways in which emerging technologies, are being used to develop content, learning and knowledge in higher education. Such initiative are extremely informative about future trends, pockets of adoption, and innovative solutions. However, there remains, as yet, very limited empirical exploration into specific contexts of use and particular users of RSS.

The collection of data to meet objectives (1) and (2) above will consist of an online survey examining RSS use delivered to members of the academic staff at MMU through the allstaff email group. This will establish: 1. those members of the academic staff who are aware of RSS and do make use of it. 2. the kinds, and frequency of use made by those members of staff. Demographic data will also be gathered to allow correlations in terms of age, gender, and home Faculty. The current number of academic staff at MMU is 1,481 17. All members of the academic staff automatically receive a daily email digest in which the invitation will be included. If expected completions are 20% then just under 300 returns would be available for collation and analysis giving an indication of levels of adoption and types of use of RSS by members of the academic staff at MMU. Whilst this numerical data will give an indication of the use of RSS, a more qualitative lense will be


necessary in order to understand the present role of RSS technologies in learning and teaching at MMU (objectives 2 and 3). Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with self-selecting members of staff who complete the survey in order to probe in more depth their adoption of RSS in both research and teaching (formal and informal) contexts. Case studies of academic practice will be constructed from the data collected. Key informants from MMU's Centre for Learning and Teaching together with the Electronic Services Development Team will be interviewed to scope the perceived potential for RSS formats in learning and teaching at MMU (objective 3). Although a more speculative and strategic focus may be expected to emerge from this, it will allow for an assessment of the fit between strategic thinking in the university and operational reality, and hopefully fuel subsequent discussion and planning. Current developments in technology are promising to change the ways in which academic staff access information and knowledge and the ways in which students interact with staff and resources. This study is designed to assess the extent to which one such development, RSS, is meeting and could meet its promises.

'A national workplace survey reports that more than seven in ten American white collar workers feel inundated with information at their workplace, while more than two in five feel that they are headed for an information “breaking point.”' http://www.lexisnexis.com/media/ press-release.aspx?id=1041.asp (8 Feb 2008) 1 Variously defined as Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, Really Simple Syndication, RSS is an extension to HTML (called XML) which allows the content of the HTML file to be syndicated. 2 'I would define a killer application as a program that provides the capability for an average person to use technology to solve every day problems and enrich their lives. http://connect.educause.edu/ Library/Abstract/RSSTheNextKillerAppForEdu/36795 3 Google Trends shows that while searches for RSS peaked in 2005, searches for Google Reader continue to rise. The conceptual interest seems to have given way to an interest in practical tools for reading RSS feeds. See http://www.google.com/trends?q=rss%2C+google+reader 4 All the major UK national daily newspapers offer RSS feeds on their online sites 5 A JISC funded project 'Feedforward' (May 2007 - September 2008) "aims to support a synthesis of user-created and curated content within a simple workflow. This will be consistent with general information management practices emerging as a result of the popularity of the RSS and Atom metadata aggregation formats." http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/ programme_rep_pres/tools/feedforward.aspx assumes that RSS is popular amongst UK HE academics. 6 perticularly prominant are: Tony Hirst at the OU, Graham Atwell at Pontydysgu and Scott Wilson at CETIS 7 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/programme_vre.aspx 8 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/programme_rep_pres/tools/feedforward.aspx 9 Goggle Generation http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/resourcediscovery/ googlegen.aspx 10 What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education (Dec. 2007) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future (Jan. 2008) Ciber on behalf of JISC http://www.jisc.ac.uk/ whatwedo/programmes/resourcediscovery/googlegen 11 Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. Ian Rowlands and Maggie Fieldhouse. 2007


http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/reppres/ggworkpackagei.pdf 12 Odlyzko, A. (2002). The rapid evolution of scholarly communication. Learned Publishing, 15, 7-19. 13 Borgman C.L. (2000). Digital libraries and the continuum of scholarly communication. Journal of Documentation, 56 412-430 14 Odlyzko, A. (2002). The rapid evolution of scholarly communication. Learned Publishing, 15, p. 12. 15 FutureLab http://www.futurelab.org.uk/ 16 EDUCAUSE http://www.educause.edu/content.asp?PAGE_ID=720&bhcp=1 17 MMU Human Resources. Numbers accurate as of 21.02.08

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