Wednesday, October 22, 2008

BBC fails to choose between RSS & elbow

Sometimes, the BBC provides an object lesson in the art of being open. The new Common Platform blog by Steve Bowbrick on open content, open culture and sharing at the Beeb is the sort of thing to get people like Theo Kuchel excited and revved up about the wealth of content which sits somewhere in West London and the potential for opening it up. At other times, there's a (hopefully unintentional) myopia which recoils from sharing, re-using and re-purposing content. I came across a significant example of the latter this week...

This was illustrated best (or worst, depending on your point of view) recently by the reformatting of the so-ubiquitous-it-might-as-well-be-part-of-the-curriculum BBC Bitesize service. In the last couple of years I've done a lot of work with schools on introducing them to using Moodle as a VLE, and something which almost always gets a good response is the use of RSS feeds. Starting with something like Newsround and the BBC Weather site, we'll move on to using sites like the Guardian, New Scientist, the Good Food web site, etc. etc. One of the final sites we look at has always been the Bitesize site – it's predominantly orange-coloured pages offer structured and themed revision resources for Key Stages 3 and 4 for English, Welsh and Scottish exams, and offers offered a granular set of RSS feeds which are were as flexible as the content is broad and deep. For example, the front page of the KS3 section offers offered a feed of all the subjects, then within each subject (for example History) the various topics are were offered as a feed, then within that topic the various subjects can could be fed out via RSS.

Now, RSS is best used for information which changes or gets updated fairly regularly (news, weather, sports results, etc.) so the geological pace at which the curriculum changes wasn't going to make for a constantly shifting feed of information from the Bitesize site. However, in our experience it was useful because having the revision topics and subjects as feeds enabled teachers to bring a whole bunch of guaranteed-to-be-accurate links into a Moodle course without having to validate the links, and held them all in one neat block.

You can probably tell where this post is going, but possibly as a result of some extra time / money, or just Because It Needed Changing, the RSS feeds have disappeared from the Bitesize site. Not moved, not shuffled around, but simply vanished. I can't decide if it's simply an oversight by an overenthusiastic designer or a deliberate policy to stop the information being shared, but if you want to use the Bitesize links in your Moodle course, or if you're a student and want them on your iGoogle home page, then you can't do it any more.

This reads all the more odd when read in conjunction with the previously mentioned Common Platform at the BBC blog (which you can also follow on twitter). This explores the notion that the BBC has so much useful, publicly funded information, tools, techniques... well, resources really, that making them open isn't just a desirable thing to do, it's an essential and healthy thing - so the vaporising of the feeds of information like they were so many minor villains in an episode of Doctor Who puzzles me.

On finding this out (in the middle of a day working with teachers of humanities, and eager to show them RSS and how it could be used effectively within Geography & History), I had a sinking feeling, like when you've bought something for ages from the supermarket, it's part of your regular diet, and then for some reason, someone somewhere (or, more likely, a computer somewhere) pulls it from the shelves. You hunt around for a while, wonder if it's moved to another aisle, then give up and go home, or buy something else, or shop somewhere else. I had a look back at the Internet Archive's view of the Bitesize GCSE Geography page to see if the feed's old address, still worked, but it doesn't.

All of this means (to my mind) that it's not an accidental omission. The feed isn't being generated (at least not at the old address), which means that someone somewhere has made a decision that this sort of information doesn't benefit from being shared. I've had it confirmed that the BBC won't be at BETT in 2009, does this all indicate a massive step back from online educational resources, a retreat inside the moat and pulling up of the drawbridge? Or is it really an error? What's going on? Answers in a comment please...

Image courtesy of Violinha.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Ian

    I am the senior producer for the Bitesize websites. I noticed this post and thought I would explain why RSS feeds were removed from the GCSE Bitesize website. The site has just completed a very necessary redesign both in terms of how it looks to the user and how it is produced at the BBC. Before we started work on this we user-tested the old site with our main audience - who are obviously GCSE students rather than their teachers - and found that they did not understand or use the RSS feature. Our public funding means we must always consider a feature's value for money for that feature's users, so we removed RSS from the scope of the main redesign.

    However obviously don't want to make life more difficult for teachers using Bitesize with moodle-based VLEs, and had always planned to reinstate the feeds in another, more teacher-facing section of the BBC website. Budgetary issues have caused a delay in carrying this out, but it will happen as soon as we are able to fund it.

    All the best

    Andrew Lees
    Senior Porducer Bitesize