Internet Technology: RSS: The Next Big Thing in University Web Communications
It's 10 a.m. Do you know how many messages are sitting in your e-mail box and what's happening on your campus, in your state, or in your professional field? So much information, so little time.
You're not alone if you're feeling overwhelmed. Since the web and e-mail started to rule a good part of our work lives, the amount of communication received, digested, and processed in a single day has never been so huge.
With anyone working, studying, or teaching on campus feeling some level of information overload, presidents, senior officers, and other administrators must ensure their messages don't get lost. Multiple campus locations, a wide array of target audiences, limited attention span, and e-mail spam filters add to the challenge.
If only there were an easy way to deliver an institution's news or announcements in real time to the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people who really need this information-and only to them-without having to worry about ISPs or spam software blocking your messages.
Consider your wish granted. RSS can do just that for you and your institution.
With its orange icon found on many newspaper websites, the techie acronym may ring a bell. Yet, the majority of web users don't know what it stands for, what it does, and how it does that.
According to the web encyclopedia Wikipedia, "RSS is a family of web feed formats, specified in XML and used for web syndication. The abbreviation is variously used to refer to the following standards: Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary, RDF Site Summary, or Real-time Simple Syndication." No matter how many technical standards it stands for, RSS provides an easy way to subscribe to news feed available on websites to receive updates in an RSS reader or aggregator as soon as they are published. As a result, RSS has become what's generally considered the best web content delivery channel for any information publisher, be it a newspaper, a blog, or a university office.
Several factors explain the potential of RSS to become a magic bullet for most institution-wide communication nightmares:
RSS has what it takes to become a mainstream content delivery channel. A 2005 Yahoo white paper, "RSS-Crossing into the Mainstream," included results of a study conducted with Ipsos Insight and based on a sample of 4,038 internet users. The report concludes that, while only 4 percent of people knowingly use RSS, more than one-quarter of internet users enjoy the benefits of RSS without knowing it. These "unaware RSS users" are similar demographically to the average internet user, suggesting that RSS is not just for the tech-savvy few.
Microsoft will support RSS in its new products Windows Vista and Internet Explorer 7, which will result in a drastic increase in RSS usage.
RSS should become the most efficient content delivery channel for mobile phones. It can deliver short news alerts in the most basic format (text only), which makes it the perfect solution for any small-screen device in the years to come.
RSS offers a credible alternative to e-mail, as spam filters make it more difficult to deliver mass messages and some internet service providers toy with the idea of a digital stamp.
An increasing number of IHEs have started using RSS for communication.
At The College of New Jersey, RSS was silently integrated to the institution's news web application in summer 2004. Last fall, RSS feeds were finally added to the news page and the to-do list on the students' page for this suburban school of more than 6,200 students. "One of the main reasons we initially implemented RSS was to provide feeds to our statewide media outlets. We also received several requests from members of our TCNJ community who were using RSS aggregators," recalls Matthew Winkel, web information architect.
-George P. Tsetsekos, Drexel University
After an extensive study of internal communications, Duke University (N.C.) went a step further with Duke Today, a fully customizable news web portal powered by RSS. Launched last spring, it features feeds of the latest Duke news in law, medicine, science, etc. It also includes a section with daily updates on everything from dining menus to computer security alerts.
"People at Duke felt simultaneously overloaded with information, yet uninformed about what was going on. The solution, we realized, was not to create yet another newsletter or website. Instead, we needed to consolidate the most important information into a smaller number of venues that people would really use. RSS is the engine that's carrying this information from diverse sources across the campus," says David Jamul, associate vice president of the Duke News and Communications Office.
At the University of Utah, meanwhile, RSS offered the perfect alternative to e-mail when an online calendar was created. "We wanted a method for people to subscribe to events. We felt using RSS feeds was a better solution for a subscription service," says Jill Brinton from the Office of the Webmaster. RSS offered easy implementation, eliminated the privacy issue, and allowed the content to be updated as it became available. "We also felt it made the event information more available as a 'consumable' that people could put in their news readers, portals, and on their department web pages."
Other campus uses of RSS include feeds of job openings at The University of Iowa, help desk announcements at Dartmouth, and catalogued materials updates for The University of Alabama's library system.
At Drexel University's LeBow College of Business (Pa.), the online program MBA Anywhere started using RSS last fall to optimize communication between administrative staff and students. "Given that our students are taking classes online, we had been inundated with e-mails, oftentimes with similar administrative and course-related requests," says Erik Poole, associate director of MBA Online Programs.
Poole consulted with Matt McKeon, the business school's web application developer, on the best way to respond to student needs. McKeon suggested using RSS. Dean George P. Tsetsekos says RSS allows "the college to disseminate a consistent message to students, no matter their schedule. RSS provides a consistent news source wherever and however our students want to receive it."
Today's college students do indeed rely on RSS to cope with information overload. Sean Blanda, a journalism major at Temple University (Pa.) and the blogger behind CollegeV2, says RSS feeds help him track his favorite news sources: "I use RSS like it's a magazine subscription to the world."
As more current students use RSS, it's becoming a delivery channel for targeting prospective students. Focus groups conducted with high school students by Thomson Peterson's confirm the value of RSS to help the college guide publisher meet its "target audience's craving for real-time, tailored information," notes Dana Ewing, director of Online Product Development for Peterson's, who oversaw the integration of RSS feeds into their clients' web profiles.
So, is RSS the next big thing in university web communications?
For Dan Karleen, the higher ed RSS expert at the blog Syndication for Higher Ed, there's no doubt about it: "In five years, the idea of RSS as a 'techie' phenomenon will be a distant memory, and many will have recognized the value of RSS as a way to speed the process of research and learning. RSS will be seamlessly integrated into many important applications on campus, and schools will begin to use intelligent tools to aggregate feeds and make them more useful for their constituents."
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.college webeditor.com, a blog about higher education web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.