Friday, May 12, 2006

Podcasts: Transforming RSS feeds for packaged content

With the audio of lectures available as podcasts, the question then arises of how to package this with the rest of the material.

Those preparing web content normally think of a set of web pages. When preparing on-line course content with something like Moodle or Web CT, the creator has a lot of control over what the student sees in what sequence. Where audio has been available online for a course it was similarly neatly packaged and sequenced.

The Podcasts, in contrast, arrive on the student's player mixed in with other courses and other audio content: sounds and radio programs. The educator might be tempted to try to stop this from happening, but that is the reality for the student in the real world, so the educator may as well get used to it. Students do not experience each course as an uninterrupted stream of content. They have lectures from different courses intermixed with the rest of their life.

One interesting technical possibility is to use the feed to supply all the course content, not just the podcast. The course then becomes part of life's rich (digital) tapestry. Feeds were originally for text and so not just audio, but text and images can be supplied as well. While the educator will have lost a little control of the content this way, at least the audio will be with accompanying text for a particular unit.

One interesting possibility is to replace most, or all, of the web based course interface with the feed. The primary interface for the course would then be the feed reader, not the course management software. If the student looked at the feed file using a web browser, they would see what looked like a page from a course system, such as Web CT. But in reality this would be the feed magically transformed.

This is not as hard as it sounds. Normally if you click on an RSS feed without having any reader software you will get the cryptic contents of the feed file. The file is in XML, not HTML and cannot be rendered by a web browser. But the web and newer browsers, have a feature built in to allow XML to be transformed into HTML on demand.

The BBC take this approach with their RSS feeds. XSLT is activated when the RSS is opened in a web browser. The XSLT is, in effect, a computer program which reads the RSS content and transforms it into a web page before displaying it. The human reader see a catalog of the audio items available. They can then click on the podcast they want to listen to, or be taken to another page which tells them how to get podcast software. This all happens automatically in the web browser.

This same approach could be applied for course content.

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