Category Archives: Mobile Learning

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Students at workshop

What do students want from a learning analytics app?

In February we ran a workshop in London with university staff and a couple of students to gather requirements for a student app.  I’m now carrying out sessions directly with students to find out what they would find most useful.  Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the University of Lincoln at the invitation of Marcus Elliott. The students were from a variety of levels and backgrounds, ranging from engineering to drama.

MAB Main Admin Building  (Credit - University of Lincoln)

MAB Main Admin Building (Credit – University of Lincoln)

Most of them had little idea of what learning analytics was about so I introduced the session by describing a few things that were being done in the area – attempting not to influence their thinking too much. Marcus and I had agreed that we were better starting with a blank slate and then looking at whether there was any common ground with the conclusions of the London workshop.

As with the previous event it was a challenge to keep the group focussed on the applications of learning analytics without straying into all the useful things that apps could do for students.  I felt it was better though just to let the ideas flow, and not to impede the creativity in the room.

Students at workshop


The students came up with ideas for functionality, put them on stickies, and discussed them with a partner.  Then they all came together and spontaneously grouped the ideas into four categories: academic, process of learning, social integration and system monitoring / institutional data.

At this stage we didn’t want to look too much at presentational issues however we provided the students with blank smartphone screen templates to scribble on in order to focus them on what the functionality might involve.

student app 5



Inevitably there was a focus on assessment and, as with the London workshop, up to date data on grades was thought to be one of the most useful things a student app could provide.

Is this learning analytics?  I don’t know – but ideas such as showing your ranking in the class and being able to manage processes from this screen such as clicking to arrange a tutorial would certainly be useful.

Other ideas included calendar reminders of assessment due dates and exams.


Student app 2The app could provide a one-stop shop for all of a student’s results.

It could also show what percentage of assessments the student has completed but also what grades they need to obtain in future assignments in order to receive different levels of degree award.







student app 4Better feedback to students from their lecturers was also thought to be something the app could facilitate. This student neatly links personalised feedback to more detailed suggestions on how to improve particular skills e.g. academic writing skills and options for self-development such as links to help sessions which could be placed directly into the student’s calendar.

Giving real-time feedback to lecturers rather than waiting till it’s too late via student surveys was another option. This could help speed up improvements to courses.





student app 6Providing reading list functionality was also popular with the attendees. Here students are presented with metrics showing how much they’re engaging with the reading list on each of their modules.

Reading list functionality could also include reviews, comments and recommendations from other students (perhaps building on the features of goodreads).

They also suggested Amazon-style recommendations for reading e.g. “if you liked x you may like y”.





student app 1

How you spend your time was another application which the students thought could be useful.  This example shows the percentage of time spent by the student on various activities. The data itself could be assembled from timetables, calendars, geo-location and self-declared activity.

Recommendations on how much time should be spent on different activities could be another helpful feature.








student app 7Managing event attendance was another popular option. The student could be contacted about societies and social events, workshops, guest lectures etc – all of which would be based on their interests, which they could also specify via the app. This would cut down on the amount of “spam” messages from the University which they say have led to many students not bothering to read their emails.

You could invite people to events you are organising, or push events to their app – again based on the interests they have specified.

Rating events would also be a useful feature.

If analytics determined that a student was becoming disconnected the app could introduce them to opportunities such as open day volunteering. There was a suggestion that University and Student Union data could be combined to suggest such opportunities based on career aspirations and interests.

Another option is to use the app to check-in to lectures, perhaps automatically using geo-location, and to enter reasons (such as illness) for non-attendance.  There could also be notifications on lecture cancellations.

The app could contribute the events you attend to a portfolio of attended lectures.

Finding other students with similar or complementary interests was a popular suggestion too. This idea came from a postgraduate student who recognised the value of interdisciplinary contact so that you could look for someone to help you in an area you were less familiar with. You could specify what skills you have on offer and what you’re looking for assistance with.


student app 3Though we didn’t ask her to do it, showing how the different functions of the app could be accessed was important to this student in order to understand how everything would fit together.

Another generic suggestion was that the app should keep you logged in all the time.







So all in all some great suggestions from this group of students in Lincoln.  Some of them aren’t what are normally considered learning analytics applications but they all rely on data – some of it new data such as students being able to specify their interests in more detail in order to receive targetted materials and details of events.

There’s a lot of complementarity with what staff thought of in the London workshop.  It’ll be interesting to see now what students at other institutions come up with.



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London - view of the Thames

Gathering requirements for a student app for learning analytics

What data and analytics should be presented directly to students? This was the subject of a workshop on 27th Feb in Jisc’s London offices, attended by staff from across UK higher education.  We also had with us a couple of students with a keen interest in the area.

London - view of the Thames
In advance of the meeting members of Jisc’s Student App Expert Group had anonymously provided a range of potential requirements, which I then grouped and used as the basis for the workshop (they’re included at the bottom of this post for information).

The first area is around information provision to students, and comprises functionality for:

  • Monitoring your academic progress
  • Comparing your progress to others or to your prior performance
  • Monitoring your engagement with learning
  • Providing useful information such as exam times and whether there are free computers available

The second area is concerned with action – the student actively entering information or doing something to enhance their learning. It consists of:

  • Prompts and suggestions
  • Communication facilities with staff and students
  • The upload of personal data
  • Providing consent to what data is used for learning analytics

Various other issues were suggested relating to the interface (e.g. ensuring it is easy to use), ethics (e.g. being aware that the app can only ever give a partial view of student progress), and data (e.g. accepting data from a wide range of sources).

During the day, groups discussed a number of these areas for functionality. For each we defined an idea, a purpose, benefits, drawbacks & risks, and presentational aspects. Some of these ideas are fairly wacky and might not survive further interrogation or prioritisation but here they all are for the record. The next stage is to run the ideas past students themselves to find out what they want to see in an analytics app.

How engaged am I?
The most common application of learning analytics is measuring student engagement. Putting this information in the hands of the learners themselves could help to reassure those who feel they’re on track and prompt those who aren’t engaging. There’s always the risk of course that students will game the system to achieve better engagement ratings without actually improving their learning. However it could also result in them finding the library, attending more lectures, using the VLE more or reading more books.

An idea for presenting this information was to show overall engagement on a scale of 1 to 5. Clicking the indicator would result in a further breakdown for e.g. library usage, lecture attendance and VLE usage. VLE usage might be further broken down if required, showing forum participation perhaps if that was considered important. Data could be shown by module as well as across modules.

Compare my engagement
Learners’ engagement could be compared with that of their peers or even their own past performance. Again this could be potentially motivating and inspire students to change their behaviour. The risks include being demotivating, falsely equating engagement with success, and privacy issues e.g. the identification of individuals on small cohorts from anonymous data.

How am I progressing?
The aim here is to gather and surface academic progress indicators and to identify actionable insights for the student. Timely information would aim to change their behaviour and improve achievement. Having all the information in one place would be beneficial but would there be enough information to enable students to take action? One risk is that this could “kill passion” for the subject and further divert effort into assessed or measured activities. Providing context would also be important – a grade without feedback may not be helpful. It also could be counterproductive for high performing students. Meanwhile raised and unfulfilled expectations could result in worse feedback for institutions on the National Student Survey.

Data could be presented on a sliding scale, showing whether they were likely to pass or fail and allowing them to drill down into more granular detail on their academic performance.

Compare my academic progress
This functionality would allow students to compare where they were in key activities with previous cohorts and with peers. It could aid those who lack confidence and help them to realise that they are doing better than they realised. Of course it could also damage their confidence. Another risk is that the previous cohort might be different from the current intake or the way the course is being taught might have changed.

My assessments
A possibility would be to show analytics on what successful students do and how your actions compare e.g. if students submit assessments just before the deadline are they more likely to fail? This might result in students being better prepared for their assessments.

My career aspirations
The aim here would be to help understand whether the student is on track to achieve their chosen career based on records of previous learners. This might include networking opportunities with students who have already followed a similar path. It might help to increase engagement and with module pathway planning. Students could talk about their skills and better understand how to quantify them.

Meanwhile suggestions such as “you need to know about teamwork” or “identify opportunities for voluntary work” could be provided. The app might also suggest alternative career paths or that a student is on the wrong one e.g. “your maths does not appear to be at the level required for a nuclear physicist”.

Risks include that the app could be overly deterministic, restricting learner autonomy – and that students would need to ensure that their data was up to date.

Plan my career path
A related possibility is showing what educational journey a student needs to take to achieve their intended career, helping them to avoid the wrong choices for them e.g. what does the life of a midwife look like and what was their educational journey to get there?

My competencies
Another idea discussed was to enable students to monitor their competencies and reflect on their skills development, perhaps through some sort of game. This could encourage them to engage better with the materials and with their cohort. Again this wouldn’t of course guarantee success.

My emotional state
Enabling students to give an idea of their emotional state in some way would allow them to gauge how they were compared to their peer group, and to provide better feedback to the institution or to tutors.  This is highly personal information of course and you might want it to be visible to you only, unless it is anonymised.

Why I didn’t attend
The app could allow students to input their reasons for non-attendance e.g. “I didn’t attend this lecture because I had my tonsils out” and “but while recovering in hospital I watched the lecture video and read the lecture notes”. This might enable the adaption of engagement scores so that students felt they reflected the real situation.

We looked at whether the app should include communications facilities around the analytics. This might between students and tutors or perhaps with peer mentors. There was concern that this might be mission creep for the app however integrating communications around the interventions taken on the basis of the analytics might be useful. The app could also provide information about opportunities for communications around student support, with personal tutors, study buddies, peer mentors or clubs.

There would be potential for communications based on the programme rather than just the module, and the functionality might for instance be used to facilitate the take-up for personal tuition. The tools available might depend on the level of the students e.g. encouraging those on a one year taught Masters. One issue raised was that there would be student expectations of a quick response, and this might result in even more email “tyranny” for academics.

Link app to my social media accounts
The idea here is to enable students to link the app to a Twitter, LinkedIn or other social media accounts so that you can send status updates from the student app. This would enable the aggregation of for example of Twitter feeds from all those on the module with Twitter accounts, allowing learners to connect better with others. The institution could use the data for sentiment mining and updates could be fed to the lecturer, even while they’re giving the lecture.

Give my consent for learning analytics
In order ensure the legal and ethical collection and use of student data for learning analytics, a key part of the learning analytics architecture Jisc is commissioning will be a consent system, which is likely to be controlled from the student app. This could be particularly important in some of the more personal applications such as linking to your social media accounts or inputting your emotional state. It will also help users to understand what is being done with their data, feel a sense of control over the process, and help to reduce concerns that data could be misused. It would allow students to control any third party access to their data e.g. by future employers.

My location
Providing geolocation data to the app could have a number of applications such as helping vulnerable students to feel safer, campus mapping and self-monitoring. It could help institutions by enabling the tracking of the use of services. Students might also be prompted to attend campus more or spend more time in the library. This does of course have privacy implications and access to location data would need to be strictly controlled (by the student). It would also generate large quantities of data.

Fun analytics
The aim here would be to motivate and engage, and to get students to use the app, by providing fun or amusing analytics. Options discussed included “calorie burner info” e.g. “you read 2 articles today and used 5 calories”; a campus induction game; weekly challenges based on activity and studies; and a badge system of rewards.

Where next?
A recommendations engine could be presented through the app, providing relevant offers, signposting and information to students. Again this could potentially result in increased engagement, driving students to helpful services. On the downside it could be intrusive, add to information overload, and be used for marketing rather than benefitting learning.
Information could be presented on what’s trending, forthcoming local events, and silly facts e.g. “30% of students who eat here get a 1st class honours!” This could help students to be better informed and prompt them to do something they might not have before.

My students union
Increased engagement with the students union can help learners to feel better connected so the app could also be used to facilitate this by showing events and information – and potentially engage them more in the democratic process.

Car park
We parked a number of ideas during the day to return to perhaps at a later stage, including: assessment regulations, tutor performance, data literacy, the naming of the app, and how we get disengaged students to use it.

Suggested functionality for the app
The following possible functions were suggested by members of the Student App Expert Group in advance of the session and then expanded on in the discussions, as summarised above. This provides a good checklist of what we might wish to consider including:

Monitoring academic progress

  1. Progress. What percentage of the course materials, activities, formative assessments etc. have you done?
  2. Student should be able to see their progress with clear indication whether they are at risk or not
  3. Show students their academic progress, at a granular level: what marks they have for each assignment and how that contributes to their overall progress
  4. Ability to track own academic progress – get marks, compare own marks across modules and years
  5. Monitor student progress (provide overall picture of student performance and alert to potential problems)
  6. Could there be an area showing their student performance?
  7. Real-time, or near real-time updates on progress
  8. At a glance views of progress against criteria (such as assessment), links to personal progression tracking, and ‘useful’ traffic-light style
  9. Overview of essay marks, including marks for research skills, writing skills, originality etc. -> ability to compare to previous essay marks
  10. Access to formative and summative marks, and feedback
  11. Performance data: grades
  12. Performance data against entry profile and previous performance
  13. An integrated view of a student’s study career, from the programme level to the course/module level
  14. What does the rating mean?

Comparing academic progress

  1. Academic “performance” in relation to others on cohort, possibly to previous cohorts and grade predication
  2. Crucially, should be able to compare their data both to themselves over weeks/months/years of study, but also to the ‘average’ behaviour of the cohort with whom they study.
  3. Answering the question: “Am I in line with my cohort, both now and preferably historically too?”
  4. Comparison. How is your progress compared to others – in the class, best in class, last year’s class etc?
  5. Leaderboards? Actually I hate them but my research shows that for some classes of student they do encourage engagement.
  6. Benchmarking the student academic performance with peers
  7. Ability to compare essay marks to average marks of cohort
  8. Where would 1st class degree attainment be on the line – and 2nd class, 3rd class and so on?

Monitoring engagement

  1. Look at interactions/activity they have taken part in on VLE and/or other systems, number of journals accessed online/in the library
  2. Activity data on attendance, VLE usage and library…and if there are appropriate comparators then that

Useful information

  1. A ‘calendar plus’ function that tells you not just what your lectures are for the day, but what other activities there are around campus – sports classes, clubs, if certain lecturers have office hours, if there are free computers in the computer lab, etc. Needs to both respond to where you are on campus, as well as make suggestions based on how much time you have to spare as well as where you are at the moment. For example, ‘You have an hour until your next lecture – why not boost your ‘library score’ and visit there for a little while, or go talk to Professor Blogs since she has office hours’.
  2. Have information on the university’s important events and useful revision techniques
  3. Easy and better access to learning resources

Prompts and suggestions

  1. Student should know what to do next
  2. Provide a visual representation of the chosen metric at a granular enough level that student activity can clearly precipitate change
  3. Potential outcomes and necessary effort – predict 2:2 do this well here and here and get a 2:2
  4. Recommendations of training courses and resources based on essay marks
  5. Prompts to regular self-assessment of research skills, writing skills, presentation skills etc. -> allow students to take responsibility for learning/progress
  6. Provide students with a ‘to do’ list, showing what they have to do and by when. The difficulty here is making it all inclusive
  7. Right now immediately after reading this text, what do you expect students to actually do
  8. Give students access to people who can help them and identify the specific kinds of help that can be provided
  9. Tips to improve performance, what to do next
  10. Gives information on how to improve not just/only status
  11. Diagnostics. The system should be able to see where I’m not doing well and point me to support materials. E.g you don’t seem to be doing well at this bit if the syllabus – or you don’t seem to be doing well at more analytic questions…
  12. A recommendations aspect based on past use (and how others behave) – based on this module/this paper/this time of studying, we recommend that you consider this topic/this other article/this prime study time
  13. Have information on ways they could improve their student engagement


  1. A ‘question’ function to send concerns to the academic personal tutor or other intermediary
  2. Identify effective communication strategies
  3. Facilitating interactive and better Communications with academic and admin staff
  4. Ability to communicate between staff-student, student-student

Upload of personal data

  1. Ability to load personally captured data to provide context and information
  2. Allow students set their own notifications – which may be alerts, reminders, or motivating messages – triggered by circumstances of their choosing. (Making good decisions about this would need facilitation, but would help towards metacognitive awareness and understanding of the data and the software themselves).


  1. A way of opting in or out of sharing the data, or aspects of the data, with staff
  2. Granular control of who sees what – controlled by the student

Other issues

  1. The student app should be easy to use
  2. Easy access to visual information
  3. Provide a visual representation of the chosen metric at a granular enough level that student activity can clearly precipitate change
  4. Whatever the outcome is for the learning analytics app, I’d try and keep the core interface simple. I’d personally prefer one graphic ultimately, but I’m sure there are arguments for a range of options
  5. cross platform -brandable (the students may know their institutional brand but perhaps won’t respond to something plastered in jisc branding)
  6. Access to the underlying data, but also good conceptually-straightforward visualisation of that data.
  7. Analytics visualisations that will prove compelling for students to visit the app.
  8. Cross platform /device so all can access


  1. Transparency about the gaps – the app should avoid over-determining – or giving the impression of over-determining – students’ progress and achievement based on data, which is inevitably an incomplete representation of learning but which may carry more weight than the ineffable or unrecorded moments of learning.

Data sources

  1. Accept data from a range of simple or aggregated end-points – I appreciate it is likely to accept a feed from the Jisc basic LA tool, but it would be useful if we could provide a feed from the basic data we have in Blackboard ASR

Impact on teaching

  1. Identify effective teaching and assessment practices

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Making ebooks more interactive: logistics and ethics

Category : Mobile Learning


Ebook reader image (c) Andrew Mason licensed under Creative Commons

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with Phil Butcher, the Open University’s e-assessment guru.  He wanted to talk about whether we should invest in embedding our wide range of interactive question types in ebooks.

Since the 1970s Open University course teams have attempted to get students to think more deeply about the content they are reading by embedding questions within the course texts.  Accessing such questions on digital devices has some clear advantages over paper: many different question types are available and you can receive instant feedback, tailored to your response.

This is of course quite possible with web-based learning.  We have OpenMark questions embedded at various points in some of our texts and are considering whether we should adapt Moodle to be able to present single questions within texts in the same way.

But what do we do about ebooks?  Almost all of our content is now available in ebook format on a range of platforms.  If the interactive questions work in print and are even better presented online then shouldn’t we be incorporating them in the ebooks too?

To do this at scale we would have to have an automated process to export the items (questions together with possible responses etc) from Moodle into the ebooks.  Ebooks can render interactive questions using HTML5 but there is a variety of ebook formats, differing hardware and software platforms and a range of ebook reader apps.  The software for this export process would require continual tricky and expensive maintenance to stay on top of all the various formats and there would inevitably be features which worked on one platform and not another.  Another option would be to build our own ebook reader software to be able to optimise the user experience but that too would be complex, costly, have to work on multiple platforms and require ongoing maintenance.

There’s something about the paradigm of a book as a way of presenting digital content in the confusing world of the Internet which gives it appeal (I expanded on this in Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?): in particular you can download an ebook as a complete self-contained package, access it offline and feel a sense of ownership over it in a way which you can’t with the content on websites.  You can also quickly grasp how many pages it is, navigate easily and know where you are in it.  And of course the ability to alter the font size of an ebook and have it repaginate automatically, to hold it in your hands, and to not have your experience cluttered with the many icons and menus of a PC-based interface all add to its usability.

One of the advantages of ebooks may however be problematic for educational institutions: offline reading.  That means no opportunity to see how students are using any interactive questions.  A valuable source of data for learning analytics to monitor uptake and performance is never gathered – and opportunities for enhancing problematic questions and the associated learning content are lost.  Meanwhile the learner potentially loses out too: there is no chance for institutions to target interventions at students who might be at risk of dropping out or might benefit from being able to compare their performance with other students.

A way around this would be to incorporate recording of user activity into ebook reader software and send it to a server every time the user goes online.  And if we’re recording information about the use of interactive questions why not record data such as how often often the book is being read, dwell time on pages or number of times pages are re-read.  Again that might tell us something about how effective our learning content is or what difficult concepts need to be explained better in future iterations, ultimately benefiting students.  This approach is already being taken by CourseSmart, a company which rents out textbooks and enables usage monitoring through their ebook reader software.

But what are the ethics of this?  While arguably most people are accepting, if not entirely comfortable, that anything they do online is potentially being monitored by those hosting the website this may not be true for ebooks.  Is there something fundamentally different about an ebook where we feel we own it, as we would a physical copy, and would resist the idea that we are being snooped on – even if the snooping was aimed at enhancing our learning?

Universities should be entirely transparent about what they do with any data gathered while students are accessing their systems and content.  It is quite easy to argue that most educational institutions will monitor usage primarily for the purpose of enhancing the educational experience for individuals and for future students.  This is in contrast to commercial entities and social networking sites which monitor usage in order to target marketing at you more effectively or to sell information about you to others.

But what if monitoring ebook usage has a negative effect on the learning experience?  If I’m spending a quiet evening at home reading an ebook and I know that every page turn, click or interaction is being monitored will that make me anxious and somehow less able to learn?   Assuming that we could build this monitoring facility into ebooks, or buy it from someone else, the best way forward from an ethical and pedagogical perspective may be to allow users to decide whether data about them can be collected and sent back to the institution or not.  Research is needed into what learners want out of their ebooks and whether they’re prepared to have data collected about their use of the interactive questions that are designed to promote deeper and more reflective learning.

Ebook reader image (c) Andrew Mason licensed under Creative Commons

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OU ebook

Are ebooks better than virtual learning environments?

Category : Content , iPad , Mobile Learning

OU ebookOk I’m not exactly comparing like with like here but I am very interested in the potential of ebooks as an alternative way of structuring learning experiences – particularly where there is a large amount of reading involved.

With the growing penetration of tablet devices (ownership in the US doubled to 19% over last Christmas) ebooks now have enormous potential for providing learning opportunities. And with nearly a third of UK citizens already owning a smartphone, many of them may be prepared to study extensively from ebooks on smaller screens. Due to my deteriorating eyesight I’m not one of them; tablets are clearly more comfortable devices for extended periods of study so this post relates mainly to tablets.

While the information delivered through an ebook may be identical to that provided on a website, there are several attributes of ebooks which may make them more appealing to learners than accessing content in a VLE:

Learners can own an ebook – they can’t own their institution’s VLE
An ebook is a digital version of a familiar physical product that people have grown up with. Physical books cost money and the transition to paying for a digital copy may not be too painful but people don’t like to pay for access to websites, showing that they value ebooks more. This sense of ownership may encourage learners to engage more with the content of an ebook than a website.

Ebooks can be viewed offline
Once you’ve taken possession of your ebook onto your device you’re free to view it whenever you like which is particularly useful when travelling or away from internet access.

Ebooks are self-contained
The web is a confusing place with an overwhelming number of sites and pages. It’s easy to get distracted when using the web by hyperlinks and other applications.

Ebook readers on tablets take up the whole screen
A web browser has all sorts of tool bars, menus and icons which may distract the reader and provide a less immersive experience than reading an ebook on a tablet.

You know how much you’ve read and how much there is to go
By default an ebook clearly signposts how far through its content you are. Websites may not make this clear – and indeed can’t normally do this as precisely as ebooks due to the variable page lengths of the web.

Automatic pagination makes reading easier
Due to the variety of devices, browsers and configurations, the designer of a web page cannot produce content that will consistently fill the entire screen. Users have a more complex navigational process which may involve vertical scrolling as well as page turning. One of the key features of ebook reader software is the automatic repagination to suit the platform and user preferences such as font size.

Page turning is physically easier with an ebook on a tablet
The touch screen of a tablet or smartphone allows the user to move forwards and backwards between pages with a touch or swipe – a simpler and faster process than turning the page of a physical book and also much easier than using a mouse to navigate to and click on a particular part of a web page.

Far be it from me to suggest that the VLE is dead but given all the affordances of ebooks accessed on tablets it looks like much of the learning activity currently taking place in VLEs is heading to the ebook instead.

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ibook example

First impressions of iBooks 2

Category : iPad , Mobile Learning

I’ve finally managed to install iBooks 2 and the example book “Life on Earth”. This was a frustrating process that took two and a half hours of upgrades and downloads, requiring the right versions of iOS and iTunes with various reboots of both the PC and the iPad. Arguably I should have upgraded to iOS5 long ago but I didn’t when it was released because of allegations that it wasn’t robust.

On the first attempt to “read” the Life on Earth iBook the app hung and I had to reboot the iPad – again. On the second attempt it crashed during one of the interactives requiring me to start at the beginning.

When it worked it was an enjoyable experience with beautiful images, useful videos and informative interactives – and you can envisage the transformational effects this kind of experience will have for millions of learners in the very near future. There’s nothing that isn’t already done through applications on PCs or via web browsers but a few things make it inherently better on a tablet: portability, use of the touch screen for interaction and page turning, the book metaphor itself rather than the browser metaphor which frequently requires vertical scrolling, the feeling of immersiveness you get because it’s not within a browser window, and no need for internet connectivity once it’s downloaded.

My inclination was however to “play”, looking for the next fun thing to do rather than to read the text. Presumably many learners, particularly those who’ve grown up without reading much, would act in the same way.

To be really useful in education on a massive scale a few things need to be sorted out with iBooks 2:

1. The bugs need to be fixed so the app actually works – or the entire slickness of the user experience is wrecked. It’s surprising that Apple released an app with such fanfare which falls over so easily (at least on my iPad).
2. Players need to be developed for web browsers, android tablets etc.
3. Authoring tools need to be developed for other platforms too so you’re not forced to buy a Mac.
4. You must be able to get hold of the books without going through the iTunes Store.
5. The iBooks 2 format needs to be as open as ePub. Fellow tweeters assure me that it is based on HTML5 and JavaScript but I’d be very surprised if these books work seamlessly as they don’t even work properly on Apple’s own app.

Given the incredible commercial success of tying in the iPad so closely to the iTunes store numbers 2 to 5 aren’t going to happen any time soon which leads me to think that an enhanced ePub-type competitor format which runs on and can be developed on all platforms, and distributed freely, is necessary.

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Mock-up of new mobile interface for OU course websites

Can technology significantly impact learning before it has been commoditised?

I’ve just had some interesting conversations at an event for new OU module chairs at Cranfield University after presenting on some of the possibilities of elearning for our students.

One academic wondered how he could be expected to design courses for smartphones and tablets when the University was not prepared to buy him these devices – and wouldn’t even upgrade his operating system to Windows 2010 from Windows 2003. Well he clearly had an axe to grind on the latter issue, justifiably perhaps, but he may be missing the point: the tools are primarily server side and all he needs to access them both for authoring and consuming is a web browser. Also if he develops content using our XML-based structured content system the module websites that he creates should automatically look good on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop – without him having to do anything different for each platform.

Mock-up of new mobile interface for OU course websites

Mock-up of new mobile interface for OU course websites

Some of these devices do of course have clear affordances which may facilitate learning experiences only possible on that device – and necessitate alternative designs for different platforms. Thus writing an essay on a smartphone doesn’t make a lot of sense but learning applications involving geo-spatial awareness may well do. Similarly the touch-screen interface of an iPad makes it much easier to manipulate images than using a mouse with your desktop PC. So a visual learning activity designed for a tablet might not work on a desktop.

There is a very good argument that this lecturer will never be able to see the pedagogic potential of these devices unless he not only gets them to play about with but takes personal ownership of them and uses them in his daily life.

However another argument that occurred to me this week is that we only ever see significant adoption of technologies for teaching and learning when these are already commoditised. Thus while early adopters pioneered the use of the web browser for teaching in the mid ‘90s it was only a few years later when most people were googling for information and shopping online that the web really began to take off in education.

Similarly we’re now getting 10% of our students accessing our online systems from mobile devices on a regular basis. The number is growing rapidly but probably more because smartphones are taking off in society than because we’re providing useful podcasts and websites optimised for small screens.

I’ve seen a big change in attitudes over the past few years. As the internet encroaches on many aspects of life, and people become ever more used to googling, social networking etc, there are few people who don’t recognise that there must be at least some benefits of studying online. No longer do people say “Why is the OU moving online?” though there are reasonable objections of course to studying online exclusively. The innovators and early adopters need to keep pushing the limits but should we accept that most of our innovations will have minimal impact on learners until similar devices and applications are mainstreamed in society?

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Google sidewiki

Annotation – the missing element in iPad-based learning

I’ve been getting a bit obsessed recently about the importance of annotation functionality, as a number of my long-suffering colleagues will testify.  Here’s my logic:

  1. iPads and other ebook readers will increasingly replace paper
  2. Some learners, particularly children, will make the transition away from paper now very quickly and be happy to study considerable amounts of textual content from iPads (and a whole range of even better devices under development)
  3. When reading educational content most learners will want to take notes in order to help them concentrate, reflect, and for future revision
  4. The success of social networking, social bookmarking etc suggests that many learners may wish to share their annotations and view the annotations of others

Trying out various systems and in conversations with people here including Anna de Liddo, Louise Olney, Jason Platts and Colin Chambers, I’ve been clarifying my thoughts on the features an ideal annotation system for learning in a social context should comprise:

While I’ve been talking primarily about an iPad app so far, working offline, the system would ideally work with content viewed on any web browser as well.  Google sidewiki is an example of a basic system which allows you to annotate any web page.  Cohere is a much more sophisticated system which also allows you to build up concept maps collaboratively.

An issue with both systems is that they require adaptations to the web browser – a plug-in for Firefox or IE for example.  We could potentially build similar functionality into Moodle so that it works on any browser – but then you’d only be able to annotate content presented in Moodle.  I like the idea of the system sitting outside the LMS/VLE so that you can annotate anything found on the web.

Google sidewiki

Making an annotation
While viewing content in a web page or ebook you can select some text you wish to annotate.  That text is then placed into an area at the side of the document or superimposed on it temporarily.  You can edit the text and add comments and tags.

Sharing annotations
You can opt to keep the annotation private or to share it with various groups (this is where the annotation system could link to the LMS/VLE for greater usefulness) e.g. tutor group, course, the University, the world or a user-defined group.

Viewing annotations
A web page shows all the annotations you have made, organisable by document name, date of annotation, tags etc.  When browsing documents you’ve annotated the relevant text is highlighted, and you can see the annotation if you want to.  In addition you can see the annotations of people in the groups you belong to or your friends.

Friends, rating and reputation
As with Facebook, Twitter etc you can choose to follow people whose annotations you like.  You’re prompted in some way when they’ve made a new annotation.  You can choose to rate their annotations and this leads to reputations for some people as great annotators.  That may prove motivational for some people and also allow others to identify the best annotators.

Social bookmarking
As well as annotating text you can annotate an entire document or webpage, tag it and share it in the same way as other annotations.  This amounts to the same kind of thing as a social bookmarking system.

Good annotation software should help many learners to study online or offline in the future using a computer or iPad-type device. We have a project at the Open University aiming to develop such functionality over the next year and are currently looking at whether Cohere can be adapted.  I’d love to hear any ideas for further functionality.

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Paperless chairing

Category : iPad , Mobile Learning

This post is nothing to do with elearning but I thought I’d log my experience today of chairing my first meeting using just an iPad.

For years I’ve taken a laptop along to meetings and increasingly I’m not the only person to do so.  This has the advantage of having everything accessible, together with access to the Internet and other relevant documents which may help with the business of the meeting.

For committee meetings you’re often forced to read and bring with you a collection of papers, easily amounting to fifty pages or more.  For most people, having these on paper makes it easier to read them and write comments on them than working from a laptop or desktop computer.  The more senior people tend to come to meetings with wonderfully neat files of papers prepared by their secretaries in advance.  I’m sure many have rigorous paper filing systems for these documents but for me the whole lot simply ends up in the recycling bin.  I’ve always been uneasy about the cost and the environmental impact of this.  If I need subsequent access to the documents I have them digitally anyway.

Suddenly the iPad arrives and turns out to provide a reading experience arguably as good as paper so the main reason to print out meeting papers vanishes.  I’d been planning to attend meetings with the papers on my iPad but having to chair one today certainly concentrated the mind and made me think through some of the issues.

How to get the documents onto your iPad
The first challenge was to transfer the meeting papers to the iPad. I created a folder in the Dropbox application on my computer where I placed all the papers for the meeting.  This is then accessible over the University’s wifi network on my iPad.  I’ve also installed this application on my secretary’s computer so she can set up relevant meeting notes in the future.

Folder structure
I’ve settled on the following folder structure:  Groups:Name of Group:Date of Meeting e.g. Groups:LISG:2010-09-07.  This means I can instantly find any group alphabetically and any meeting chronologically.

File naming
It’s vital to have files listed in the order in which you’re going to encounter them in the agenda.  The files I had for the meeting, while named logically, did not appear in the right order when listed alphabetically.  This was partly due to the inconsistent use of spaces, underscores and hyphens between words.  I thus renamed them with unique names incorporating the group and the date.  During the meeting however I realised that the names were so long I couldn’t read them properly.  As the files are stored within a unique folder structure I’ve decided that calling them by simple names will suffice e.g. 00-Agenda.doc, 01-Performance-Report.doc etc.

Note taking
This is one thing I didn’t manage.  Dropbox doesn’t allow documents to be annotated so I need to find something which does – and which makes it easy.

Handling multiple documents
The lack of multitasking (or windows) on the iPad didn’t prove too much of a problem.  I was able to move back and forth between the agenda and other items easily from the pull-down menu.  There was a slight delay as each document was opened and there is no doubt it’s less convenient than being able to take a quick glance at the agenda on a bit of paper in front of you while you’re scanning through another document.

I displayed all the documents in portrait mode and found it easier to read from the screen with it tilted at an angle towards me than with it simply lying flat on the table.  The standard iPad case allows you only to tilt it towards you in landscape mode.  I found an upturned coffee cup tilted it at the perfect angle, though my administrator just about jumped out of her skin when the cup shifted at one point and clattered onto the saucer.

Overall the experiment was a success and I’m aiming to try to do this for future meetings I’m both chairing and attending.  Bye bye paper.

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Laptop, Smartphone and iPad – do learners need all three?

Category : iPad , Mobile Learning

People have been blogging about the ipad and its potential for education ever since the thing was announced.  I got my hands on one last night and here are my first impressions.

I have a laptop and I have an iPhone.  I’ve not had a desktop computer for many years – nor do most students.  For me, the laptop is a workhorse used heavily for email, calendaring, note taking, browsing websites, and reading and creating documents.   The iPhone is primarily for social and leisure purposes, used for texting, phone calls, weather forecasts, maps (with the GPS) and listening to music.  There’s crossover in my usage of the two devices of course – I’ll often check my email or calendar on the iPhone, and I use Twitter and Facebook on both, depending on which machine I’m using at the time.  So is there space in my life for another device which is basically just a giant version of the iPhone (but without being able to use it as a phone)?

The iPad is a lot more portable than my laptop which already looks like a dinosaur in comparison.  There are probably many occasions when I would consider taking the iPad but would think twice about carting my laptop along.  It is less portable though than the iPhone which is always in my pocket.  As a learner on a university campus or a whole range of other situations I’d be happy to carry around an iPad all day – it weighs less than a textbook and is much thinner.

The iPad gets the thumbs up on portability, but how usable is it for note taking or writing essays?  I’ve become adept at typing with one finger on the pop-up keyboard of the iPhone.  I also touch type on my laptop.  I’ve found touch typing on the iPad’s pop-up keyboard difficult but I might perhaps get used to it.  With the keyboard dock, however, the thing is transformed into a mini laptop which I could imagine using for writing lengthy reports as well as emails.  Typing is therefore much faster than with an iPhone and the same as with a laptop.  If you use a couple of fingers to type, the keyboard dock, which seems to weigh as much as the iPad itself, may not help you much.

The quality of the images and videos is superb, though you’d find it difficult to use outdoors on a sunny day (as you would with all three devices).  It’s a better tool for face to face discussions than a laptop because the thing can be placed flat on a table and you could have more than one person touching the screen.  I might also feel more comfortable using this in meetings as flipping the screen of a laptop up puts a barrier between you and everyone else (who may suspect you are checking your email rather than fully participating in the meeting).

The touch screen of course is one of the killer design aspects of the device – as it is for the iPhone.  It’s faster, more intuitive and simply more pleasurable to touch icons and move things with your finger than it is to use a keyboard, mouse or touchpad to navigate around a screen.  The downside is the constant smears left from greasy fingers which need to be wiped off on a regular basis.

There are good reasons why an iPad doesn’t have a USB port but it would be so nice to be able to plug it into a laptop or hard drive and simply drag music files, photos and other documents between devices.  Instead you have this ridiculous situation of having to use a third party application such as Dropbox to transfer files onto your iPad which doesn’t even have a file system you can access properly.  Plus of course you can’t actually junk your laptop because the iPad is designed to be synched on a regular basis with another computer.

The iPad connects beautifully to wifi at work but I have become so used to near ubiquitous internet access on my iPhone (via the phone networks) that not having similar network access on the iPad would make it seem crippled in comparison.

One reason I’m not yet ready to junk my laptop running Windows is the lack of applications I’ve become dependent on.  I take notes with OneNote and can do things like selecting a sentence and turning it instantly into an item in my MS Office todo list.  The standard Notes app on the iPad is totally basic in comparison.  Of course there are thousands of apps for the iPad under development and many already available but the sophistication of standard Mac and PC apps is not yet there.  I’m sure that’s only a question of time.

A colleague last week showed me a fantastic application where you point the iPad at a particular section of the sky and it shows you what the stars and constellations are in that spot.  The educational potential of this device which combines raw computing power, great graphics, adequate screen size, portability, touch screen, internet access and GPS is extraordinary.

The killer educational app I think for this device and our students will be for reading texts.  While I attempted to convince myself that I could read a book on my iPhone, it wasn’t exactly pleasurable and I never finished it.  However I think we might have finally got somewhere with this device and that people will be prepared to read large amounts of text from its screen in a way many have not been prepared to on laptops or desktop machines.  The printer is therefore set to become increasingly unnecessary and this confirms my view that the rows of books on my shelves will soon be as moribund as my LP collection.

I’ve downloaded some classic books for free and I think these are probably as easy to read as on paper and certainly a lot easier to get hold of.  I also downloaded the Financial Times app which makes the paper very readable and incorporates video clips.  The broadsheet and tabloid newspaper on paper is surely not long for this world.

Add hyperlinking,  annotation facilities which allow you to store and share your comments on the texts, interactive quizzes, the environmental benefits etc and it becomes ever harder to justify printing and sending out reams of paper to our students.  There are of course a few downsides not to lose sight of such as the necessity for a network connection and dependence on an electricity supply to keep the battery topped up.

I feel I could “love” the iPad in the way that I do my iPhone but have never before felt about any other electronic device.  It’s a thing of beauty.  It is also appallingly proprietary and locked down and will force me to go to the iTunes store continuously, making me part from time to time with relatively small amounts of cash.  The device is designed to work as an adjunct to my computer so I can’t yet get rid of that and I’m certainly not dumping my iPhone because it’s even more portable (and has a phone).  Steve Jobs is a genius because in less than 24 hours he seems to have created a need in me for a third electronic device, which I didn’t need before.  Millions of learners are going to find they enjoy the experience of learning on the iPad more than they do from their laptops or smartphones.  I hope others are going to give Apple some serious competition here but that doesn’t look likely in the short term.

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Me devolved

Educational apps or mobile-optimised websites?

Category : Mobile Learning

Me devolvedThe OU is working on a number of iPhone applications as well as optimising some of its websites for mobile delivery.  One example of an iPhone app is Devolve Me where you can see how you might have looked back in the mists of time.  Strangely, I end up looking pretty much as I do already.  Devolve Me is just a bit of fun but it does demonstrate the difference in the graphical and interactive potential of an educational app compared to a website.

I’ve been wondering for a while whether we are better off going down the route of ensuring our websites are optimised for mobile delivery or developing bespoke applications for the iPhone, Android platform etc. My thoughts have been further stimulated by recent conversations with Mike Innes and Shailey Minocha at the Open University.

ReadWriteWeb refers to a recent report by Taptu on the state of what it calls the Mobile Touch Web. Taptu believes there are already more than double the number of websites which are optimised for mobile delivery with icon-based navigation than there are iPhone apps. Taptu also predicts that the number of such sites is set to grow much more quickly than the number of iPhone apps.  That’s pretty obvious really as it’ll become the norm for websites to be optimised for mobile as well as larger screen delivery.

So should we use up valuable development resource in building educational apps for our students as the University of Saskatchewan has done or should we go down the web browser route like Oxford University? Here are some thoughts on both routes:

Advantages of educational apps

  • Clever and pleasing forms of navigation are possible
  • The entire screen can be used
  • Content can be stored for offline access more easily
  • Functionality such as GPS can be tapped into more easily
  • The app is self-contained and perhaps more visible once you’ve got it – it may be more likely to take precedence on your phone’s “desktop”
  • There may be marketing benefits for the institution or a stronger feeling of ownership by the user – it feels like you’ve got a product

Advantages of educational mobile-optimised sites

  • Should be cheaper to develop – if done properly should work on all platforms rather than having to be recreated for each one
  • No need to waste time downloading apps – which would also be a barrier to access for some users
  • HTML5 makes various things possible which previously could only be done in an app eg offline storage, animations
  • Content and the site itself may be more easily indexed by search engines and therefore found by users

Highly interactive games-type applications may continue to require bespoke mobile apps but for most educational software I can’t help thinking the mobile-optimised website route will be the one to head down as browsers allow increasingly sophisticated forms of interaction.