Saturday, May 26, 2007

Configuring the Web: individualized content delivery using common Web 2.0 tools

I'm posting this because I'd like feedback. Both positive and negative feedback will help. You won't hurt my feelings, so give it to me :-)

Individualized instruction is the goal expressed by many of us who expouse the glories of technology in the classroom. For a long time, however, I have not been truly satisfied with my suggestions on how to do this.

Too Much Information

In my attempt to process all of the information coming in on new Web 2.0 technologies, student blogs, friends blogs, news sites, and so forth, I welcomed the use of RSS aggregators. These wonderful applications/services collect all the stuff I wanted to follow, organized it in one convenient location, and even reminded me of which posts where read and unread. I knew that these could help graduate, education students in the Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) class to process the loads of information that I was throwing at them and expecting them to find on their own.

What About Language Students?

After implementing this with a couple of classes, I found that it worked with those who an aggregator (which most had to in order to keep up). This left me wondering about how these teachers can take this technology and use it with their students. We talked so much about using it for our own information gathering needs, but the only thing that the teachers could conclude was that students would use it in a similar way. They could follow some blogs, wikis, or other content sources with their aggregators, but little thought was given to directing content to the students other than posts on the class blogs.

Therefore, I started thinking about how we could use the existing, configurable, Web 2.0 technologies (in other words, no development, only configuration) to both individualize the content we provide for students and enable them to build their connections to content. This is what I'll now lay out for you in version 1.0.

Configuring the Web for individualized Content Delivery

I'd like to state that while this is an entirely unique idea for me, this very well could have been written up or implementation before. I would really appreciate comments on this. Point me in the direction of any mention to it in articles, sites, or listserv archives. I would like to give credit where credit is due.

Here is my original sketch of the organization. Note that there are 2 responsibilities represented here: teacher and student.

I've changed this somewhat, but the concept remains the same. Teachers simply gather content and tag it. This content then gets pushed only to the students who need or want it. Let's get started.


Teacher's Role

  1. Teacher has or sets up a account (
    1. This can also be any account that enables RSS pages for individual “tags” or “keywords”. Many blogging applications will do this as well. However, I find that is easy to use and integrates well with and is supported by many services.
  1. Teacher begins to populate with pages of interest for the class (or classes) that they teach. This can be anything from grammar to writing and from audio to video. Of course, this is an ongoing process, but it's nice to start off with some content if possible. In, these can be imported from your browser of choice. An even better way is to install this add-on to your Firefox browser or this Explorer add-on, which will import your bookmarks (or favorites) to delicious and add a button to your browser that makes adding bookmarks to very easy.
    1. These “bookmarks” must be “tagged” in order for them to be sorted automatically at a later time.
      1. These tags should be somewhat standardized, if possible.
        1. Class name (e.g., web2esl)
        2. Skills areas (e.g., writing, grammar, speaking, culture, etc.)
        3. Types of content being linked to (e.g., audio, podcast, video, videocast, quiz, blog, etc.)
        4. Student names or pseudonyms. Of course, with larger classes, you will likely want to stick with skills areas because doing this for individual students could get unwieldy.
  1. Continue to add to your bookmarks whenever you find interesting resources or whenever your students need some outside assistance. There is enough content already out there to keep you and your students busy for a long time. If you need something a little more customized, blog about it or publish it in another RSS-friendly manner.

  2. That’s it.

Students' Role

  1. This is not a transmission approach to learning and, therefore, students are required to be somewhat independent learners. With this in mind, there are some things that students will need to do to take control of their learning and become part of this approach.

  2. Students must use some sort of aggregator. For our purposes, we will be using a “personal homepage” service called Netvibes ( ). This is far from your only option, but, at this time, it seems to offer one of the best services of this type. Students can also use more traditional RSS aggregators such as the Web-based Bloglines ( ) or Google Reader ( ) or desktop-based Feedreader ( ). I believe that there are similar functionalities built into online social networking services like MySpace ( ), FaceBook ( ), and CyWorld ( ). Other services similar to Netvibes also exist, such as PageFlakes ( ) [edit 5/26/2007 - The esteemed Will Richardson posted on using PageFlakes as a student portal. This is similar to what I am doing here and, in fact, portals can do this very well, but Will's idea is a general class (or topic) page and doesn't address individualization. I found this thanks to an anonymous commenter who suggested that PageFlakes is a better option than Netvibes. She pointed to a blog at for more information, which pointed to a PageFlakes page just for students and teachers at] The purpose here is to get them involved in this approach and not to use a particular technology. They likely know these technologies better than you. Let them use whichever service/application that they want to use as long as they get the content delivered to them in a reliable and usable manner.

  3. Have students load their aggregators with some important Feeds. The instructor can also provide an OPML file (list of RSS subscriptions) for import into most aggregators. With Netvibes, you can "share" your tab with the group, which will enable them to add the whole tab to their account. It will load exactly how you had it set up in your account, but after they add it, it belongs to them and they can change it as they like.
    1. Give the students some RSS feed pages to begin with. Here are some examples
      1. Your class blog –
      2. The class feed -
      3. Their personal page feeds – (you should have at least one saved bookmark with their names in the tags) –
      4. Skill area pages – ,


Here are some suggestions on carrying this out with students. I'm sure that many more will be added through experimentation.

  1. Use it - Make this your main form of online communication with individual students and classes. If they are getting messages from multiple locations you're just going to end up confusing them.

  2. Record it - How many suggestions, mini-lessons, and other pearls of wisdom have been lost to the ages in individual or small group discussions with your students? Get this information down in text, audio, or video form and you can re-use it every time the situation arises. Spend more time now to save time later. Start building your own repository using your blog or other mechanism for online storage. Opening these can help you, your students, and other learners/teachers on the Web looking for insite.

  3. Enforce it - For those classes/students who are less than motivated, it might be necessary to check their attention. Here are some ways to do that.
    1. Make it clear that important (and graded) assignments and activities will be scheduled via the feeds, both for the class and for individuals. Make certain that they understand that they are responsible for these activities (no excuses). Then make sure to carry through on this in a reliable fashion.
    2. Quizzes – link to quizzes that the students must take (for a grade) that are only announced on the class feed or individual feeds for more individualized attention.
    3. Schedule activities or assignments using the class or individual feed.
    4. These methods will keep them on their toes and paying attention. You can’t make someone learn, but you can make sure that they are aware of opportunities to do so.

The End

I intend on making a screencast of this process in the near future. I'll post it here when I can.

This is where I'm going to end this epic post (I rarely go over a couple paragraphs). Thanks for making it this far.



Anonymous said...

When it comes to web2.0 tools and services in combination with education, I much rather prefer Pageflakes over some of the other start pages. There are several reasons:

1) It has a whole range of modules, developed just for the educational sector (e.g grade tracker, class schedule, search, storage).

2) They have a sharing and publishing feature that let's you setup and publish pages easily:

3) They have an intro page at which explain a few more concepts and leads to a nice prepopulated template

You might also want to check out this Wiki Site from a teacher in Switzerland:

Again, just my personal opinion. We use Pageflakes in a class environment here in Seattle.


Dan said...

Thanks Sarah,

My choice was based on a 5-minute test. Netvibes is easier to get going. I know that it might sound a little lame, but the PageFlakes setup screen put me off. However, your comment forced me to go back and it is does have some benefits over Netvibes. The advanced sharing options are a big bonus.

The Wiki site had some really good information. It pointed me to a posting by Will Richardson on using PageFlakes as a student portal, which is similar to what I'm doing here.


Susan said...

Dan, I think you're on the right track with this.... However, it may be overwhelming if you use it and expect them to read everything you post by scaring them with quizzes and graded material that is only posted online. Unfortunately, students will use their friends to alert them to this "important" information and any of the extras could become time wasted for the teacher. It may also create a network of disgruntled students.

Furthermore, I think it is impossible at this time to expect all of our students to have access to the Internet to the extent in which this type of interaction requires. They may not even have a computer let alone adequate Internet service. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea, but I think it's still beyond what most of us can reach right now. I'd love to see this implemented in a context outside of our CALL class to see how it works with teenagers who have the tools necessary to participate.


Dan said...

Thanks for the feedback Susan. I was beginning to think that this post was lost in the ether :)

With the exception of the quizzes, I have implemented this with classes (adults). However, this has been in a low stress environment. It is extra information for my students. I like to provide them with more targeted resources.

Also, I can assume that they all have Internet access. This is a luxury that I have in Korea, that others may not. However, Internet access is available in most schools through after school programs, libraries, boys & girls clubs, and so forth. I know that it is not possible in all situations, but for most contexts, you can get them access.

In the end, we all have to gauge what's possible in our own contexts and move on from there.


Peggy said...

Dan and Susan,

As I was reading Dan's original post, I had many of the same reservations that Susan expressed. My students are already so stressed out with the demands of a rigorous course load that this process and level of uncertainty as to what is required of them might push them over the edge. Susan's phrase related to disgruntled students comes to mind. As I was reading, my first question was do you intend for this to be part of an online course curriculum similar to ours or would you use it in addition to a traditional classroom course?

In regards to Susan's comment on access to computers and the internet, I agree that it might be an issue. The strong majority of my students have access at home, and others have access during the school day. However, the amount of time required to keep up with this amount of information mgiht not be time that they have access to a computer.

On the other hand, I might no tbe giving them enough credit. I agree with you that our teenage students are more comfortable with this technology than we are. They could very well be motivated by the use of a medium that they love.


Muhammad Abdul-Mageed said...

Hi Dan, Susan, and Peggy,

The way you formulated it is interesting and it should work, Dan. I guess I and my classmates are lucky enough to have it all applied. Like my colleagues, I feel the stress of it. However, I think that as students and teachers, and even as lay persons, we would need to learn new habits. Technology has its say and we have our interests.

If we can deploy technology to serve our interets in our daily life, we will be saving much time and efforts. I see it as part of a lifestyle, rather than in a purely artificial pedagogical context. What I do in my free time reiterates in my study. And, in turn, the knowledge I get out of my formal education echoes in my social relationships (e.g., I was talking with a friend about Gardner's MI theory in an outing yesterday). In other words, I guess we should have students practice these skills in a daily basis. As we teach them to read and write, I guess we do need to get them trained in these technologies. Only at such a juncture, the technologies will not be an overload. Now technologies were introduced to empower, not to hinder (though it can, if we do not know how to use it).

So, a solutuion would be to 'recontextualize', and 'rethink' these technologies: to integrate them not only in instruction, but in everyday activities.

Peggy said...

I really like the way you put Dan's suggestions in perspective. The thought of introducing this technology as a new way for them to keep themselves organized instead of as an assignment, makes sense to me. This approach of providing them with education on a new life skill is very positive. I guess it is true what "they" say about the importance of HOW you say something. If we present this technology as something that they GET to do instead of something that they HAVE to do, the students should feel empowered instead of burdened. Thanks for shedding light on this subject for me!


TOS said...

Hi all, this really spoke to me so I put all of my thoughts and comments on my blog as the reading reflection for the week!

Nice job Dan! Love the cell diagram, well that is what it looks like to me! :-p

spascale said...

Dan, I think your idea is very useful. It would allow my students to save time without needing to search the web, and it would help them to satisfy their thirst for information regarding Anglo-saxon cultures. If I took them to the lab and let them do whatever they wanted as long as it involved English, they would search for English-language websites dealing with everyday topics they are interested in or describing some aspect of the American, British, etc. lifestyle and culture, while taking advantage of my presence for helping them find what they are looking for. If I knew their interests ahead of time I could find some websites for them to read, for example. This would allow them to read for interest without having to waste time searching in a foreign language.
I thought of the following while reading your idea:
--first of all to set aside time to teach this technology since in my experience a good number of my students probably aren't already familiar with it. And perhaps use those who are (often boys, some of whom would be very enthusiastic to show off/use their knowledge to help the others)to help those who aren't.
--not to schedule assignments through the feeds but to schedule assignments and activities in class that require them to use the websites/contents available only through their aggregators.
--to not only announce quizzes through the feeds but to announce them in class. Then the students can take quizzes either in class or online.
--my idea for a "quiz" was actually a progress check. The students are given a quiz in class asking them to identify (by name or description) the new feeds in their chosen topic areas that I have sent to their aggregators, what they are about/their content, and finally if they like the site or not and why, justifying their opinion by referring to some aspect of the site. The purpose is to check that they are using their aggregator, keeping up with the feeds, and making a decent effort to read the feeds available enough to decide which they are interested in and want to read/use more in depth.
--clear tags are crucial so that students can be responsible for checking only those feeds that are tagged with one of their interests (4 about sports, 4 practicing grammar, 4 about the Australian countryside, etc.). So even if there is a lot of content in the aggregator, they are allowed to view only those feeds referring to their topic choices: for example, two topics at a time/every unit/every month, etc. It is a way for them to manage the information in chunks at a time. This would help them pace themselves, and avoid frustration and feeling overwhelmed, knowing that they have time to eventually discover all the feeds they see that interest them.
--i would make the same feeds available to all so that students, who share information and help each other anyway, can tell each other what they saw and perhaps cause curiosity in those who haven't seen the feed yet. Plus, this might avoid confusion or a constant asking me to send a feed to someone after they have been told about it by a classmate who already has it.
--i would make any assignments long-term with interval mini-activities to complete in order to help finish the main assignment. This is because many of my students have internet access where their parents pay hourly and have a limit the entire family cannot exceed. Over a long period of time, these students have a better chance of using the technology successfully and stress-free.
--the individualization is in the fact that they can choose the feeds they are interested in. Plus, the assignments could be set up with requirements that allow choice and don't depend specifically on content.
--I would use the settings B and C described in Healey's reading.


Bill Fitzgerald said...

Hello, Dan,

Your concept is solid, but this is something that won't scale well in practice for a couple reasons:

1. You rely on external free services like delicious, pageflakes, etc. Each of these services provides a single point of failure over which you have no control.

2. You are also relying on students using similar tags over a distributed system. Within a single system (or multiple systems effectively linked to share tags) you can take steps (like autocomplete) to minimize the amount of what I call "tag creep," or multiple different tags being used to describe the same thing.

Also, even if all the services stay up, and the tag creep is minimal, the amount of raw information will become overwhelming over time. This is where the power of multiple categories per item (say, a controlled vocabulary alongside/giving more shape to a folksonomy) can help make the flow of information more manageable over time. This functionality is not available in many free apps; it is, however, available in an open source app like Drupal. Also, you might want to look at Gregarius, an open source aggregation tool.



Dan said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for coming by and commenting. I certainly appreciate your concerns. I have/had the same ones and I think that I address them a little in the posting.

First, as it is always good to know our audience when writing, I checked out your blog. We really do seem like like-minded guys. I really liked your post on the use of tagging at NECC. It really makes me want to check out those features in Drupal. The same thing can be done with services like Yahoo! Tubes, but those aren't the easiest services for my mostly low to intermediate computer user students (in-service/pre-service teachers). I'll have to check it out. I've been contemplating a move from Moodle for a while now.

Scaling is certainly a concern in this approach. This will work for classes of all sizes, but the more students you have, the more difficult to individualize at the individual student level. You would have to rely on grouping more and more as the class roster grows. However, I don't see any manual approach making this easier. With a little know-how, a teacher could give a multiple-choice or short answer quiz with the feedback for incorrect answers leading to feeds with the appropriate tags. This isn't much better than simply grouping, though.

1a. The use of external services is actually the beauty of this approach. It does not rely on a single service. It relies on technologies underlying many services. This can work with what people are already using. The feed doesn't have to be Most blogs and many other services offer tag-based feeds. Netvibes doesn't have to be used. Facebook can do this as can many, many other services with aggregating functionality. This is why I indicate in my posting that teachers shouldn't get hung up on what services their students are using, only that they are able to access the content in the same manner.

1b. While I think that Drupal is wonderful, I would not use it for this purpose. I'm trying to work with other peoples existing services or, at the minimum, not lock them into one classroom system. I'd like both teachers and students to better understand how tagging, syndication, and aggregation can be used to organize their personal learning networks.

2. Actually, I'm not relying on students to create tags. While this would certainly be a bonus, it's not part of this stage of the proposal. The teacher is feeding content to the students and the teacher just has to keep track of their own tags. A list of current tags or a smart-fill would be nice, but not really necessary. The most difficult thing is to remember the names of all the kids, but if you just subscribe to their Network, then that list available in the form. In the end, this certainly could be made easier with improved functionality, but I don't see it as a threat to scalability.

Thanks again for commenting. This really helps me to address concerns and to fill in gaps in my thinking.


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