August 27, 2003
Sipping MERLOT's RSS Feeds: Is this Boone's Farm or Dom Perignon?
We have barked about MERLOT's lack of RSS feeds for some time. Not that anyone really listens, or that this is even announced in the woods where trees makes sounds, but you can actually find MERLOT RSS feeds. Now the question- is this a smooth vintage or supermarket swill?
Here is what is wrong with RSS a la MERLOT (read on!)
(1) Feeds are far away, separated from their associated content. The RSS links are hidden away in this little un-marked room in a corner of the winery. There is nothing on the main MERLOT site that mentions the feeds nor is there any connection between the content category pages and the feeds that they have available. It's like you have to whisper a password to the thug in the alley to get some juice.
(2)Barriers to Access the Feeds. To actually get to the feed links and see some familiar orangle XML icons, you must complete a web form providing name, email, web site where feeds will appear, and reason for using this prestigious feeds. Now, you can quite easily enter foobar information, as it instantly reveals the list of feeds, but this is rare, curoius, and stuffy to place even a low barrier to getting RSS feeds.
(3)Stilted Feed Choices. The winery is doling out 30 RSS feeds, the 10 newest items and the 10 newly reviewed items in 14 discipline categories, plus MERLOT wide. Why 14? Why not every category? Poor Lora is left out in the cold without a Geology feed.
(4)Lack of dynamic custom feeds. At both our Maricopa Learning eXchange and Darcy's CAREO site at Calgary you can save the result of any search query as a customized feeds, not just a limited set of bottles handed out by the masters.
For example, you can get an RSS feeds for
* MLX Math packages from Scottsdale Community College
* MLX packages with "critical thinking" in the title
* CAREO objects that contain "geology" or "rocks"
* CAREO objects in Biology in video format
In fact, at the MERLOT 2003 Conference, Garry Putland from EdNA Online in Australia demonstrated how the EdNA site allows you to conduct deferated searches of not only EdNA's learning objects but at the same time, MERLOTs-- and (here is the kicker)- the EdNA search results are saved as a dynamic, custom RSS feed! In fact, during Garry's presentation I created an EdNA account, conducted a customized search and got RSS from MERLOT that MERLOT cannot do itself.
This is typical clever Aussie know-how at work, and it certainly matches my preference for South Australian wines over the stuff from California.
It is not like it is technically challenging to have dynamic RSS feeds from search results. In fact, here is the BIG TECHNICAL secret for providing the results of search in RSS format. You take the same code that performs the search that your site already provides, and instead of spitting back a web page of content, you spit out the same information (title, link, description) in XML. It should take your programmers about an hour to sort it out.
I've been told numerous times that MERLOT is protective of its meta-data, the crown jewels, the coin of the realm. However, I still have not seen how providing a feed of item titles, content, and a link to a MERLOT item entry URL gives anything away. In fact, it should draw more people into MERLOT. Isn't the content itself much more important than the meta-data? What is this abundant obsession with data about data?
I must be thick headed or just a moonshine lovin' country fool, but I do not get why MERLOT treats their content like Dom Perignon but provides a Boones Farm flavor of RSS. It is offered from a wine steward in a new tuxedo allowing you the honor of sniffing a cork, but the product is more akin to cracking the bottle open on the tailgate of your chevy pickup.
blogged August 27, 2003 11:35 AM
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Nicely put. To be fair, tbough, the Merlot RSS is only a 1.something release (or is it that far yet?) Here's hoping they realize the room for improvement.
Ideally, they would maintain their existing "moderated" RSS feeds, and add the ability to syndicate any search query.
Best of both worlds. Or something.
"Here is what is wrong with RSS a la MERLOT (read on!)(1) Feeds are far away, separated from their associated content. The RSS links are hidden away in this little un-marked room in a corner of the winery. There is nothing on the main MERLOT site that mentions the feeds nor is there any connection between the content category pages and the feeds that they have available. It's like you have to whisper a password to the thug in the alley to get some juice."
The feeds are still being tested, I suspect. We found a parsing problem with one of them this week.
"(2)Barriers to Access the Feeds. To actually get to the feed links and see some familiar orangle XML icons, you must complete a web form providing name, email, web site where feeds will appear, and reason for using this prestigious feeds. Now, you can quite easily enter foobar information, as it instantly reveals the list of feeds, but this is rare, curoius, and stuffy to place even a low barrier to getting RSS feeds."
Likely set up to track usage. MERLOT needs somewhat detailed information to confirm the benefit of this to its own members and others. We've all seen cool things that didn't meet any significant need outside the minds of their creators.
"(3)Stilted Feed Choices. The winery is doling out 30 RSS feeds, the 10 newest items and the 10 newly reviewed items in 14 discipline categories, plus MERLOT wide. Why 14? Why not every category? Poor Lora is left out in the cold without a Geology feed."
It's pointless to add discipline categories if there's not much being added to MERLOT in those disciplines. There are only 56 items now in Geology and there are no peer reviews, save for one that overlaps the interests of the MERLOT Biology editorial board. If one of the new MERLOT partners like Cornell is interested in a Geology discipline group, a peer-review team could be formed I suppose.
In any case, new feeds and even dynamic custom feeds can always be created. Let's see how it goes with the existing feeds. As D'Arcy Norman mentioned, this is still pretty early for MERLOT.
The feeds were just made public three weeks ago!
There is no way for a visitor to know this is experimental, and I have no idea where the public announcements are made (despite reading daily 110 weblogs and instructional technology sites). Where exactly does MERLOT describe the development it is doing?
As far as collecting usage data there is this old fashioned thing called a web log (not a weblog) than can easily provide usage data. If MERLOT really thinks RSS is some sort of fad, they should go back to perhaps hosting their stuff on Gopher rather than the web.
Despite my criticism, I am a major fan, a MERLOT contributer, a frequent visitor and referrer to MERLOT. I send our faculty there constantly.
I would hope that they are open to constructive (semi-?) feedback, but there is no really visible public place where what goes in MERLOT is known. It comes off as elitist and no one likes a wine snob.
I understand that the RSS feeds will finish testing within a few weeks or so and then be available via the MERLOT home page.
As for web logs, there's no way to do the kind of detailed usage tracking through analysis of those that the systems and institutions that are MERLOT partners say they want. They're providing the financial support that makes all this possible and they need to show system/institutional benefit - especially in states like my own where higher education budgets are under severe pressure. The RSS feed registration procedure is a bother, but it's not pointless.
In my experience, MERLOT has certainly been open to suggestions. In fact, RSS is something that I suggested. At present there's no public space for this kind of discussion. I don't know that anyone
has asked for it until now.
Joe is right-- much of the hiddenness of the feeds is due to the fact that we are putting finishing touches to a incremental upgrade to the MERLOT software-- and the front page UI that has a link to the RSS feeds is in that upgrade. I expect it will be ready next week. At that time you will find a link from the home page. If you want to look at the development version (with the changes) go to http://dev.merlot.org:9275.
Leaving aside the hyperbole, the main reason that MERLOT has initially only offered 30 feeds is priority. The editorial board areas and the main MERLOT are the areas that have the great majority of activity. In addition, we are committed to creating specific feeds for any partner, which would then become available to all.
A comment about our metadata and RSS. It is MERLOT policy to protect the metadata from our site. Since we do not actually house the material and we provide substantial added value in the metadata, it has been policy to control access to the metadata. Many places may not want to protect their metadata or have any worth protecting-- that is their decision. The worry about creating RSS versions of any search result and putting the query in the URL is that MERLOT would then lose control of the data. Anyone could then bypass our search and display functionality and create their own clients to search MERLOT and display it how they will. This is an ability we provide exclusively to partners, not to the general public.
One of the fundamental principles that MERLOT follows is to be responsive to the users of MERLOT and make sure that the work that we do (with an extremely limited budget) is of high value for them. Squeaky wheels (like Joe Georges) get what they ask for (eventually!), but they have to contend with other priorities as well. Please do discuss whatever you are interested in with me-- I am happy to engage good ideas any time.
A quick note about our RSS functionality. Our developmental philosophy has been to deliver something that people have been asking for, but not to over engineer it. It may well be that RSS is a HUGE deal and we will have to spend much more time refining and improving the RSS services. But how will we know until people start using it and run into issues that we are made aware of? I am not going to burn loads of development time on a question mark when I have huge priorities that may be left undone (such as improving the peer review workflow functionality or [even bigger] rewriting the complete MERLOT application using contemporary standards in a scalable system).
I hope that helps clarify some issues. I really appreciate the open discussion, and hope to continue it.
Thanks for a thoughtful and constructive response to my post what like a tirade. Let me say up front it is exciting to now have at least the 30 MERLOT RSS feeds as the things I am interested in include accessing materials for multiple resource sites.
And I can certainly live without the search results feed, although I think it is a value-added feature and still hard to imagine how someone ripping off a MERLOT copy would escape notice or legal attention. Then again, while I can see a use for dynamic RSS results, it is still a stretch for the average user to latch on to.
As far as suggestions, it might help for MERLOT developers to create a weblog to document acvitity- I would guess there is listserv type communication for partners/members, but that is a group much smaller than the web-wide user base. It ends up being another thing to take time away from work now and then, but writing about your work truly helps you step back and see it slightly differently then when you are knee deep in code.
It would be nice to see the MERLOT site embrace web standards, at least CSS, in lieu of the 1990s era HTML .
I like very much the personal collections ability in MERLOT, and has me thinking about a similar feature for our MLX. Perhaps I have not seen it, but it would be useful to have a utility/tool to be able to easily share ("e-mail my collection to..."). Actually I would try and make the collectiuons fractal, so one could have collections of collections, and... well it is 1/3 of a thought.
When we developed the Maricopa Learning eXchange, I also thought it would be interesting to have some sort of option when someone creates an item in our collection to also have an option to send it to MERLOT- whihc would require some sort of transport protocol/structure-- a bigger MERLOT is better for all. Of course the idea of federated searches might make this un-necessary.
True that RSS is just on its infancy (but shooting fast up the hyper curve) and is still outside the scope of many web users. I am not betting the house on it, but it has that same feel as when I saw HTML in 1993-- it pays to be ahead of the curve.
thanks again for the reply...
No problem! So far, I am very appreciative of the discussion. And I am more than willing to conitnue.
As for the weblog-- you are definitely correct. We have plans for public and less public forums to discuss the development activities and progress. I like your idea of a weblog as a method of generating discussion and public response-- so that people are not wondering what is going on. In lieu of having some of that available to me now, we can discuss RSS here, if you like -- although I am not sure about the "bad dog" designation (as you might imagine).
When we decided to do RSS, we only knew of one person howling for it (I like dog metaphors), and that was Joe Georges. It took a year for me to get it as a high enough priority to get some of it done. This is not to say that development is necessarily slow, but rather that MERLOT development resources have never been huge, and we have had many different development activities that were high priority.
Actually, the interest and excitement over RSS at the MERLOT int'l conference was somewhat of a surprise -- we knew it would make Joe happy, and some indicators from other project participants was positive, but we did not know the magnitude of the response. To tell you the truth, we were not sure anyone would care all that much at all.
When we fiirst started discussing RSS for real, my idea for RSS was almost exactly what you have been asking for-- I was thinking someone would query the MERLOT search service and receive an RSS response. However, for various reasons we did not end up going that route (some mentioned previously).
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