Thinking about RSS, Aggregation and Credibility

I think it is fair, and perhaps rather obvious, to say that RSS fundamentally changed our experience of the web. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of aggregation, both in terms of personal aggregation I can achieve by subscribing to feeds in my RSS reader, and aggregation as a service that is provided by an ever increasing number of news and information portals. As aggregation of media sources becomes an increasingly common and accepted practice, I’ve become more interested in how sources for feeds get vetted and served up at some of the more popular information portals. I know this is not a new idea and that others have certainly entertained the question before, but I’m not sure we ask the question enough of ourselves, or in the work we do with students.

A couple of class sessions ago I explored the idea of RSS and aggregation with the students in my Learning with Digital Media class. I wanted my students to do three things:

  • Set up and use web-based RSS readers to customize information and resources they wanted to have regular access to; essentially setting up a personal newspaper.
  • Explore a process for determining the credibility of content that appears in sites that aggregate news and information.
  • Critique the process of aggregation and raise questions about its impact on how we access news and information.

Students worked in small groups to evaluate four different sites that aggregate news and information. We looked at Google News, NewsCred, Alltop and digg. I selected these sites because I felt they represented different approaches to selecting content for their aggregated feeds. I encouraged students to consider some questions as they examined these sites: Is the process for content selection transparent? In other words, does the site describe how it aggregates the information it presents? To what extent do you feel the content is credible (subjective 1-10 rating scale with 10 being most credible)? What can you offer as a rationale that supports your credibility rating?

The ensuing discussion was interesting. There actually seemed to be a general consensus among the students about the credibility of content on each of these sites. I’ll talk about them briefly here from least to most credible as viewed by the students and try to tease out some overall themes.

Alltop seemed to be viewed as the least credible among the sites. Students tended to see it as middle of the road in terms of credibility. There is a preponderance of blog content on Alltop and the students maintained a general skepticism of information on blogs, even though they acknowledged that blogs can be interesting to read and be quite credible. In addition, there was uncertainty about the selection process on the blogs that were aggregated on Alltop. On one hand it seemed like blogs were aggregated by a combination of self-nomination and then peer review through readership which determined the shelf-life of a blog. This created a view of Alltop that was clubbish, and this diminished the perceived credibility of the content.

digg held slightly greater appeal for students, perhaps due to familiarity with the site. Students seemed to find value in the user rating process that digg employs – the more “diggs” the better or more credible the story or site. However, students also acknowledged that digg tends to cater to a particular demographic, and that content there may not always be of interest to the general population. So while they favored the “voting” process for determining credibility, they also acknowledged that the most popular content on digg was not always the most credible.

NewsCred was a site that not many students had heard of prior to the activity, and represented a hybrid model where custom feeds can be created from established reputable sources, and individual stories / sources receive a credibility rating from users. Students seemed to value what NewsCred was trying to accomplish by making the vetting process for its feeds more transparent, but lacking a complete understanding of the process some students remained uncertain about the ultimate credibility of the feeds. Overall however, NewsCred was viewed quite favorably by students in terms of perceived credibility of aggregated content.

Google News was generally viewed as the most popular and credible source for aggregated information feeds. One student commented that Google is a “household brand” and is simply trusted. A few students however commented that Google News functions on the same kind of algorithms that drive search returns, and that these can be “gamed” or manipulated. So the top stories in Google News are not necessarily the most credible or even the most relevant. Students also commented on the recent mistake, where a 2002 story about a United Airlines plane crash showed up as a top story in Google News and sent the company’s stock tumbling. Accidents like this were viewed as occasionally occurring in an automated system where there is no human intervention or oversight.

As I reflected on this experience with my students a few points emerged that I continue to think about:

1) Students are aware of the range of reliability and credibility of specific sources (e.g., NY Times, BBC, CNN, etc.), and they occasionally seek these out for top stories and breaking news.

2) Credibility of aggregated feeds seems to be significantly shaped by perceived credibility (Google is a “household brand”) and not necessarily an understanding of any vetting process.

3) Students place value on a vetting process where users can vote on the popularity or credibility of a story or source. Human intervention is seen as valuable, and students rely on their social networks for identifying interesting and relevant content on the web. Credibility is shaped by views of the social network.

As the demand for quick and mobile access to news and information continues to grow, aggregation is positioned to play a defining role in the ways we obtain information. And while providers of aggregation services need to strive to be more transparent about their vetting processes, it seems like we need to be thinking about ways to engage students to think critically about the process of aggregation as well. I’d be very interested in your views on this and whether you even see it as an issue. If so, what questions and suggestions do you have for helping us all better understand how aggregation is changing the game?

{Image credit: Picture Perfect Pose}

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Student Blogging and Digital Footprints

When students blog in an academic context, they often do so because it is an expectation in a course they are enrolled in. Some may blog for personal purposes outside of class as well, but I suspect that they are the exception and not the rule. In the work I am doing with students this semester I have asked them to create blogs that we call Learning Journals. Nothing really new or groundbreaking here, but I have been interested in students’ views about being asked to reflect on their learning and to write in these public spaces on the open web.

My hope is that these students will see their writing (and commenting) in the blog space as part of being involved in a larger conversation that is taking place within the class, and more importantly can spill outside the walls of the class and impact a much wider audience. For me, one measure of success would be that they experience both community and culture in the blogosphere; a bridging of the academic and the personal.

There has been a range of responses to the idea of the Learning Journal. Some students have indicated that blogging is not something they would choose to do if it was simply a personal choice, and I certainly respect that. To my surprise, a few students already had a blog space and chose to integrate their learning reflections with their personal musings, which I think is great. Still other students express concerns and reservations about writing in a publicly accessible space, and seem uncertain about potential implications of such practices down the road. Still others see blogging as silly navel gazing.

Within all of these views there is an inherent tension between digital spaces that are seen as personal and those that are seen as academic. Questions of identity, and how our on-line behaviors impact and shape it, are ever-present.

I try to remain sensitive to the variety of perspectives that my students bring to the practice of thinking, musing and writing on the open web. There is risk and tension there for me as well. I’m making a value judgment. I fully realize that I’m requiring them to engage in blogging for an academic purpose, with the hope that it becomes a rich enough learning experience that it transcends the academic and becomes personally valuable. Ultimately, I hope they come to learn and value that free and public space on the Web is an important right that they have. I also realize that in asking my students to blog, they are generating content that leaves a digital footprint and becomes part of their online persona. This can be tricky business, perhaps more so in some contexts than others. But these are not new ideas. I am certain that other faculty engaged in blogging have been thinking about these issues for some time, and writing far more eloquently and incisively than I have here. Yet for me, reflecting on this has made me more sensitive to the idea that when we ask our students to generate content on the open web, we are in effect asking them to create and modify their digital footprint.

The notion of the digital footprint raises several questions for me. Am I being unnecessarily concerned and putting too much emphasis on the implications of “requiring” students to contribute to an on-line persona guided by academic expectations? How do we move to the point where blogging is something students do on their own, as opposed to something that is done to them? Is the academic “push” to blog one of the only ways where students ambivalent to blogging will gain experience and perspective on the importance of public publishing on the web? What other questions should we be asking here? Let me know what you think.

{Image Credit: Paddy Wight}

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Student Views on Defining Digital Media

Last week I met my students for the first time in a new course I’m teaching called, Learning with Digital Media, a special topics course being offered out of the School of Mass Communications. The course title is somewhat ambiguous, which was partially intentional, and could be interpreted in a range of ways. One important aspect of the course is for us to collectively come to an understanding of what digital media means to us. We began our first class with some discussion about how we should define digital media, and this blog post is an attempt to capture a part of our discussion.

Perhaps predictably, students began with a description of hardware and devices, like cell phones, laptops and PDAs and how these devices are connected and networked to the internet. In addition to devices there was talk of data and storage. Much of what they focused on early in the discussion could be described as concern for things electronic.

The conversation changed course when one student remarked that the existing society / culture will tend to define technology in ways that reflects the dominant technology of the day, this was described as a “working form where you are at” perspective. This remark brought a very different flavor to the discussion. Students shifted their focus to thoughts about how digital technologies have impacted how information is distributed, and they saw information as being easily transferable and something they could also interact with. The emphasis was not on how devices / hardware were connected, but rather how people and information were connected.

I was intrigued by the insights students had into how this connectedness and ease of exchange of information – supported by digital media – had impacted their views of communication. They saw information as something that was highly customizable, and this allowed for the development of highly segmented audiences that could be easily catered to. Students seemed to see this as both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand it seems to expand the realm of communication opportunities, and at the same time control our access enabling a focus on very specific interests. In essence they seemed to be suggesting that the power of digitally mediated communication was simultaneously open and closed. Our freedom of access in fact tightens our focus. That is something I need to spend more time reflecting on.
At the end of the discussion we spent some time thinking about key questions we hoped to explore in the course. Several students signaled concerns about where digital media was taking us, and expressed some genuine uncertainty about how the Internet could continue to advance. The general question of “where do we go from here?” captured the difficulty of we face in understanding what digital media innovations could possibly lie ahead. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. They wondered about where we would be if the digital media we have come to rely on somehow went away. They were concerned about how expectations – for everything – have become instantaneous, and how technology has become an “intruder” in their lives. They seemed to also express the concern that technology use begets more technology use, and questioned the extent to which their “free time” has become increasingly eliminated. These students, far from simply embracing the value of technology, expressed some strong reservations about how digital media was [re]shaping their lives. I’m looking forward to exploring these and other questions with them this semester, and hope they’ll chime in here and on their own blogs as their thinking about digital media continues to develop.

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