All sorts of people connected with The Open University are blogging about their interests, experiences and knowledge they want to share with you. These people include not just academics but also librarians, tutors, techies and project managers all putting information out there and discussing ideas, it's a side of the OU that you might not have thought about, one that isn't immediately visible when you deal with the OU, or even work in the place, but it is quite an interesting side. If you put all of these people together you start to get a sense of what this community is talking about, the discussions within it and what is being considered for the future. Enter PlanetOU, the part of this site that tries to bring these voices together in one place.
PlanetOU is an experimental feed aggregator that currently combines the RSS feeds from thirty-four blogs authored by OU staff. It is meant as a quick way to find out the latest posts from these bloggers and by clicking on the title of a posting you can go to the original. The idea comes sites like Planet Ubuntu, Planet MySQL and Planet Drupal which combine blog postings from their communities. The blogs that contribute to PlanetOU will vary in the amount of content they carry that is related to the OU, these blogs reflect the interests and work of their contributors so will have a wider scope that just university matters. One quick benefit for me was that I wanted to keep up to date with all of these blogs, so I thought rather than using a private feed reader to keep up to date instead I would combine these and make them available here, plus I wanted to experiment with the aggregator anyway in order to learn about it. Up until now all the content has text gathered from RSS feeds, but recenty I've added the widget for the radio player for the OU group on last.fm, some of the bloggers also contribute their listening data to this group so the music might be quite fitting while you read the posts! It is worth mentioning here that if anybody doesn't want their blog to appear on this page then please contact me and it will be removed. It isn't the first attempt at combining feeds from OU bloggers, another example is the 'OU Blogers' tab on the OUseful website by Tony Hirst.
Design wise the aggregator takes a different approach from other sites that pull together RSS feeds such as iGoogle or Netvibes. Instead of putting each feed into its own box, the feeds are all combined into a single list which is arranged by creation time. This is a personal preference on my part, I find that when I'm using RSS feeds to keep me up to date with items from news sites the box approach works well, the sites have little to do with each other. When it comes to dealing with a community surrounding something like an open source project or a university, the style of a site like Planet Ubuntu really appealed, it didn't seem right to represent the various blogs in their own fenced off bit of screen real estate, instead it seems more natural to combine them.
PlanetOU is not an official institutional service in any sense, it isn't run in OU work time or hosted on OU servers, but an interesting question is just how 'official' can an aggregator for blogs associated with an institution be? If institutions decide to provide 'official' aggregated blog services themselves, how they decide who gets included and what will they do if someone says something unflattering? Maybe this won't be too much of a problem in the long run; a blog aggregator might present a different perspective on an institution that more official lines of communication, but I think combining many voices can provide a balanced picture, where an individual opinion is in context. Maybe the idea of 'official' might not take the expected form in this context, a concept of officialdom attached to these sites might not come from the institutions themselves, but instead such blogs may well grow into being the official websites of their authors.
PlanetOU, like the rest of this site is powered by Drupal and uses the built in aggregator module to get the RSS feeds from the various blogs every three hours. The details for these blogs are entered through the set up pages provided. I've also used the built in Path module to provide the nice URLs. As well as the page itself there is also an RSS feed of at http://www.greenhughes.com/planetou/rssfeed. To embed the last.fm player I had to create a new input format called "Raw" which used no filters. I then created a new block with the code provided from last.fm and used the "Raw" input type to make sure the widget gets displayed correctly.
*** UPDATE ***
PlanetOU has moved and is now a FriendFeed room; you can find it at: http://friendfeed.com/planetou