aggregating student blogs

For several semesters now I’ve made writing blog posts in response to each week’s content a central assignment for my graduate and upper division undergraduate courses. The assignment essentially requires students to write either a prompted or unprompted (depending on what I want to get across that week) response to readings, lectures, discussion, etc. In a 16-week class, I usually require 12-13 posts, the completion of which forms the basis for the student’s participation grade. In addition, at the end of the semester I have undergrads pick their three favorite posts, which I grade separately as a sort-of portfolio.

Thus far, this system has worked very well. My first attempts involved using a yahoo pipe to aggregate the feeds, and publish them on a course portal. Here’s a pick of the last pipe I did:

It worked, more or less, but was very awkward. In fact, for some reason, a each semester a random selection of feeds just would never work, I’d have to create a second pipe for them. It was also a bit time consuming, cutting and pasting/typing the feed URLs when setting up the initial pipe.

Another approach I took was, using a wordpress.com site, was to put individual feeds into the sidebar using feed widgets. Worked fine, but only for a small class less the sidebars require significant scrolling to see all the feeds. What I really wanted to do was to aggregate the content into the main feed of a course website. This was the desire that finally pushed me into a self-hosted wordpress installation. There is a very easy and elegant solution, and I figured I would offer a simple tutorial in setting up aggregating student blogs using just two wordpress plugins. This solution allows students to populate the feed links, and so requires less input from the instructor to set up than others that I’ve tried.

The two plugins that you need to install are feedwordpress and add-link. (I’m going to assume that if you’re doing this on your own, you already know how to add plugins to your wordpress install.)  Feedwordpress is that actual aggregator, and allows you to scrape posts based on a variety of criteria (category/frequency/etc). Add-link is a simple sidebar widget that allows users to populate your blogroll for you, and can be password protected to control who is adding links. You can see it here, on the site for my graduate seminar on historical theory:

Students simply type the main url from their blog (all of mine use either blogger or wordpress.com) together with a password I provide. The link is then automatically added to the blogroll of the site.

On the back end, set up of add-link is very simple. Once the plugin is installed and activated, motor over to the widgets tab, drag the new add-link widget into the sidebar you desire, and fill out the available options. You can set a message and a password. That part is simply simple.

How do we get those links into a feed, though? There are a couple of important settings on feedwordpress to pay attention to. Install and activate the plugin. You will then get a new link on the left-column of the dashboard that’s called Syndication. This tab will bring up the administrator options for feedwordpress. There are two really important settings to note to automate this process. First, from the feed update and settings tab, you need to set blogroll as the syndicated link category from the dropdown list under Feed Information.

In that picture, you can also see that you have options related to how feeds are updated, as well as how often. With small classes, I usually set the updating to page loads or 30 minutes, though you can also make it a cron job or do it manually. But, students invariably post their writings at about the same time and then go looking to see if they’ve appeared in the feed.

It’s important that you set Blogroll as the category that is being syndicated, because that’s where the add-link widget puts new links. If you want a blogroll or siteroll for other purposes, I’d suggest naming it something else. The second really important setting is related to what content you want to actually show up in the course feed. I ask my students to label/tag/categorize their posts with the term “hist510”, so that only posts intended for class show up in the feed. That way, students can use their new blog as their own space on the web for more than just class if they so wish. This setting is managed on the Categories and Tags tab:

Select “don’t create new categories or tags and don’t syndicate unless they match at least one familiar category.” The feed converts labels/tags to categories when importing a post. Make sure to create a category under the posts tab that matches whatever tag you want students to use (in this case, hist510). I would also suggest renaming “uncategorized” to something else- I chose no-category- so that if a student doesn’t categorize something not intended for class, the defaults won’t match up.

Feedwordpress will make the owner of any feed a subscriber to the course blog site. There are a number of other settings you can choose to manipulate the posts as you’d like– turn comments on/off for the posts on the course site, point the permalink of the post to the course site or to the student’s site among them. Once you’ve made your choices, there is one last step.

Links are automatically added to the feed list, but they aren’t automatically turned on. Click on the syndication tab, and you’ll see the list of new sites. Hover over a site’s name, and a number of linked options appear. Choose find feed, and feedwordpress will automatically look for all the feeds associated with the URL. Chose the one you want to syndicate (usually the Atom or RSS feed of the site’s posts), and your down. You can also click on update, and feedwordpress will go looking for posts that match your category requirements.

And that’s it. It should run automagically for the rest of the semester. Now, reading and grading the posts- that you still have to do.

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Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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3 comments on “aggregating student blogs
  1. shannon says:

    What fantastic timing, Chad! My TA’s and I have been researching how to aggregate individual students’ blogs on my central course websites — and thanks to you, now we know how! Thanks so much for these helpful instructions.

  2. ctb says:

    Hi Shannon– now I see why the spirit moved me this morning. Glad to be of help.

  3. Benito says:

    Chad, this is very interesting. I’ve been using blogs posts for my writing intensive courses (students must post every 2 weeks, and comment on 3 previous blog postings) and the aggregating into Google reader to grade.

    It works ok, but now I want to consolidate all into a more organic way so that students also get feeds fromt he rest of the class into their blogs. I like the idea of hosting a WordPress installation and your experiences give me hope to keep heading in that direction.

    My university has a open source blogging tool, but is so rudimentary that I’ll have to begin using a more robust and feature rich blog tool. Alas, the funds are limited so I keep putting it off. Perhaps for the spring semester…

    Cheers!

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Chad Black

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I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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