Then I realized that my poor ISP would drown under 400 new blogs, and decided to outsource. I recommended my students set up on WordPress.com, though some have opted for Livejournal or Blogger. I then set up a page that would allow people to add themselves to the lilina feeds.
This seems easy, but given most of the students had never blogged before, understanding what an aggregator is, or what the URL for their blog is, let alone the URL for their feed, was asking way too much. Even more than a month in, I have a feeling many students have a shaky idea of what these things are.
Fairly early on, it became clear that lilina wasn’t going to be able to handle the load. The problem was that it was set up with a kind of cheap cron: it cached the page for an hour, but if you were the unlucky visitor who showed up after that hour, you would have to wait twenty minutes or more while it went out and checked feeds. What a mess. As a result, it wasn’t being updated, or was timing out when trying to get feeds, and students were panicking because they didn’t know if their blogs could be read. Yes, I could have scheduled an update in the normal way, but my (insert not-so-nice word here) ISP for the site only provided cron jobs that could be executed once every 24-hours. Bad news.
So, I figured, no problem: we’ll move to Bloglines, my favored reader. Nice idea, but with 400 feeds, it remains slow. Moreover, students were now used to the river-of-news style (rather than the folder style), and had trouble figuring out that Bloglines could offer that, too. Now we were two strikes down.
I spent a mad few days trying out every possible combination of web-based aggregators and a number of server aggregators. Maybe I could use a service that would blend all the feeds into one, something like Feedblendr. Nice idea, but didn’t update frequently enough. I worked my way through the list of aggregators on Wikipedia, feeling a bit like the three bears. This one had an intuitive interface, but no way of making it public. Another one was set up for public aggregating, but presented the feeds as folders rather than as a River of News. BlogDigger looked just about perfect, but didn’t seem to actually work.
In the end, I installed Gregarious on a new server (where I could do a 20 minute cron job to keep everything up to date). It’s been working well. There is the small issue of the read/unread items, which doesn’t translate well to a public aggregator, but otherwise it is quick, and fairly intuitive.
Some of the postings so far this semester are outstanding, some are pretty atrocious. With this big a class, my ability to improve the writing of the majority is pretty limited. My push over the next few weeks is to highlight some of the more common grammatical errors, in hopes that we can at least limit these a bit more. I’m also going to put up a tutorial on how to get started on Google Reader, so that students can import the OPML from our aggregator and personalize it on their own private reader.