E-mail Alerts and RSS Feeds for Distance Learning Administrators

Allyson Washburn
Brigham Young University

Scott L. Howell
Brigham Young University


A distance learning administrator’s need for an executive survey of breaking developments is not unique—especially when so much information is now available. One author used the following comparison to describe the information age in which distance learning administrators now live and work: “A weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England” (Wurman, 1989, p. 32). This same author also stated, now almost 20 years ago, that “more new information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000 . . . and the total of all printed knowledge doubles every eight years” (Wurman, 1989, p. 35). It is no wonder that “seven out of 10 office workers in the United States feel overwhelmed by information in the workplace, and more than two in five say they are headed for a data ‘breaking point,’ according to a recently released Workplace Productivity Survey, . . .” (Tahmincioglu, 2008). Some distance education administrators fear that they might not be keeping up with critical developments in their field because there is just too much information to sort through; or that they are not receiving the best information available; or they just don’t have enough time to get through it all, so why try. One author captured this current-day information overload with these words:

Can we really expect to keep up with everything that’s new and interesting? Once upon a time, we probably could, but the pace and breadth of innovation and development are now dauntingly swift and there are good reasons to be judicious . . . in what we choose to follow. . . . But neither can we afford to let important ideas pass us by” (Janes, 2008, p. 33).

Two tools that help “push” information to users in small, digestible chunks are e-mail Alerts and RSS feeds. Both of these tools deliver customized information for distance learning administrators to quickly survey the day’s (or week’s or month’s) literature, research, and news. The purpose of this article is to introduce these tools to busy distance learning administrators most in need of efficient ways to stay current in their field; it may also help those already using these tools to validate their own choice of alerts or feeds on distance education information against those identified and screened by the authors.



Journal alerts are e-mail notices sent by journals, or other information databases, at a user’s request. A journal alert automatically notifies the subscriber each time a new issue of a selected journal is available by sending through e-mail the journal’s table of contents, with titles hyperlinked to the abstract and the article itself for further reading.

Search alerts are e-mail notices that provide users with the results of a search over an entire database, rather than just a specific journal. Databases are mined for keywords such as “distance education;” the results are sent to the user at predetermined time intervals, e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, etc. For example, a busy distance learning administrator may choose to receive weekly search alerts from the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses (PQDT) database licensed by the university using the phrase “distance education.” The steps an administrator has taken to establish this kind of e-mail alert are shown in Figures 1–4. In Figure 1, the ProQuest database “dissertations and theses,” the keyword phrase “distance education,” and the time period “after 2006” are selected.

Figure 1*. Basic search of the PQDT database using keywords “distance education.”

Figure 1

The search results depicted in Figure 2 identified 236 dissertations or theses that met the initial search criteria. After this search presented its results it offered the administrator the option to “set up alerts”using the same search criteria for future additions to the database (see top right hand of Figure 2).

Figure 2*.  Search alert option for future additions to the database.

Figure 2

After selecting this option, “set up alerts,” another Web page appeared (see Figure 3) with frequency (daily, weekly, monthly, or every 3 months) and duration (2 weeks, 1 month, 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, or 1 year) options for future e-mail alerts, leaving the administrator in control of when and how long alerts would be sent.

Figure 3*. Schedule and duration of database searches and e-mail alerts.

Figure 3

An example of an actual search alert sent by e-mail to one of the coauthors is shown in Figure 4. The notice was sent at 5:36 a.m. on Monday morning—about the same time each week that subsequent alerts were sent by ProQuest to this administrator.

Figure 4*. E-mail search alert sent to coauthor Scott Howell.

Figure 4

*The screenshots and their contents are published with permission of ProQuest LLC. Further reproduction is prohibited without permission. Inquiries may be made to: ProQuest LLC, 789 E. Eisenhower Parkway, P.O. Box 1346, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346. Telephone 1-800-521-0600; Web site:  http://www.proquest.com.

While journal and search alerts provide the more familiar way to keep current using e-email messages, the relatively new innovation known as RSS feeds is quickly becoming ubiquitous and will likely become the alert service of the future. The Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration (OJDLA) is a good example of a journal that now provides this service. According to the former managing editor of OJDLA, the editorial team first enabled the journal’s RSS feed in December 2006 (S. Rowland, personal communication, May 8, 2008).

RSS feeds

This next section about RSS feeds will give the administrator a greater awareness of the presence and increasing availability of this feeding functionality and also show administrators how to establish their own customized feeds. An RSS feed is simply feeding new and just-updated information from a Web site (or a blog or podcast) to a user’s reader, and now e-mail, in real time. The acronym RSS has different words associated with its letters (i.e., Rich Site Summary, Really Simple Syndication, or RDF Site Summary), but it is the symbol The Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 Feed icon. and acronym RSS itself that communicate meaning to the user. (Some other symbols that suggest similar feeding capability are RSS and XML.)

With the recent inclusion of RSS feeds The Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 Feed icon. in the latest version of Microsoft® Outlook® 7, Mozilla’s Thunderbird™ 2, and other e-mail applications, this technology promises to become even more commonplace, since, up until this time, RSS feeds were directed to separate readers, e.g., GoogleReader or Bloglines. The ability for e-mail applications to now act as readers or aggregators for real-time updates is so convenient that the authors predict rapid migration toward RSS feeds from e-mail alerts, since an RSS feed can do everything an alert can do, only better. One of the co-authors has already shifted away from using GoogleReader to the Outlook® 7 reader, since accessing RSS feeds with one’s e-mail is more convenient because it eliminates the need to access another reader.

To receive RSS feeds in a reader of choice, go to the Web site of the academic journal, database, blog, or news site from which you would like to receive feeds. After identifying one of the symbols, usually The Firefox and Internet Explorer 7 Feed icon., place a cursor over the symbol, right-click it, select open from the drop-down menu, and watch as the RSS feed address comes up—then copy and paste the address directly into a reader. The reader will then update quickly with backlogged feeds and begin feeding new updates in real-time. The new feeds are emphasized in boldface; the earlier, already-read feeds are de-emphasized.

This real-time or synchronous download of RSS feeds is the primary advantage of the feed over the e-mail alert, which is primarily asynchronous and runs only when told to do so by a computer script at predetermined intervals. However, it is important to become familiar with both tools, since many information sources still do not accommodate RSS feeds but they do support e-mail alerts. Most importantly, in both instances, the user still decides when to look at feeds or alerts sent to their e-mail application or separate reader; the user remains in complete control.

Many library catalogs now provide RSS feeds to inform patrons about newly acquired books of possible interest to the reader, and some general Web sites even offer an RSS feed to inform subscribers whenever a change is made to the site. While RSS feeds are typically text-based, they may also deliver audio, video, or digital picture files. More detailed easy-to-understand information about RSS feeds is available from the “In Plain English” video series available at CommonCraft (http://www.commoncraft.com/rss_plain_english) and by looking through question and answer sections provided at Web sites associated with this journal (https://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/rss/index.php) and the International Review of Research in Open Distance Learning (IRRODL) (http://www.irrodl.org/miscfiles/rss.html), which both now feature these RSS feeds. To learn 14 other ways to use RSS feeds, e.g., aggregating feeds into a printable “newspaper style” document, converting feeds into audio files that can be subscribed to as podcasts, or sending feeds to an e-mail or cell phone, go to: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/14-other-ways-to-use-rss-feeds/.

Which distance education journals, newsletters, blogs, and databases have alerts and feeds?

Which academic journals, blogs, and news sources actually support alerts and feeds? In Table 1, four paper-based distance education journals, and the three commercial library databases (and the specific library products from these companies) that electronically archive them are featured; indication is also given as to the availability of e-mail journal alerts and RSS feeds for each of the journals.

Table 1. Alerts and RSS feeds available for print-based distance education journals in North America.

Print-based Journals (Subscription Only)

Digitized by Database Companies
(company products listed below)

Journal Alerts and
RSS Feeds





Alerts and
RSS Feeds

American Journal of Distance Education

Academic Search Premier





Alerts: Yes

Feed: Yes

Journal of Continuing Higher Education

Research Complete



Alerts: No

Feed: No

Quarterly Review of Distance Education

Academic Search Premier

Academic OneFile


Alerts: Yes

Feed: Yes

Distance Learn Magazine . . . for leaders



Research Library

Alerts: Yes

 Feed: Yes

*Also available through a library’s subscription with the database: informaworld™

The three commercial library databases identified in Table 1 also support search alerts using keywords, e.g., “distance education,” that provide an invaluable source of current research and news to the busy distance learning administrators. EBSCO indexes and abstracts about 3,000 multidisciplinary journals and provides full text for 1,250 of them back to 1990. Over half of the journals are peer-reviewed; the database is updated daily. Individual databases relevant to distance education include Academic Search Premier, ERIC, and the Professional Development Collection. ProQuest’s Research Library is also an aggregation of multidisciplinary journals and newspapers; it indexes and abstracts over 1,800 popular and scholarly periodicals and selected newspapers. Of particular interest in ProQuest is their index of over 2 million digital dissertations and theses with coverage from 1861 to the present. Entries after 1980 have abstracts; over 600,000 are available for immediate download and the others may be purchased. GaleGroup’s Academic OneFile indexes and abstracts daily over 10,000 journals in most disciplines, as well as full-text content of the New York Times from 1995 to the present.

In Table 2 the availability of RSS feeds and e-mail alerts for four online, open-access journals, including this journal, are reported; in Table 3 those sites and blogs that support RSS feeds and alerts are identified.

Table 2. Alerts and RSS feeds available for online distance education journals in North America.

Online Journals


RSS Feeds




Journal of Distance Education (Canada)



Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning


Not available




Table 3. Alerts and RSS feeds available for distance education news and blogs in North America.

News and Blogs


RSS Feeds

Distance-Educator.com Newsletter



Distance-Educator.com Blogs



E-learning and Distance Education Blog



Terry Anderson Blog



It is of some importance to note, that with one exception, the information sources in Tables 1–3 are new to academe: they have only been available for 20 years or less, and most for 10 years or less. Furthermore, none of these journals has recorded a journal “impact factor,” calculated and reported by Thomson Scientific, in Journal Citation Reports which helps authors select journals for manuscript submission and librarians select journals for their collection. It is no wonder that the distance education literature is not as well disseminated and hence, not as accessible—yet another reason to use feeds and alerts.


Alerts and RSS feeds are two helpful tools that busy distance education administrators can use to help them efficiently sort through the research and news information that is now extant. These tools—and those super filters and aggregators that will most certainly emerge to help filter and aggregate the existing filters and aggregators—now make it possible for busy distance education administrators to stay current with the increasing amount of literature and news in their field. (Just as this article was being written the authors learned of two new and still-emerging tools: Yahoo Pipes and RefAware. Yahoo Pipes sorts and filters messages in a blog reader and makes RSS feeds for those Web pages that don’t already have one. RefAware, a Web-based subscription service, allows users to create up to 10 distinct search areas, including terms, authors, and journals with alerts for each area and automatic integration of references into bibliographic management software programs.)

Taking a few minutes to become familiar with the alerts and RSS feeds identified in this article may be a distance learning administrator’s best hope of reducing hours of inefficient searching and digesting—or not doing anything at all about—the ever-increasing information in the field.  It may also be that the answer to an administrator’s next distance education question or dilemma will be delivered to their e-mail box or reader by their next e-mail alert or RSS feed.


Janes, J. (2008). Keeping up: Can we cope with the pace and breadth of innovation? American Libraries, 39(4), 33.

Tahmincioglu, E. (2008). How to dig out from the information avalanche: Majority of workers feel overwhelmed by deluge of data, survey finds. Retrieved 18 April 2008 from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23636252/from/ET/.

Wurman, R. S. (1989). Information Anxiety. New York, NY: Doubleday Books.

Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume XI, Number II, Summer 2008
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
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