Seeing how people really use online technology with the Tobii eye-tracker

Liveblog notes from an IET Technology Coffee Morning, 16 December 2009.

Presenters: Patrick McAndrew, Graham Healing, with input from Elpida Makriyannis and Anne Adams

We have a Tobii eye-tracker in the labs, which isn’t used as heavily as it could be. Aim for today is to show how easy it is to use, and explore some of the ways it could be developed.

History – a few years ago, Graham and Patrick were trying to improve the OpenLearn website. It was hard to know whether their worries about its effectiveness were real. Used an eye tracker to do a brief study of what actually happens. It was amazingly revealing, and very efficient – just a few minutes of recording and playback showed them the interactions on the site. That then grew in to quite a study, with analysis. At that point, the technology was hard work – took many extra hours. But now have bought more recent kit, with software upgrades, which make it very easy to use.

Some classic research in to how people read pages – like Jakob Nielsen’s classic (2001) work showing an F-shaped reading pattern for web pages. But is it still true?

Has been around since the 1950s! Now more up to date – see e.g. this presentation, which is about the machine we have:

Continue reading “Seeing how people really use online technology with the Tobii eye-tracker”


Enabling Greater Accessibility

Live notes from IET Technical Coffee Morning – Robin Stenham on accessibility.

Accessibility is one of the things I particularly care about so it’s good to have this session.

Robin is Manager – Curriculum Access in Disabled Student Services. Two main areas of responsibility: single enquiry point for students (or their intermediaries) about the interface between their assistive technology and the OU’s products and services – particularly courses. Has a team, has backup from IET staff, but it’s literally one man plus half another one and half of his dog! The other area of responsibility is policy development, again working with IET and LTS, affect and effect policy. Wants to rebalance and embed accessibility in to the mainstream.

Things are changing quite quickly – announcements on Monday folded in to talk at the last minute.

He talked broadly about the issues around accessibility, and specifically for the OU, and then about the new focus on embedding accessibility across the OU, which promises a step-change in the way we manage making our products and services accessible to all. Continue reading “Enabling Greater Accessibility”

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.

Technology in PI and ERA projects

Liveblog notes from IET Technology Coffee Morning by Eileen Scanlon and Mark Gaved on Technology in PI: Personal Inquiry and ERA (Enabling Remote Activity) projects: Challenges and lessons learnt.

(I liveblogged a previous talk on ERA (Enabling Remote Activity) last December.)

Personal Inquiry

PI – 3y EPSRC/ESRC TEL programme funded. Scripted learning envrionment to guide learners through inquiry process. Oakgrove School KS3 geography students (N=300); GCSE Urban Heat Islands, across MK and Northampton; Year 8 Microclimates, around school grounds. First pilot run with 80 (!) students in 2008, second one large too – so calling them ‘trials’ rather than pilots.

Social issue: the flight from science in schools. Difficult to persuade young people of relevance of science to their lives. So inquiry important theme in project to make the learning of important scientific principles relevant to you as a young person – hence Personal Inquiry. Focus on formal and informal settings, and devices including personal mobile technologies and shared classroom displays.

‘Scripted inquiry learning’ has some ‘studied ambiguity’ – building on the  ‘discovery learning’ literature.  Also more technical meaning of ‘scripted’. Inquiry learning lit review as first stage, shared model of Inquiry Process. Took that representation, rendered it as an Activity Guide (or orchestrate, direct, or be ordered about the inquiry process), with support for what you need at each stage: Find our focus, Decide our hypothesis, Plan our methods, Collect our data, Present my data, Write my report.  Shift from collective to individual – exam board requirement to be individual – so working in groups to collect, but then individual inquiries.

Lot of technology: ultramobile PCs – Asus Eee PC; Scienscope data loggers and sensors (CO, temperature, IR irradiance, anemometer, humidity) – rugged, precise, quick to report; standalone GPS – Garmin eTrex; digital cameras – Canon A460 Powershot digital cameras (‘Sir, we’ve taken 500 photos already and don’t have room for any more’!); wifi – standard 802.11; OU web server; web-based Activity Guide as coordinating interface. Data saved locally on Eee when mobile and don’t have the network.

Enabling Remote Activity

Remote access: Enabling mobility-impaired students to participate in geology fieldwork and complete learning objectives. SXR 339 Ancient Mountains, one-week residential school in Scotland.

Remote collaboration: Group work involving students split between field and lab locations; one-day trial.

Geologists want to see both the big picture (view of whole land feature) but also very close-up.

Technology: server/client – Sony laptops, Asus Eee PC; video – IP security cams, Eee built-in; images – digicams, wifi cams; audio – walkie talkies, VoIP phones; transient wireless network – Linksys access points, external antennae on lighting stands, 12V batteries; local web server; web-based interface.

The ideal mobile device – looked at PDA, phone form, normal laptop, Asus Eee – Asus Eee settled on, but not perfect.  Portability is a challenge – but groupwork helps since can distribute some problems, e.g. weight. Multiple cabling and multiple devices not helpful – so built-in webcam in Eee halves number of batteries; wifi camera simplifies cables/card transfer; walkie talkie headsets free up a hand.  Power another one – full days in field, battery/generator, overnight recharging.

General points across both projects

Web-based interface big win in ERA and PI. Interface very familiar, little training needed. Continuity of field and built environments on different machines.  Issue of field machine browser connecting to local server (need later sync – challenge with large numbers of machines) or connecting to remote server (requires connectivity – challenge in the field).

Connectivity on the edge: tension between interesting locations and well-connected locations.  School networks not designed for roaming connectivity; poor line-of-sight in field.  Firewall issues too.  Local connectivity hard but backhaul even more tricky.

Bridging environments tricky. Solutions to technical issues may work (network keys, proxies, transitions) but social issues may override (e.g. teenagers grounded from internet use!).

New ways of teaching – technology fitting in to existing practices. Challenge of orchestration between multiple tutors and researchers – scaffolding by scripting (PI) is one solution.  (Although this requires intensive preparation and thinking-through by researchers beforehand; not ideal for lightweight usage that’d facilitate abduction/appropriation by the teachers/tutors themselves. Always a big challenge for tech innovation learning research projects – including at the OU. How do you get the great mass of teachers able to pick up the tech and redeploy it to meet their needs? Good examples as models from research projects help.)

Need pragmatic, participatory design – tutors/teachers and students crucial input but are very busy.

Graceful degradation – always have a Plan B – teachers/tutors do this by instinct anyway, technology needs the same approach, including fallback technical solutions: spares, redundant communications routes, etc.

Scaling issues: identical setups helps, but takes time to set up/turn around 30 machines – real challenge on a daily basis. Needs room and power to do it. “How many sockets do you want in the new building?” “Oh, 88 should do us.”

Summary points

  • technology intervention changes the learning activity – transformation of practice
  • test in field (in authentic contexts) as much as possible
  • important to co-design activities (participatory approach)
  • evaluation of interventions crucial but challenging (practicality, control groups)
  • need sustainability and exit strategy

(… which I think stand as very good general points for most technology interventions in teaching – or indeed any teaching innovation)

Low-hanging fruit: interactive tables for collaborative learning

Jochen “Jeff” Rick, Computing Dept. Notes from Tech Coffee Morning, 8 April 2009.  Background from the shareIT project, part of Yvonne Rogers’ pervasive interaction group.

Low-hanging fruit – is the stuff that this is a big obvious win for.

We tend to think of two sorts of educational technology: 1. Personal ed tech, with one device per person – desktops, laptops, handhelds, mobiles etc. You can share/work around.  2. Whole-class educational technology – projectors, smartboards. Smartboards are almost ubiquitous in UK classrooms.

New class, including: Interactive tabletops. Three well-known examples: Microsoft Surface; SMART table (£5000) – small, aimed at kids, software a bit lagging; DiamondTouch table.  Work in different ways: Surface shines IR light upwards, then a camera looking at the IR coming down, so can see your fingertips and outline of objects. SMART table is FTIR – internal reflection – like the CNN interactive display, Jeff thingy on TED talk.  DiamondTouch is ?conductive – you stand on a pad and it senses finger location via direct conductance.

Electronic whiteboards “reinforce a transmission style of whole class teaching” – Moss et al 2007. But tabletop stuff can’t be used that way. (Unless you also connect it to a projector, as we have in this talk!)

RQs – looking at: What theories resonate with interactive tabletop? How do learners collaborate? How can the task and interface enable, encourage and enforce collaboration?

Three technologies to demo: OurSpace: Marshall et al (2009) Proc CHI 2009. Rick et al in Proc IDC ’09. Harris et al (2009). DigiTile – Rick & Rogers (2009). WordCat – no papers yet.

OurSpace – seating exercise. Aerial view of classroom, drag around tables and students.  Demo – three people doing the task, stood on each pad.  Students are flagged as friendship groups (colour), glasses (can’t see), speech bubble (talkative).  Did prototype studies where the kids laid out their own room, and talked to them about the criteria that were important to them about space allocation. Now use fake kids but real room and desk number configuration. Can also do route-drawing with your finger. Did lots of empirical tests with Year 3-4 (age 7-9), multi-touch versus single touch, kids stood at three sides of rectangle or side-by-side.  Collaborative design task, no right answer.  With single-touch, turn-taking talk goes way up compared to multi-touch, at the expense of task-focused talk – in percentage terms, but actually the extra talk on turn-taking is extra, not replacement.  Equity – physical equity – not terribly affected, except boy groups more equitable with multi-touch, but girl groups more when single-touch. Most other research shows big difference here, but this doesn’t show it. Because in this case the handover is very quick and easy, but in others (e.g. handing over smart pen) it’s harder and requires explicit release and handover time. In multi-touch mode you can do your own thing and not pay attention to the others, but single-touch you have to collaborate – you might as well pay attention to what’s going on if you’re not driving.

DigiTile – tiling program. Six colour choices, half/whole tiles. DigiQuilt was the base software this is based on (for single user). Task is to generate a given picture. Or harder challenge – generate a tiling to give a certain mix of colours. One classroom study done, another in progress. Looked with shared or split palette (half the colours to each participant). Doesn’t make much difference – perhaps because kids don’t mind reaching in to each other’s space. Generally they collaborate really well, not much over-dominance, largely equitable. Possibly because easy to undermine a strategy if you’re not included?  Pre/post test shows significant difference on fractions knowledge compared to controls for a 30min session. (Cool!)

WordCat – word categorisation. Sort words in to two-by-two grid, need to have something in common on horizontals and verticals. Each have a word, and both have to put it in the same place to get it to stay there.  Both participants have to do it the same before you get to see the next word.

Task overview: OurSpace – enables collaboration – in multitouch mode, participants could largely work independently, but in single touch mode, more coordination was required. DigitTile encourages collaboration – on more mathematical challenges, participants learned quickly that they had to work together or they would just step on each other’s toes. WordCat enforces collaboration – it cannot be completed without a partner. Small interface changes can adjust how strictly collaboration is enforced. (Or, can bully/persuade the other participant to just go through the motions.)

Interesting questions of definitions – collaboration, cooperation, and so on.