Thursday, March 25, 2004

Testing News Search Feeds: Biology at Brown University

Weblogg-ed bounced off my exploration of news search feeds and extended the idea. I think he identified the key issue...too much information, and most of it not focused enough:
"I know that probably would kick out a whole bunch of stuff, but I'd really like to have the chance to tweak the search to see if I could make it specific enough to be manageable. That is the key to all of this, obviously: the ability to make the vast majority of the results relevant. It won't work if over half of it is random blather."
I've had my test feed running for a week now, simulating the news for a student planning to take biology at Brown University. In about a week, it returned 19 related news items. Aside from an alumni wedding announcement, it's pretty focused and fairly interesting (to my invented student), ranging from local science fair news to fossils on mars and an extinct Australian lion, all with decent ties back to biology at Brown University. More relevant than I expected.

But would this "average" student get real value out of the feed? I'm not sure. First of all, I suspect that if students return at all to a planning portfolio, they're only coming back occasionally with large gaps of time in between. That means that they'd have an unmanageable list in a hurry -- maybe 50 stories in a few weeks. They'd have to be pretty motivated to skim and surf that list. I keep reminding myself that not everyone is a voracious information omnivore like many of us in the blogging realm.

More value might be drawn from a regular non-news search, which might capture a few interesting people, but not much news. One benefit of the news feed items is that they expose the student to a broad range of related topics, which is smart for the exploration and planning process. I also found that many of the stories had a career element -- interviews with biologists in the field, for example. I like these connections that help someone take an abstract idea like a career plan and project it out onto the world to see what comes up. It's unrefined, but perhaps a good starting point.

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