Information Use on the Move

Another IET Technology Coffee Morning, this one presented by Keren Mills, from the Open University Library.

Keren spent 10 weeks at Cambridge through the Arcadia Programme, funded by the Arcardia Trust. It’s a three-year programme in to improving library services, especially moving research libraries in to the information age. She wanted to find out what people actually wanted.

When you talk about mobile libraries … people think about vans full of books. But widespread perception that mobile internet is slow and expensive.

Students are in to texts, though – 58% of OU student respondents to Keren’s survey already receive text alerts (and continue to receive some) from their bank or whatever.  A student services pilot in sending texts was successful, sending prompt SMSs to students to remind them about study, upcoming TMAs, and so on. Students felt the university cared about them and were thinking about them – even if they didn’t need the reminder they appreciated the communication. Feedback survey showed most students wanted exam date notification and results.

Mobile-friendly websites: AACS noticed people using our websites using mobile devices.  50% of student respondents access mobile internet via their phones; 26% once a week or more. Very little interest from Cambridge students – might be younger than OU ones (on average) but they’re local to the University.

The perception is that mobile browsing is expensive – it’s better than it was, but still costs.  Some better than others – Virgin currently cap 3G data at 30p/day for up to 25Mb.

Only 26% of student respondents have downloaded apps to their phone and would so so again – higher than for overall, but not much.  iPhone might be changing that. (E.g. app being developed by KMi – the Virtual Microscope project and some others.)

Use of media on phones – students view photos most (75%)! Staff listen to music more (60%), and have more podcasts/journal articles/e-books exposure.  Students don’t, probably because we don’t prompt them to.

(An interesting discussion ensued about authentication to get access to e-journals.)

OU Library have been working to make their site more mobile-friendly. They’re using autodetecting reformatting software, which tries to suss the resolution, strips out the pictures, and reformats it.  It’s the same content, navigation and so on.

Students were particularly interested in location details and opening hours, and being able to search the catalogue. So they’re trying to make that easier. Moving towards a more CSS-based system in the future.

Safari – information skills site – has recently been overhauled.  Developed some mobile learning objects for reinforcement and revision – Using their LO generator developed in-house.

Also – iKnow project – mobile learning objects, currently under evaluation.

About 33% of OU respondents have used text reference services (e.g. rail enquiries); a further 26% said they might, having heard about it through the survey.

General pattern of increased interest among OU students than others, probably because of our distributed area.

There are a range of mobile devices and emulators available in the Digilab.


The autodetect and reformat software doesn’t work well with mobile version of Safari – so the Library site treats iPhones and iPod touches as ordinary browsers. Best practice is to give people the option of using mobile or standard version.


Appropriation and the real function of artefacts

What’s the educational use of an iPod?

Al Briggs points to an article in the Independent about the Teaching Awards last month.  (Incidentally, these were an idea of Lord Puttnam’s, who’s now the OU’s Chancellor.) Shawlands Academy in Glasgow won an award for a scheme where the kids got iPods.  Al comments:

On seeing the headline I thought this would be an education related story but the iPod prizes are used as an incentive for the students to eat more healthily.

The overall story is one that we already know – iPods are extremely attractive to students.

I am left with the thought – wouldn’t it be great if they were being used not just to encourage healthy eating but to encourage and increase engagement in education.

I’ve even heard that you can put educational materials on them!

It reminds me of that old barometer anecdote (dissected here by Snopes and Wikipedia) where a mythical physics student is asked how they would determine the height of a tall building using a skyscraper barometer.  The student dodges the ‘obvious’ answer (measuring air pressure at top and bottom) by reeling off a list of imaginitive ways it could be done (throwing it over the side and timing its descent, various trigonometric shenanigans, use it as a pendulum bob top and bottom, etc), before they finally suggest going up to the building’s caretaker and saying “I’ll give you this shiny new barometer if you’ll tell me how tall your building is.”

The ‘obvious’ answer is not always the best one.  The obvious use of an iPod to promote learning is to put educational podcasts on it.  That’s not a wrong answer by any means: I’m a huge fan of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time podcast and of course our own OU presence on iTunesU – as plugged by my colleague Peter Scott in the Guardian recently.  But a significant revealed social function of an iPod is (and always has been) to be a desirable consumer good.  Harnessing that function rather than the MP3-playing one may be a better option sometimes.   “I’ll give you this shiny new iPod if you show me how much you’ve learned.”

Though there is, of course, the danger of hamfisted attempts at extrinsic motivation undermining learners’ intrinsic motivation.

Free roaming Wifi (if you’re already rich)

For those of us who work in academia, there’s very good news afoot in the shape of the JANET roaming service, part of the eduroam federation.

Eduroam logoIn a nutshell, this is a reciprocal free wifi arrangement between academic institutions, in the UK (JANET) and beyond (eduroam) – parts of Europe and Australia for now, but under development in the US and Japan.  If you’re an academic, with a bit of luck that’ll be a large proportion of the places you go anyway.

I think it’ll work really easily as a user.  There’s some fiendishly clever stuff in the background, and the official JANET docs make it seem dreadfully complex to use.  But if I’ve understood right, and if/when it’s all working, you simply use the same username/password combo to access wifi at your home institution at any other participating institution.

To set it up you just select the right network to connect to at your home institution (the ‘eduroam’ SSID – there will probably be others locally) and get the right username/password for it.  (This is locally determined, but very likely to be your standard university credentials or a simple permutation thereof.)  Once your device is set up that way, poof!  Off you go to any participating location and free wifi is yours with no more fuss. 

(There is probably a little extra fuss if you want to be able to do more than web browsing – e.g. VPN, non-web email,  remote logins.  And visited institutions may have more restrictive traffic rules than your home one.  I wouldn’t bank on Skype or your favourite BitTorrent client working, for instance.)

For those very local – the OU – the word on the authoritative grapevine is that it’s coming here “Real Soon Now”.  It’s under testing, and you can see ‘eduroam’ SSIDs around the place already.

I’m really looking forward to this.  I experience the net as pervasive at the moment, since I have wifi all over work and home, which is pretty much everywhere I might want it.  Except when I find myself somewhere like an airport, hotel or railway station … there’s Wifi, but suddenly I have to pay some extortionate rate for it.  Or – at other Universities – consider resorting to a flagrant breach of the JANET T&Cs to get at it in less than the six weeks an offical application for local login credentials might take.

It’s great to have an extension to the almost-there pervasive network!  One day, mark my words, there’ll be free-at-the-point-of-use wifi everywhere.  Well, almost everywhere.  Which is a much easier target.

Gadgets gadgets gadgets

It’s been a great time for gadget enthusiasts recently. By ‘recently’ I mean the last few months, but of course, the last thirty years or so have been pretty good on the gadget stakes.

Anyway – there’s the iPhone and its phoneless little sister, the iPod touch, there’s the Asus Eee (and its distant cousin the XO from the One Laptop Per Child project), and now there’s Amazon’s Kindle.

iPhone and iPod touch

I have an iPod touch and it’s absolutely marvelous. The interface is just so right. I mostly use it for wireless web browsing. It’s physically slightly smaller than a PDA, but the web experience is so much better. The finger scrolling and text resizing is a wonder.

The Wifi just works. It’s been a nightmare on every PDA I’ve ever used – endless fiddling and tweaking and unreliable. It’s not always smooth on laptops either. But everywhere I’ve tried the iPod touch, it’s been a dream. If it’s a new network, it asks if you want to connect first, and then – boom (as Steve Jobs would say) – you’re in. If it’s a network you’ve connected to before … you’re just connected. The experience is the antithesis of the configuration fiddle of Bluetooth, which was my least-loved technology until fairly recently. (It’s now Adobe’s PDF plugins for browsers.)

The web experience is so wonderful you can even use the execrable Outlook Web Access on it without it being too painful.
The text entry is way better than I expected. In my own personal and highly unreliable testing, I scored 26 wpm on it, versus 31 wpm using predictive text on my phone, and I expect the difference will reduce as I build up practice on the iPod touch. (For comparison, my legible handwriting is 35 wpm, illegible scrawl is 50 wpm, a PDA fold-out keyboard rates 86 wpm, and a full-size keyboard is 104 wpm. Worst score ever was 6.4 wpm for handwriting recognition.)

The down side is mainly stuff it simply doesn’t do. The Calendar is next to useless since you can’t add entries (and I can’t sync it with my work calendar, but that’s true of anything ever, and I can at least see it via the web). You can’t sync or suck down fresh data by wireless. Except, of course, if you want to pay money to iTunes for a fresh tune.

This is part of the secret of Apple’s success with hardware, though: if they can’t do it well, they simply don’t do it, which makes the total experience so much nicer.
Sitting around the house, reading the very latest news, watching silly YouTube videos, catching up on what friends and interesting people are up to via their blogs … all via a tiny thing that sits in one hand … it feels like I’m living in the future.

Mini-laptops (Eee, XO)

These are very impressive at first glance, and lots of fun. It’s clearly a new form factor niche between PDA/smartphones and more full-function small laptops/tablet PCs. It’ll be interesting to see if that is a big zone outside of us initial technical enthusiasts.

Personally, the form factor is out of a sweet spot for me. They’re too big to fit neatly in to a jacket pocket (like a PDA/fold-out keyboard combo, or my iPod touch), but if I’m going to have to carry something in my hand or bag anyway, I’d rather have a larger tablet PC.

The price point is extremely attractive, but I hear that Dell has slashed prices on its Vostro range of full-function laptops to $400, so that reason for them is less compelling too.

Amazon Kindle

This is the newest device here – announced officially yesterday. It remains to be seen whether it’ll ever be available outside the US.

The form factor seems just right: close to a paperback book. But the interface and design! It’s just so ugly and clunky, particularly by comparison with the iPhone and iPod touch. I read somewhere that the intention was to make it seem more serious than most gadgets, to appeal to less techie, more bookish people. I think that’s a mistake (lots of techie people are heavy readers too, and they are surely the main market for this), but even if it isn’t, nobody actively wants something that’s hard to use. I’ve not actually played with one yet, so I could be wrong in my extrapolations from the demos, but it certainly doesn’t look pretty and easy-to-use.

The eInk display looks good, and is definitely the Right Thing if you’re trying to replace books. I really hope eInk technology moves on even further – it seems so much better than LCDs.

Not requiring a monthly contract is a very smart move as well. And it doesn’t need cables to get fresh content! You pay to download a book (via One-click, which I always worry about enabling, but then I’m paranoid about accidentally spending money) and it’s beamed to your Kindle via a 3G mobile network.

(It’s a US-only version of 3G, with patchy coverage, which is a potential big problem. I think wifi would’ve been a better choice – at least with wifi, you can set up connectivity yourself at home or at work for fifty quid or so. With 3G phone networks, you have to wait for the network provider to set it up.)

But having said it doesn’t require an ongoing contract, you have to pay a subscription to get a newspaper downloaded. Eh? When I can see newspapers’ websites for free on my iPod? I don’t think so.

And the pricing gets more surreal. You have to pay to get access to blogs. I’m sorry? Pay, to read a blog? You must be joking. And it offers access to ‘the top 250 blogs’, which misses the entire point of blogs. Most of the blogs people will want are way out there in the long tail (like this one!) – hardly anyone reads them, but the few who do are often personally connected.

And yet more questionable. You can read your own documents (Word, PDFs, images) on the device … if you pay to have them converted and downloaded. I have to pay … to read content that I actually wrote and own myself? No.

It offers free wireless access to Wikipedia, which is great … but not the rest of the Internet. Because you might visit the newspapers’ websites, or blogs, instead of paying! This is an extreme walled garden, and, like all walled gardens, doomed ultimately. (Although ‘ultimately’ can be an awfully long time coming – see e.g. Facebook.)

Content is king, and they seem to have the right content initially – plenty of bestselling novels. Unlike every other eBook, including Sony Reader. The price point looks clever too – $10 rather than $25+ for hardbacks.

But the DRM! Oh, the DRM. Electronic books offer the potential for you to do so much more with a book than the traditional paper-based format – to search, annotate, share, edit, comment, cut-and-paste or even, dare I say it, mash up. But the DRM stops you doing anything but a cut-down crap version of the first two in that list. I can lend a book I’ve enjoyed to a friend, scrawl marginal notes on it and give it to a colleague or student, release it in to the wild with a BookCrossing sticker, donate it to a charity shop, or even sell it second-hand – perhaps on Amazon (!). I can’t do any of that with a Kindle eBook.

OU course materials would render much more nicely on this than – to take a random example! – on Open Learn. Students could transfer the PDFs of course materials to their Kindle – for the appropriate fee, naturally – and take a whole stack of units with them everywhere. There’s plenty of bookmarking, but it doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of annotation, which many students find invaluable in studying.

Long-term something like Kindle will overtake books, and generations of readers will form the same attachment to eBooks that the Baby Boomer generation has with print books and Gen X has with the Internet. But it won’t be Kindle that does it. I can see, using a version of Martin Weller’s VLE succession model, that this is another step along the line to a rosy future.

I still think there’s a big window for local print-on-demand for books, though. Amazon’s ability to corral vast quantities of quality content in to electronic format shows that it can be done, and if the deals can be done for an eBook reader, they can surely be done for a proprietary print-on-demand system.

Update: Apparently it can’t read PDFs, at all, even via the paid-for conversion system.  Another nail in the coffin.

Third Age

Had a really interesting meeting a couple of weeks ago with Jean Goodeve from the Third Age Trust, the national body that supports local University of the Third Age (U3A) groups. The OU has a Memorandum of Understanding with the Third Age Trust, and there seems like there’s lots of potential for collaborative work. I’d have been keen to meet them anyway, but I had a double motivation since Jean’s son happens to be a very good friend of mine.

U3A is very much about learning for fun. The OU is about learning for accreditation … which can also be fun (I like to imagine). The boundary between those two is increasingly blurring, and there’s a lot of potential for us to expore that new space between us. We’re both organisations with the stamp of the marvelous Michael Young on them. We share a fundamental belief that our learners are experienced, smart people who can help themselves to learn, particularly if appropriately supported.

(I note in passing that U3A’s commitment to learners being teachers and vice versa is explicitly stated in their founding principles; at the OU it’s more diffuse and part of best practice … and probably a lot patchier as a belief if I’m honest.)

They’re obviously very interested in OpenLearn, and we’re very interested in what they make of it. In conversation with Patrick McAndrew (my colleague currently leading the research and evaluation of OpenLearn) this week, we realised that U3A provides an organisational layer that’s exactly what we’d like to be able to provide with the tools around the OpenLearn content. Groups of people who want to learn something come together, find what resources they need, and support each other as they try to understand the topic. At the moment U3A operates more along geographic lines, but that’s changing, and the potential that online tools offer for forming interest groups for learning nationally or internationally seems pretty huge. A bit like Martin Weller‘s ideas about very-niche learning. (I’m sure he’s said something about this but can’t put my hand on the post quickly.)

One of the ideas that came out of the meeting with Jean that I’m very keen on is using U3A people as co-researchers: they get to learn about the research process and are partners, rather than subjects; we paid research types get access to a network of active, intelligent co-researchers who can snowball out to an even larger sample. Everyone benefits from each others’ expertise.

As well as the obvious link to OpenLearn, there’s the potential for getting U3A folk involved in some of the more close-up work in the new lab we’re building in the new Jennie Lee Building (which I’ve not blogged about here much yet). The idea there is to explore new and near-future prototypes of ambient and ubiquitous technologies (previously mobile devices were hot, now it’s multi-touch interfaces and there’ll be others) with learners to see what the potential is for expanding how people learn.

I think U3A people would be great as groups to bring in for this. They’re motivated, smart, used to learning, and represent a sector of the population who are growing in both numbers and influence. If this is starting to sound like a pitch for funding … that’s the plan! Although I think there’s a lot we can do with our own resources.

Location, location, location

Have just been to one of our regular Technology Coffee Mornings, where people take turns to explain/demo some technology. I did one myself a while ago about RSS. Today’s was by Patrick McAndrew, and his topic was Geocaching.

He made it look easier than I thought – although he was at pains to explain that the technology is all still very flaky, doesn’t work a lot of the time, and needs a lot of technologist glue to get it working well. He’d even written his own Google Maps mash-up to help out with getting data from a PC to his GPS-equipped HP PDA. His mash-up makes it easy to capture an image from Google Maps with two positions marked, and export the locations of those positions in a format the PDA software understood. Transfer those two to the PDA, match the marks on the image with the locations, and bingo – the image is synchronised with the GPS data and he can get a live position on a real map. (Later: He’s already blogged in more detail about how it works.)

He also mentioned that more and more phones have a GPS chip on them, even if they don’t have any software to make use of it soon.

It’s not a new observation, but I was very struck that location-based stuff is going to be very, very big in the next five years. If you have a GPS chip on your phone, you can know where you are. Connecting that up to a central database, you can know what interesting things are nearby – for whatever your current value of “interesting” is. And if your mates also have a GPS chip on their phone, you can know where your mates are. I predict that the social networking possibilities that affords will take off massively. (Unless the networks kill it with silly walled-garden approaches, or absurdly expensive offerings, which they might. But that should only delay it a few years until the chips become even cheaper and widely available as a standalone device.)

There are services that sort-of do this already, but you have to all be signed up to the same service – none yet have anything like critical mass – and uploading where you are now isn’t as automatic as it’d need to be. Twitter’s success at SXSW was – I reckon – an example of this. (Of course, it didn’t have the precise GPS data, but it worked fine as a physical social networking tool there because it was a restricted domain so you could easily and unambiguously specify where you were within a tiny bit of human-generated text.)

But where’s the learning?!

Harder to answer. On MOBIlearn – a large EU-funded mobile learning project I worked on a short while ago – we found “lazy planning” of learning activities one of the things you could do with the technology that you couldn’t do otherwise. (Traditionally, you schedule a learning activity in advance and let everyone know the time and place it’s happening; with lazy planning, you text/phone them at some arbitrary time and get them together that way. It’s just a learning version of what people do these days when going out – instead of agreeing “7.30 in the Red Lion” in advance, at around 7.30 you text each other saying “I’m in Red Lion where RU?”.) This sort of location-based stuff would sit very well with that.

It might also link up with the new university model/’Open Universities’/skunkworks idea that Martin Weller’s been working on. He’s blogged about it being a very long-tail operation: a way of getting the small number of people with very niche learning interests together. I think the location-based stuff could also help with more popular learning interests: you’d be able to get the small number of people with the popular learning interest who happen to be nearby together.

Thinking about it, that’s pretty much what we do as the OU with our tutorial system. For a small-population course, we might have a handful of tutorial groups spread all over the place. (E.g. our online MA, where a tutor group might have students in Thurso, Margate, Lille, Abu Dhabi and Wellington.) For a large-population course, we can arrage many more tutorial groups so that for most students there’s one in their part of the city or the nearest market town.

But that’s very slow turnover stuff: the groups form for the whole course, which is typically 9 months. I’d imagine the location-based social networking stuff would be more about groups forming for an hour or two.

I’m now starting to think about how Reed’s Law of group-forming networks reckons that the value of a group-forming network grows more like O(2^N) than the O(N^2) that Metcalfe’s Law says a telecoms network does, and how enhancing the group-forming aspect of a given network – say of OU students – will therefore dramatically enhance its value … but this post is already too long and I need to head off to the next thing.

(And I’ve not put in the links here, sorry – but it’s a real content post!)