Thursday, August 03, 2006

What is OPML?

This morning, I had an interesting conversation with a brilliant 8th grader.  Talk about a digital native, this child is a classic example.  Her second toy, behind a pacifier, was sitting in her dads lap and slobbering on the keyboard.  I think she preferred the taste of the keys to her baby formula.  She has already be through more cell phones than a Cingular Account Exec.  I may be overly biased in that she is my niece, but my two daughters are amazed at her tech skills.  She could transfer TV game consoles from one TV to another by the time she could walk.  I still have to call Tech Support. 

I tried to explain, in a hurry, what OPML was and why she needed to know about it.  I must have sounded like a Senate Stevens trying to explain that the Internet was a "system of tubes".  I really got lost in the description.  So, I promised to email her the "Clarence Update" version of  what  it is. 

First, what is a feed? 

A feed is a text file that contains a series of items, such as blog posts, news stories and search engine results.Feeds can come in many formats, including RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0 and Atom. These formats have differences in the way a feed is described internally, but conceptually all feeds are a series of text items.

I showed her how trying to keep up with changing content on multiple web sites that school teachers can learn about how other teachers are making their classes interesting or how they are trying to deal with challenges they face in their classrooms is easier for me when I use something called and aggregator to help organize and how I can save interesting parts or post to my blog so I can learn from others and construct a better understanding for myself, she got it.  She has an ah ha moment.  She asked how could she get an aggregator, and told her I would show her the ones I had tried.  I showed her for the reason that I had been using it myself for a relatively long time.  Now, I know there are tons of aggregators on the web, and I am not going to  "pimp" one over another in this post.  I'll track that one soon and try to give an educators point of view. 

The guys at say on their page that: "An aggregator is a program that allows you to read or view the contents of a feed. They can also be called feed readers. Most aggregators are either desktop clients, which means they must be downloaded and installed, or Web-based, so they can be run as a Web page in any browser. Grazr is an aggregator that runs on the Web, but looks like a client program in its own window. There is no installation necessary to use Grazr. When you open a Web page containing Grazr, it is automatically displayed along with its feed. 

This is good for those using blogs like WordPress, and Blogger, that I have used where I can edit the template.  However, I have a couple of blogs on James Farmer's wonderful multi-user WordPress blogs and individual users can not access the templates.  Maybe you can, but I have not figured it out.  Maybe I need to ask James or even better, search MU WordPress.  I have not tried in awhile to see if you can like add code to the template.  Got to remember to try and learn about this...

Ok, now we know what a feed is and an aggregator, we need to understand OPML. 

Multiple feeds can be combined in a outline structure using a format called OPML.  The most common use of OPML is to store a list of blog feeds as a way of publishing a set of feed subscriptions. To facilitate this practice many feed aggregators provide OPML import and export of the current subscriptions.  Now what would that mean to a classroom teacher?  Let me just tell what I have experienced.  Last year, I wanted my students to create a series of digital storys about the topics they were learning about in science.  Things like elements, cells division, water quality, and a few other projects.  We used a free program online called, and students created their projects using digital cameras, and titles to tell about the concepts.  They learn how to add audio comments, which could have been dangerous if they had wanted to be vulgar.  I made sure that they were old enough according to Bubbleshare's policy to create an account, we took a long time to discuss the ramifications of inappropriate use of school property, and used this as an ethics lessons first. 

I am not sure I would try this lesson with students under 16 years old.  Anyway, the point is that all these projects on Bubbleshare had the option of having their own feed.  So, to be able to grade their work, I taught them to email me their RSS feed and I copied and pasted them to my aggregator.  I also learned that iPhoto allows you to subscribe to RSS feeds and that was just too cool.  I still enjoy glancing at them in iPhoto.  I had hoped some of the students would continue to add images.  However, none of my students in that class owned a digital camera.  They all had cell phones, but only one of them had a camera built in.  We do not allow students to carry their phones in our school, they can have them on the bus, but not on campus. 

I plan to try to teach my students how to use aggregators at the beginning of the school year and challenge them to create folders for each of the topics they study during the semester.  We are using Moodle and the newest version has a blog feature. 

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