5 reasons why RSS deserves some love from learning designers (and 5 ways to show it some)

In preparing to write this post, I've done some online research. I've looked at posts and thought pieces titled "RSS is dying," or "In defence of RSS," or "Google/Facebook/Firefox is trying to kill RSS".

They were all 10-12 years old. The news of RSS' demise were greatly exaggerated. The whole thing just won't die. But I feel it's not getting the love it deserves.

Today, I'll try to list several reasons for thinking more kindly of RSS, and several ways of showing this venerable piece of web furniture the love and respect it deserves.

(If you made it this far pretending to know what RSS is, but can't keep up the charade any longer, please take a few minutes to watch this clip or review this Wikipedia article. We shall speak no more of this.)

1. It's an open format

Proprietary formats are problematic for designing learning content. They exclude teachers and learners without the "correct" tech/software setup; they often end up keeping designers hostage to proprietary authoring software; and having to migrate away from such closed formats can be a nightmare.

RSS is an open format. This means that the information you need to design, use, publish, and fix things based on RSS is freely available - no one company owns it, no one piece of software monopolises its use.

This is good news for your learning design setup. When it comes to longevity, accessibility, repairability and budget concerns, open formats beat closed formats any day of the year. RSS deserves to be in your mix.

2. Easy to build, difficult to break

Speaking of fixing and repairing: RSS setups aren't complicated. If your IT team know their way around XML (hint: they do), then they'll have no problems with RSS.

There aren't many things to go wrong with RSS, mind: at its simplest, it's a way of extracting information and content which your web pages already provide in their code - for shipping away to other clients. The "ugliness" of it all - the fact that there are so many ways to subscribe to a feed, or design an RSS button, or that sometimes you see the code displayed in your browser tab (and that's a good thing...?), means one thing: when you set it up right, RSS is flexible and robust enough to work in almost any setting.

3. Respecting learner choices

This brings us to the next point. The idea of RSS is to take the content away from your site, and to allow uses more control over how, when, where, and in what company they choose to display this content. RSS takes the good bits - the news, the stories, the podcasts, whatever you want to publish - and lets users decide on how they want it delivered.

This shows respect to what is happening in your learners digital lives. Maybe they don't care about the other 19 lessons on your course; they'll skip right past them in their RSS reader and only display the thing they want to learn. Maybe they wish to mix your pieces with other colleges' podcasts or videos; they'll organise a folder with your feed's contents, and the other offerings. Maybe they're too overwhelmed to smash that like button and that notification bell; your updates will be waiting for them in their app, when they have put the kids to bed and sat down to do some learning.

This, I suspect, is why there's no love for RSS among the tech giants, who want you in their ecosystems - and won't happily support anything that lets you build your own ones. Killing RSS, by now, is like killing plumbing in all houses on the planet. It can't be done, so it's best to pretend it's not there.

4. Respecting learner privacy

Some learning deserves to be tracked, monitored, and analysed. Some learners want to see and display their progress. This much is obvious. And for these instances, every analytics tool can be of benefit.

But I would estimate that most learning doesn't need all this tracking. And that most learners, if they were 100% aware of all the privacy they give up on while using your content, would object, or at least feel uncomfortable with that they agree to.

RSS is a way to move away from the webpage-and-browser complex. Analytics exist, but they're not as invasive - and not as widespread. Depending on the setup, a well-curated RSS feed collection can be the best way to keep up to date with one's corner of the Web, without the need to allow the Web to keep up to date with you.

(If you want to find out more about this stuff, I recently published a course called "Privacy based learning". You'll find it here.)

5. Not exactly groundbreaking stuff

RSS is boring. If your website were to offer an RSS button, chances are, no more than 5% of the visitors would use it. The technology probably won't be revolutionised at any point in the future; it works just fine the way it is now. Nobody ever got rich "in the RSS business."

That's the whole point.

You will doubtless always have learners, stakeholders and partners who are after "the wow factor". For them, nothing but the latest and greatest will do: the Metaverse! the interactivity! the flashy presentation! the production values! That's where your effort, and your budget, will be most required. When this learning content is launched - there will be fanfare, recognition, award ceremonies. Well done; it's all well-earned.

But you will also always have the 5% who want to click the bloody RSS button, and complain when there isn't one. The ones who still haven't completely worked through the Google Reader stages of grief. The plain-text learners. The independent types. The ones who go at their own pace, stick to what they know and love, and build their learning that way.

Trust me, they're likely to have loved RSS for years. They don't need much to be happy - a working feed will do. And once they find one, they'll love your learning content until the wheels come off.

There are many more reasons to explore RSS if you're a learning designer. But how to get started? Here are five quick ideas, in order of difficulty (roughly).

1. Learn something about (or through) RSS. This one's a no-brainer: become a learner, and a user, to understand how this works. Get a good RSS reader (I use Liferea on Linux and QuiteRSS on PC). Subscribe to some feeds, blogs, or podcasts (if you want to start with this blog, the URL you need to paste into your reader is: https://vic.work/feed). Explore for a few weeks. What does it take to get the RSS habit to work? What does it give you, once that's successfully set up?

2. Explore ways to make your content RSS-friendly. An interactive animation isn't likely to work well with all RSS readers. Metaverse is a closed system and, as such, opposed to what RSS is trying to achieve. But if that isn't viable, then what is? Do you publish podcasts, articles, short videos? Can your text-based learning be broken down into several updates?

3. Explore the RSS capabilities of your CMS / LMS. Many existing solutions already play well with RSS. Wordpress only takes a few minor tweaks to be fully compliant. Your podcast provider and your blog is almost certainly going to work with RSS. It might take some more research, and a few conversations with your IT / sysadmin - but you're likely to discover, at the end of your search, that RSS is a tap you can turn on with no real effort.

4. Give up on the idea of monetising RSS in any meaningful way. Remember when I said that nobody ever got filthy rich in the RSS business? You won't break the pattern. RSS is too clunky, too free, and too open to lend itself to reliable cash flow solutions. Its strengths lie elsewhere: building loyalty, establishing a readership, and promoting your long-tail content. As you start an RSS discussion around your team, try to agree on this from the start. It then becomes a question of choosing the content to promote via this medium: valuable, long-term, but not something that needs to sell (it won't).

5. Prepare a long-term RSS strategy for your learning content. The conversations which you'll start in steps 3 and 4 above should then be made more meaningful: are you ready to commit to RSS? What sort of content are you likely to distribute? What would be the purpose of sharing such content this way? Who is most likely to appreciate this functionality? Remember, RSS is the opposite of the one-hit wonders that make your learning content go viral. It's the long, slow, steady flame which people will miss when it's gone. Is your learning designed in a way which would feed it?

RSS will be around for many years to come. It's the un-flashy, un-glamorous hero of the internet. Use it right, and you may just reach learners whose loyalty you'll care about. Happy RSSing!

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