This somewhat technical post is a detailed account of the steps that I went through as I attempted to create a feed from my personal WordPress blog to be aggregated into the DS106 learning community. My hope is that I will be able to save other DS106 participants time and effort if they should encounter similar problems.
Two years ago, I purchased my own domain and created my WordPress-driven “Life-Long-Learners.com” blog. Early in my blogging experience, I used the FeedBurner services to help readers view my posts by RSS link or through email. I do recall that I struggled to understand the feed process when I activated my FeedBurner plugin about 22 months ago. However, it seemed to be working fine, so I promptly forgot about the technical details and concentrated on sharing K-12 educational activities, ideas and resources with my readers.
Prior to signing up for the DS106 MOOC (massive, open online course), I had learned that an important part of the DS106 educational experience was for all participants to create/operate their own blog. Assignments, details and reflections about their learning experience are to be posted and a tagging or labeling strategy is to be implemented so that all DS106-related posts can be automatically transferred, aggregated and shared with all DS106 participants.
Following up on Jim Groom’s (aka @Reverend’s) posted “Invitation”, I signed up for DS106 on December 26. I filled in the online form indicating that I was hoping to enroll, for free, as an “open online student” and then added my email address and the URL address of my personal blog where I intended to post my assignments. The very next day the “Reverend” sent me a welcome DS106 web message (and its duplicate by email) and followed up later with the following:
One more thing, I am pulling in the url http://life-long-learners.com/tag/ds106/feed so that any post you tag ds106 will automatically syndicate in here. Let me know if this works for you.
To that end let me ask you, you have feedburner on your site, right? Can you see how I can grab feeds of the ds106 tag? When I try now they just redirect me to the main blog feed. Here is the URL I usually grab for the straight up WP feed:http://life-long-learners.com/tag/ds106/feed/
My Blog Feed Problem
The problem that seemed to be happening was that my blog feed to the DS106 aggregator software was not filtering posts properly. In other words, all my posts were being sent to the aggregator rather than only those that were tagged or labeled “DS106”. Although I had been using “FeedBurner Feedsmith” as a plugin mechanism to transfer blog posts through RSS or email to my blog reading members, it did not seem to be filtering or discriminating between a blog post for Grade 3 teachers entitled “Egyptian Hieroglyphics Add Interest” and the DS106-tagged post “DS106 – My new learning adventure!” In other words, everything that I published on my blog was being forwarded to the DS106 aggregator.
To test the FeedBurner extraction process, on December 26th, I wrote four test posts such as:
DS106 – Sample A – Test 1
Hi … I apologize if you are emailed this “update” by mistake. I am trying to configure future blog posts so that they integrate with the Digital Storytelling (DS106) online course that I plan to take in January.
Please ignore this post which I am using to test the system.
THANKS for your understanding … Brian
On two of these test posts, I labeled or tagged them with “DS106”, hoping that they would be extracted and aggregated properly. On the remaining two, I used non-Ds106 tags, pretending that such posts were designed only to be read by my blog’s faithful readers and not to be shared with my DS106 community of learners. I felt that it was important that an apologetic test post be created in case my regular readers thought were getting spammed as I tried to improve on the DS106 discrimination features of FeedBurner.
Risk-taking through “trial and terror”
My troubleshooting began with the examination of my current FeedBurner plugin. I was using the WordPress plugin called “FeedBurner FeedSmith” for the past 22 months. I visited this plugin site and although it was updated just last month, it did not specifically mention that it had the capability of filtering feeds based on specific tags or labels. During my search for “FeedBurner FeedSmith”, the Google drop down list box advised me that I could also investigate “feedburner feedsmith extend”. Thinking that this might add more functionality to my current FeedBurner plugin, I visited this WordPress plugin page and found that the creator, Jiayu (James) Ji, indicated “I enhanced it base on the FeedBurner FeedSmith and now it can redirects feeds for category and tag also.” This sounded like the improvement I needed. So I installed it and activated it using the WordPress “Plugins” screen. However, since I had not configured a FeedBurner-related plugin for almost two years, I unfortunately forgot that it was necessary to also “tweak” this plugin using the WordPress “Settings => plugin” screen. In hind-sight, I look back and think … how stupid … how did I think the FeedBurner process would work without activating some setting to help filter out posts containing “DS106” tags? So naturally, Jim Groom and his patient team were getting all my posts as opposed to only those containing the designated “DS106” tag.
Next Jim sent me the following message:
@audrey gave me this feed for her blog which is also using feedburner, you might want to let me know if that works for you as well
Not sure how she got this, but I have been having some difficulty finding tag feeds through FeedBurner
With this DS106 web message (and its duplicate email), Jim shared a technique that Audrey Waters (@audrey) used. Based on this information, I concluded that if the FeedBurner extraction was working properly then:
- http://feeds.feedburner.com/life-long-learners_ds106 should provide only “DS106” tagged posts whereas:
- http://feeds.feedburner.com/life-long-learners should list all posts regardless of tags.
Unfortunately, when I entered both of the above URL addresses in my browser, both feeds listed all posts that were in my blog regardless of how they were tagged. So in my mind, the filtering system was not working.
The Teachable Moment
It was the following direct DS106 web message from Audrey Waters (together with its duplicate email) that got me started along the path to success:
Here’s my “trick” — I use the FD-Feedburner plugin for WP. It gives me the option (under settings) to “Append category/tag to URL for category/tag feeds (http://url_category).” I took this URL, http://hackeducation.com/?feed=rss2&tag=ds106 and I burned a new feedburner feed from that. Hope that helps.
Following up on her web message, I decided to download the alternate WordPress plugin “FD-Feedburner” that Audrey recommended. I installed it and I must admit that I was reluctant to “deactivate” my old “FeedBurner Feedsmith” plugin, which had faithfully served my readers for almost two years. Although I wanted to be a part of the DS106 experience, I can assure you that at 2:30 a.m. (in the wee small hours of the night), I started to weigh the need for the DS106 community to get my filtered posts against the possibility of inadvertently cutting off my readers who had subscribed to my post feeds through a different software plugin. Perhaps, I would only “deactivate” my older plugin and not actually delete it at this time … thinking, I hoped, that if this new “FD-Feedburner” plugin did not filter my DS106 tags, I could always return to my earlier plugin (with hopefully no critical repercussions.)
In her rather short web message, Audrey provided me with the following two key ideas:
- First, it was Audrey’s “three little words” that restored faith in the mind of this DS106 “newbie”. Her three words … “option (under settings)” … awakened me to the fact that blog users had to not only install a FeedBurner plugin, they also had to go to the Settings => Feedburner screen and activate the software to extract blog post by a specific tag. By placing a checkmark in front of “Append category/tag to URL for category/tag feeds (http://url_category)”, I configured the FD-Feedburner plugin to extract any posts labeled or tagged with the “DS106”entity. Now any posts in my blog could be filtered on the tag “DS106”.
- Secondly, Audrey provided me with the magic URL that I could modify and insert in the FeedBurner web site to route the above filtered test blog posts to the aggregator software for sharing amongst the DS106 learning community.
Read the “Fine Print”
With the FD-Feedburner plugin activated and configured in the WordPress “Settings” area, I eagerly proceeded to the FeedBurner web site to burn a feed using Audrey’s key URL.
I reviewed Audrey’s email message which I had printed out for reference:
Audrey Waters replied to one of your updates:
"Here's my "trick" -- I use the FD-Feedburner plugin for WP. It gives me the option (under settings) to "Append category/tag to URL for category/tag feed(http://url_category)." I took this URL, http://hackeducation.com/?feed=rss2&tag=ds106 and I burned a new feedburner feed from that. Hope that helps."
To view your original update and all comments, log in and visit: http://ds106.us/activity/p/7396/
Armed with this important URL string, I logged into Google Feedburner. I modified Audrey’s blog feed address to my own blog and entered “http://life-long-learners.com/?feed=rss2&tag=ds106” (without quotes) into the feed address field as shown below:
I checked with Tim Owens (@timmmmyboy) who promptly advised me that I did not have to check the box in front of “I am a podcaster” to fulfill any of the current DS106 assignments.
I clicked the “Next” button and was informed that my blog feed address had been verified. I next changed the “Feed Title” from its current “Life-Long-learners” to “DS106tags” (since I already had a “Life-Long-Learners” feed to which my blog readers had previously subscribed). At the bottom of this display, I was informed, through a rather confusing URL display, that my new DS106-tagged feeds would be accessed through a combination of:
The permanent first part of the address “http://feeds.feedburner.com/” combined with the unique, auto-generated, last portion “life-long-learners/gIrj”
Upon clicking on the “Next” button, a “congratulatory” message helped clarify the previous confusion, indicating that I could subscribe and share this feed with others through this concatenated web address: http://feeds.feedburner.com/life-long-learners/gIrj
Although the FeedBurner application suggested that I could add additional features to my feed, I was eager to exit FeedBurner and try out my new DS106-tagged feed.
As indicated earlier, on the day following Christmas, I had created four short test posts in my personal blog. Two test posts were purposely tagged with “DS106” and the remaining two posts were labeled with other non-DS106 labels. These test posts would help me differentiate if my newly-constructed FeedBurner feed would filter out the subset of all my posts and forward only those two “DS106” labeled or tagged posts to the DS106 community.
Imagine, my disappointment, when I entered my new FeedBurner feed address http://feeds.feedburner.com/life-long-learners/gIrj into my browser and examined the resulting “extracted” list of posts. I was expecting to see a rather short list of only the two, DS106-tagged, test posts. Unfortunately, what was displayed was a comparatively long list of 11 posts entries. Not only were my two, December 26th created, DS106-tagged test posts listed, so were the remaining two non-DS106 test posts together with an additional seven regular blog posts which had been written as far back as November 17th. I was convinced that this new, improved FD-Feedburner plugin was failing to filter out DS-tagged posts, just as my original plugin failed to do. I did some important comparison testing of the blog posts displayed with this new DS106 extraction feed against the list of posts produced by my original FeedBurner feed http://feeds.feedburner.com/life-long-learners which was created 22 months ago to help my blog readers subscribe to my blog posts. Guess what? When each of these FeedBurner URLs was entered into my browser, both post listings were exact! I was hoping the DS106 feed would produce a shorter list of only my two test blog entries but it had the exact same extended list containing all 11 posts.
My next thought was that perhaps my DS106-tagged filter has not been activated yet. I searched through a series of articles on how Feedburner was supposed to perform and found a resource called Ping FeedBurner. By entering my Life-Long-Learners.com DS106 feed address into Ping FeedBurner, any new changes, such as my new blog test posts, would be updated immediately rather than having to wait for the usual 30 minute update interval. Assuming this was the case, I “pinged” my web site and eagerly returned to view my tagged-feed to see if the former list of eleven was shorter hoping that my newly-created feed would extract only the two test posts that I had purposely tagged with “DS106”. No … that was not the case … all eleven posts were displayed in my newly created feed, even after I had requested that the feed be updated using my new found “Ping” activator.
I spent hours trying to rectify this supposedly failing feed. I finally searched with Google for “DS106 feeds” and found the “Reverend’s” “bavatuesdays” blog with the post entitled “Tag feeds for a variety of Blogging Platforms”. Jim’s WordPress entry recommended the DS106 tag feed as:
I compared this tag feed with the one that appeared in Audrey’s email to me:
I immediately noticed that the feed and tag parameters were reversed, but more importantly, there was an an extra “&” HTML entry in Audrey’s emailed tag feed string. Could the four little characters in “&” prevent my filtering feed from working? I removed these four characters and returned to Google Feedburner where I created a new feed using the shorter tag feed. Next, I went to Ping FeedBurner to instruct that the feeds be updated immediately. I then checked my newly generated live FeedBurner feed-list.
Only my two test posts, which were tagged or labeled with the “DS106” qualifier, were displayed. All my other posts, which were created for my regular blog readers and were tagged or labeled with other non-DS106 entries, were “nowhere to be seen”.
Following on this success, I immediately sent off an email to both Jim Groom and Audrey Waters advising them that I believed that my DS106-tagged posts were now being filtered correctly. Jim promptly confirmed that he was seeing only my short list of test blog posts and that my DS106 feed was finally working as intended.
Once I knew that my DS106-tagged feed system was working properly, I went back to my “Life-Long-Learners.com” blog and deleted the test posts, as there was no need for new subscribers to view these trouble-shooting components. However, I noticed that when I logged on to the DS106 web site and examined my filtered posts, even though I had deleted them from my blog, copies of my DS106-tagged test posts were still displayed as “ghosts” since they had been transferred prior to my deleting their corresponding originals from my blog.
I finally felt that things were working when I wrote and posted the following three additional new posts
- Comment Characteristics & Communications on Dec 28th and tagged with “DS106”
- DS106 will make my learning transparent! on Jan 3rd and tagged with “DS106”
- Egyptian Hieroglyphics Add Interest on Jan 4th without any “DS106” tag
When I logged on to the DS106 web site, I was delighted to see that the FeedBurner filter system was working properly and that only the above top, two posts were displayed and there was no reference to “Egyptian Hieroglyphics”.
Although this FeedBurner filter problem took me several hours to rectify, I admit in hindsight that it did help me hone my trouble-shooting skills. Furthermore, this struggle reinforced just how important it is for one to be able to network with supportive individuals like Jim Groom, Audrey Waters, and Tim Owens.
What caused this “hiccup”?
I must admit that I do not know specifically what caused this hiccup. However, I do have a theory. On my computer, I still use the Windows XP operating system and Outlook 2003 as my e-mail client. My e-mail configuration is normally set to HTML so that specific fonts and hyperlinks are active within it. It appears that when Audrey’s e-mail first arrived, it was in standard Courier-style text format and proper conversion to HTML at that time failed and the “&” was inserted. Thankfully, I kept a printout of this “enhanced” text-formatted message for reference because when I recently returned to read Audrey’s e-mail message, I found that it had now been converted to proper HTML and the “&” was no longer part of the FeedBurner string.
Perhaps some of my readers, who are more conversant with Outlook and HTML, can explain how this FeedBurner string was modified in my incoming e-mail. I certainly know that Audrey is not at fault in any way. If I had chosen to modify the information that Audrey sent in her corresponding web message, this problem would not have occurred because her web message string did not include this offending “&” HTML code.
Thus it appears that my existing feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/life-long-learners), which has been supplying RSS and email updates to my blog readers for 22 months, was working fine. However, any tag-extraction modification or extension to the above address, which does not precisely meet the FeedBurner protocol, will cause the filter to fail. Such filter failure results in all posts of a blog being delivered as opposed to only the subset tagged or labeled with “DS106”.
To help others DS106 participants, who may struggle with having their blog posts filtered appropriately with FeedBurner, I recommend the following steps:
- Install an appropriate blog plugin which can filter posts by tags or labels. Thanks to Audrey Waters, I can recommend FD-FeedBurner as a reliable WordPress plugin.
- Make certain to modify or change the plugin settings so as to extract “DS106” tags. Be aware that some blog platforms treat the particular tag or label as case sensitive. In other words, if you have configured your plugin to extract “ds106” tags and you tag or label the post with uppercase letters such as “DS106”, the particular post will not be extracted for syndication.
- Burn an appropriate feed at FeedBurner.
- Share the generated feed string URL with Jim Groom and his DS106 Tech Support team.
- Write two or three short test posts (with and without DS106 tags) and publish them to your blog.
- Enter your blog address in Ping FeedBurner to facilitate the quick filter process.
- Examine your FeedBurner feed to see if the extraction filter selected only the DS106-tagged posts.
- When you are satisfied that the DS106-tagged posts are being extracted, verify this with the DS106 Tech Support team.
- Most importantly, share your successes and failures, with others in the DS106 learning community, so that we can all benefit.
Take care & keep smiling
– D’Arcy Normand‘s DS106 Skull & Crossbones logo from:
“Crowdsourcing assignments for ds106” by Jim Groom aka “Reverend” at:
– Google FeedBurner screen capture from: http://feedburner.google.com