Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Heir Apparent...

Since the announcement of the dissolution of Google.Reader, there has been a ton of social chat about what to replace it with. Most posts and sites I have seen have identified Feedly as the most seamless heir; transferring your Reader subscriptions into Feedly is literally a one-button process, and although I don't understand the back end technology very well, apparently the two programs are highly compatible.

That being said, I did notice immediately that Feedly was missing a couple of features of Reader that I find absolutely essential for my use, so I took the bold step of sending a tweet to the CEO of Feedly, Edwin Khodabakchian:

Much to my pleasant surprise, the next day I noticed that he started following me on Twitter, then a day after that I got a tweet back from him:

So to shorten this lead-in....I contacted him and Edwin got me in touch with the co-founder and lead designer of Feedly, Arthur Bodolec, and wants me to give details of how we use Reader here at HKIS. With the sudden surge of users (3 million new users in the past few weeks), Feedly is rapidly modifying their site. But in reality, aggregators are aggregators, and a fancy skin or new coat of paint is not going to distinguish one from another; to really stand out, Feedly has to offer some functionality that no one else does. 

So this post today is for Arthur, but others who use it similarly (or who want to add to my post) are welcome to chime in.

So Hello, Arthur :-)

While the market is saturated with lots of aggregators, what Reader offers (and what no one else does) is two things; the ability to bundle blogs for organizing and sharing, and the ability to subscribe to a website, RSS feed, or whatnot, with one click.

Here is how I have our system set up:

Our school has about 800 students (200 per grade) and we are requiring all our freshmen to start a blog about their school experience, and maintain it over their 4 years here. Regardless of what program they choose to create their blog, they have to be organized in a manner that allows different populations to find and read them.  And this system has to be robust enough to support 200 additional blogs each year, organized by homeroom and accessible to users with all sorts of ability levels (ranging from highly skilled to terrified, and who are universally too busy to go far out of their way to troubleshoot). 

I have come up with a beautiful way to manage this, however, although it sounds pretty straightforward, the back end design work to set it up has taken a lot of troubleshooting and is completely reliant on some features of Reader.

What I have done is to create a space in each student's user profile in our Learning Management System (LMS) where they can put in their blog URL. Then, when the teachers go to their class list in their Homeroom page (or any class page, for that matter), they see the link that takes them to each student's blog, like this:

Clicking 'link' on the right opens the student's blog in its home URL. 

If the teacher isn't already subscribed to the student blog (maybe the student joined the school late), google has this great little goodie feature called the 'subscribe button'; it puts a button on your taskbar that you click when you are at a website, and the computer automatically opens your Reader account, and asks if you want to subscribe to that URL. 

The beauty of this button is twofold:
  1. It changes the experience of following feeds from one where you have to deliberately navigate to your aggregator, mentally changing gears from whatever you were doing before, into one where you just add feeds 'on the fly' as you do what you were doing.
  2. Since Reader is already activated in our Google Apps Suite, it takes people there who may not have known that they had a Reader page. That introduces them to RSS aggregators in an authentic manner.

Now, here is the most important feature of reader that no one else offers and I dearly hope Feedly replicates: Bundles.

To make it as easy as possible for teachers to subscribe to and follow their student's blogs, I have created bundles using Reader and posted them on our LMS, like this: 

A teacher could then subscribe to all of their homeroom blogs with one click: when they hit 'subscribe' at the bottom of their own bundle, it automatically imported the entire folder into google.reader, with the proper URLs, student names and sorted into a folder.

Without this 'bundling' feature, I cannot figure out a manageable way to get 64 homeroom teachers to create folders that allow them to follow their student blogs. The 'long way' is cumbersome; open the Class page, navigate to the class list where the kids' blogs are linked to their profiles, click on each blog one at a time, open it in a different window, copy the URL and and paste it into their own aggregator, then go back afterwards and put all the blogs into a single folder, renaming each one after the student who created it.

The beauty of google's 'subscribe' and 'bundle' function is that *I* can do all the heavy lifting: I open each kid's blog site and put them into a folder in my own Reader, rename the blog after the student, then I merely make a bundle and paste it into the LMS site. The teachers can subscribe to the kids' blogs with one click.

So, to summarize:
What I truly hope Feedly creates is a system where a user can do the following:
1) Subscribe to any type of URL without having to cut and paste into Feedly, but do it while navigating the web,
2) Put the subscriptions into a folder where the user has easy control over the name of the folder and renaming the subscription,
3) Create a single link to that folder that can be pasted elsewhere, which allows a DIFFERENT user to download the subscriptions with the same names and folder name into their OWN Feedly account.

There are, of course, some other features that would be nice, but these three (especially the last two) are so essential to how I manage these 800 blogs that without them, I don't have any idea how to do it.  Of course, I could just create a regular folder with all the links in it, but that loses the functionality of showing when there are new posts...since the kids post updates at their own pace, it's not reasonable for the teacher or other users to regularly navigate through all 15-20 blogs hoping to see a new post, hence all this has to be embedded in an aggregator site. 

Feedly; this is your opportunity to offer something that no one else does. And generate a huge audience of thankful teachers and tech facilitators  :-)

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