Teaching with Tech
The “Really Simple Solution” To Information Overload
Maria Andersen, October 2010
Want to show your classes more examples of real-world mathematics? Find innovative ways to engage students? Keep up with news in a particular discipline?
You can easily do all of these using a web technology called RSS (Really Simple Syndication).
Let’s say you regularly read four publications, but you are really only interested in specific sections of each publication. In their digital formats, most publications have an RSS button for each section of their published content. This orange RSS button is a signal that you can choose to have only the new content from this section delivered directly to you. You’ll find the orange RSS button on most of the websites you check on often, too. For example, you can subscribe to several MAA columns or the MathDL “Math in the News” daily summary using RSS.
Even when there is not an orange RSS button, most blogging and website software automatically generates an RSS feed now that you can subscribe to. To sign up for this RSS feed, look for some kind of clickable text that says “Subscribe here.” Even Twitter generates RSS feeds. So if there’s someone that you’d like to follow on Twitter without having to mess with Twitter yourself, just use RSS to get that person’s feed.
Most conferences designate a Twitter hashtag, like #ICTCM or #JMM2011, and these hashtag searches also have an RSS feed. If you can’t go to the conference, you can subscribe to the Tweets (and therefore gain access to website links and attendee insights from the conference).
Choose a Reader
The first thing you’ll want to do with RSS is set up your own RSS reader. There are many RSS readers out there: Google Reader, FeedReader, and NetNewsWire are all popular choices. A good RSS program will create organized folders for your subscriptions, mark articles you’ve read, let you bookmark articles you like, and help you share what you’re reading with others via email or social networking sites. Once your favorite content is organized into an RSS reader, you can pick it up from any device connected to theInternet. You can catch up on the most current reading during all those in-between times, like when you’re waiting for a committee meeting to start.
For example, I have folders for Educational Technology, Math, Humor, and Edge of Learning (feeds about future-oriented technologies and commentaries. If you’d like a tutorial on the specifics of a particular RSS reader, I suggest doing a simple web search that includes the name of the reader and the word “tutorial”— you’ll find detailed instructions for everything you’ll want to know.
Feed Real-World Math to Students
Using an RSS reader should help you be in control of the limitless swarm of information on the Internet. RSS can also be an incredible tool for bringing math around the world to the everyday lives of your students.
What you use will depend on the specific math course. I often teach a Math for Elementary Teachers (MathET) course. I think it’s valuable for these students to read about the day-to-day struggles of teachers in the classroom who write about teaching math to children—so I choose content written by K-12 teachers.
If you’re lucky, you can pull RSS content directly into your learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard, Moodle, and D2L. In Moodle, for example, the RSS content can be sent to a side panel of the course shell, which is ideal. If you’re not sure whether this is possible, ask the campus LMS expert.
If you can’t subscribe to RSS feeds directly from your campus LMS, all is not lost! I pull in RSS feeds using a public (free) Netvibes page (you can see one of mine at http://netvibes.com/math105). I set this Netvibes page as the page that students see when they log in to the course, and here they fi nd headlines from several blogs whose feed I have chosen for the course. What they read here oft en makes its way into our discussions and their projects, even though reading it is not required. I also use the tabs on the Netvibes page to pull in the RSS feeds from the students’ learning blogs about math.
If you want students to engage with the content from the “real world,” you must make the content highly visible to them. Ideally,Students should see the headlines on the first “landing page” in the course shell. If the content is buried in a button or secondary page, it is likely to go unnoticed. Again, ask your IT person for help if needed, to place this news where it can be easily seen.
In the digital age, information can overwhelm as it comes from radio, television, print publications, websites, mobile phones, and social networks. However, with the right technology, you can put yourself back in control of what you read and learn. RSS is a powerful way to choose, learn, and share exactly what you want.
This column appeared in the October/November issue of MAA FOCUS.
Maria H. Andersen is a Learning Futurist for The LIFT Institute and a Math Professor at Muskegon Community College. She is also president of Edge of Learning LLC, an educational consulting business. Follow her on Twitter @busynessgirl or visit her official website.