Mobile Connections: OU mobile learners

An IET Technology Coffee Morning by Rhodri Thomas, on Mobile Connections: joining up OU provision for mobile learners. Rhodri’s slides are available as a Google doc presentation. (The main demos are being recorded.)

Some history, some progress reports, and some live demos.

Mobile Connections website is the best place for information and updates on what’s happening.

QR code for the Mobile Connections site

30 Days of gratitude- Day 8

For the last 5 years, Rhodri has been coordinating teaching and learning at OU, careful to say we support mobile learners. They’re not the mediated activities you can do face-to-face, with the location-based/classroom stuff that many examples use. We need to apply that to the distance learning context for the OU. More an entitlement for students, than providing mobile learning opportunities. Providing a platform.

The Past: History

Student mobile device usage has shot up over time.

Previous projects, from about 10y ago – IET’s H802, the DEEP project. Ideas about working with documents on small screens.

History: colour screens arrived. Then not just for PIM (contacts, diary), more multimedia capable. Then move to not just standalone, but converge with cameras. Move to create own content on the move, not just consuming content. Connectivity then became a major blockage.

Moving in to work with our own students new at this point (about 2006 or so) – handcrafted ebooks for Palm, packaged elearning resources. Individual loading on to devices. Podcasting was an early activity, which has built up. More staff development, Digilab, more time was spent showing staff what was going on in the wider world – e.g. citizen journalism, citizen science.

Then delivery through the VLE – podcasting. Then making our elearning material more mobile-friendly, or mobile-optimised.

Around 2008, was a switch. Student home let you switch in to mobile view, then became autodetect (with option to change if you wanted). There are students who still want desktop view even on a mobile device. In one month are now getting traffic we got in a quarter last year. Numbers aren’t as high as on the VLE, but still increasing dramatically.

Also tracking what technolgoy they’re using. For October 2011, our web stats for mobile access show iOS is the main use (14k pcm), then Android (7.5k), then BlackBerry (3k), Symbian (1k) then very low (Windows Mobile 100!). Windows 277k, Mac 23k, Mobile 28k, Linux 4k, Tablet 9k.

Conversion rates are about 50% – of those who go to Student Home and then go through to the VLE.

Student survey in 2009 to ask them what they are doing and want to do – after period of getting VLE up and running effectively. Not just dumping PDFs on the website, move to structured content.

Main was keeping up with assessment results, and keeping up with forums. Second, was with tracking tasks – the tick boxes for you to track your own progress, matching mobile and desktop views. Third was using the study planner. Using the actual resources was wanted.

The Present: VLE

Then about 1.5y ago, new mobile view of the VLE, tested. Launchpad view. Wanted students to be able to contribute as well as browsing/reading. Can see a demo view here – stick the course code (including presentation – e.g. TU100-11J) and get a url that shows the demo. May need to add ‘&mobile=1’ to end of url.

Design idea to keep structure similar between desktop and mobile. Some won’t work – e.g. Elluminate synchronous chat. Lots more information in the blog here.

Next stage – new version to last, future-proofed work with L&T systems.

Survey of students again in 2010, N=500. How did they use it? Not just commuting, but on the sofa, multitasking, etc. Mobile phone contracts mostly; touch phones going up, smart phone (keyboards) going down. Device changing slowing down to more like 2y than 18 months, probably contract-driven. Tablet agnostic at the time, but things may have changed. Main driver: assessment! Reported more frequent visits. Most activity was updates and forum posts, getting to the study planner. Some students very concerned not to be railroaded in to a particular view – flexibility very important (so they can switch to full view). Our strategy to be context-aware, but allow them to break out if they want to. Anecdotally, reports with tablets is that they see a desktop style view, so expect same facilities – so Flash often won’t work, complex web technologies won’t work; and some parts work but the submission/completion stage doesn’t! Students didn’t want to be locked in, but use of standard formats so they can use their own stuff.

Students much happier to use an OU app to contribute than using an intermediary like Flickr or Picasa. Even more so for assessment.

Still in unpublicised beta. Early adopters happy with a bit of self-help and FAQ support. Our strategy – we’ll give general advice, but device-specific stuff is unsupportable by the OU’s normal model, so enable peer support through specialist forums.

The Future: VLE2

It’s mobile optimised. Mobile-friendly is we hope it just works. Optimised means taking the feedback, highlighting stuff used a lot.

Desktop and mobile views developed together, navigation informed by each other. Mockups, usability testing. Went live in October 2011!

Desktop – three columns. Can see mobile interface. First course on new VLE is D171.

Mobile – single column. Launchpad. Tab view on higher-end devices: Overview, Planner, Forum, Resources.

Wanted to allow edit of wiki on a mobile device. But had to show plain text version when editing, which is all the HTML code – which makes it far too easy to wreck the whole wiki.  So have to provide read-only view; can only edit from desktop. If you switch to desktop view and edit, it’ll try to do something, but the WYSIWYG editor won’t work and it’ll give you the plain text view. It works Ok if the document isn’t too complex and you are Ok with tags.

Can contribute in forums, and blog comments. More to come in future releases.

Screencast from Rhodri that goes through all the features here. And lots more on the blog.

Demo of an iCMA/Moodle Quiz on an Android phone (emulator). It’ll try to be as faithful as possible. Navigation through questions. Text-based response can be submitted easily. Simple text response is fine. Graphics or multimedia work if it can be shown. Radiobuttons or check boxes work fine. If quesiton type not supported, get a prompt ‘This question is not supported in mobile view’. Fine for formative. But best redirect to desktop if summative and/or time-limited.  Anything involving e.g. OpenMark, or more complex in terms of text analysis, or drag-and-drop – doesn’t work. Yet!

Principles of mobile support

Not just informal word-of-mouth stuff. Online Computing Guide for general how-to stuff on desktop view. Have LTS Helpdesk, Student Services, Tutors, Faculties, all playing a part. Students probably don’t care who the info comes from, just want pragmatic answer at point of need. Even more crucial in mobile.

Transaction cost idea – moving from on site to another, not just the data cost, but greater risk of getting lost in the information architecture. We have up to 7 different sites for advice. Terrible on mobile, so working to a single mobile support structure.

Four key areas – PC4Study (will be replaced soon) – official generic OU guidance. How-to info in Online Computing Guide. Then Self-Help/FAQs through Help system. Finally, for device-specific, peer support through VLE forum. Stitch them together to be navigable. Still work in progress here, some practical issues outstanding.

As soon as we launch officially, we will have the expectation of support.


Coordinate it from learner perspective, and institutional. Mobile Connections site is bringing things together – ORO, Cloudworks, OU blogs, eLearning Community, M Tech SIGs, etc. Issue when things break (e.g. Delicious!).

What is our strategy for mobile?

We have principles, convergence but not single strategy statement yet – mobile friendly, to mobile optimised. VLE is optimised. As is Library website, was at previous IET Tech Coffee Morning. Plan to move from single mobile view, to multiple optimisations for three devices – basic phones (low end), smart phones (middle end), touch phones (high end). Mobile service, rather than teaching & learning. Based on Mobile Oxford approach.

Structure is a Drupal site with OUICE styling to deliver in mobile views, should work from end of the month. Autodetection with breakout to desktop view if you want.

Have standard OU header and footer for mobile. OU sign-in has been optimised too. And OUICE has been improved too. Enables OU public sites to be more mobile-friendly. Takes two-panel view, moves navigation to bottom of content. If you shrink window to a certain size (or only have a certain size), it flips to a mobile view.

Mobile apps and third parties

Most of our stuff is the mobile web, is good enough in UK and rest of Europe. Web apps to bridge new things – pull down content in to an app. OU news, study at the OU. Working with Google on Google Docs, Picasa, YouTube. Likely to adopt in 2012, using their stuff for mobile. Have edit capability too, in the pipeline.

Moodle. (And other VLE/CMSs.) They provide a website interface, with an app that connects to the interface. Fine for universities where much is mediated face-to-face. But OU needs more – Study Planner, other narrative stuff to stitch it together. Use device capabilities – phone, audio – using native phone app, then pass info to the OU VLE. Working towards this with new release from Moodle (issue with Apple and making things open source).

Native apps – Largely KMi with Faculties. Mostly iOS, but Android building up.

ePub resources. Tested in OpenLearn. Put OpenLearn eBooks in to ePub format, make available via iTunesU. ePub allows more interactive elements to be put in, not just text/images. Can embed media – file can get big. Was on iBooks. Kindle – Amazon have moved away, aim to do this but interactivity may not be there.

Mobile exposure

Make everything we do online for mobile more visible. Mobile version of home page fine for current students, but less good for showcasing what we can do. Some universities gear mobile portal at enquirers – prospectus. Some design for current students. Others provide app access, fine for services, but very much campus-based services. Plans afoot here.

This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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