Mobile Learner Support redux

Posted on August 14th, 2014 at 2:14 pm by Rhodri Thomas

It has been a long while since I provided an update in this space, but suffice it to say that while a lot of improvements have taken place in that time at the OU, a lot of [my] attention was diverted onto other projects. Over this time too, I’m happy to say that further adoption of responsive and adaptive methods for mobile-friendliness have been established – in new projects and in refreshing some of our entry points and student-facing areas.

My team, now in OU Information Technology Development, have been updating and enhancing our Moodle VLE platform throughout. We have been integrating external services that are also making efforts in the mobile arena, though this has been overtaken somewhat by the overarching digital space. It has now reached a point where true device and platform ecologies are becoming apparent, with much more flexibility and portability across technologies in use.

With this changing environment, we keep ever closer track on the technologies and browsers our students are using, but in the interests of comparison with previous similar trends, I’m including below the latest I have available in this short post. There will be more to come on other initiatives in due course.

OU Colleagues can see an earlier review and retrospective analysis from 2013 in an eLearning Community event I presented back at the start of the year.

Reporting on mobile usage of OU Learning Systems

Posted on October 3rd, 2012 at 2:10 pm by Rhodri Thomas

Since we’re now in the process of monitoring and reviewing the uptake and feedback on the latest mobile optimisation work, I’ve had a few queries now from colleagues, and so the following may be of wider interest:

Initially we had a need to move to a more systematic approach to obtaining data and making it meaningful to provide trends and insight. The OU has been monitoring mobile usage of the main StudentHome portal since 2006, and kudos to Steve Bannister in our IT team who has kept this up to date with new devices coming on to the market. However, with the more recent addition of a range of tablet devices we also needed a more granular look at handheld mobile devices and the newer tablets to better inform future approaches.

To move away from the high degree of custom queries and ‘hand-cranking’ on this, the OU has been working most recently with comScore on Digital Analytics (DAx). This area has historically been more within the purview of our communications, marketing and public-engagement teams, but it was deemed timely to have a consistent mechanism to house all pertinent records (including prior VLE reporting) in a data warehouse approach and then interrogate in a consistent way (and with consistent rules and calculations in place).

Of course the needs of what is now Learning Analytics are different from tracking the success of a campaign, time onsite, bounce and click-through conversions, rates and patterns – but there are similarities. So in the interests of preparing for more targetted queries, we needed to compare some of the top-level data.

With this in mind, the DAx framework (and device-specific granularity) has been applied to the different learning system platforms and comparisons made against prior calculations to establish confidence and robustness before iterating further. The most recent quarterly picture of mobile adoption is shown below (old method):

The more recent DAx approach to trending mobile device access overall is illustrated as well:

Looking at the new VLE2 on Moodle 2.x, we see a reasonably balanced picture with regard to handheld/tablet usage, albeit with smaller proportions of BlackBerry users:

The now legacy VLE1 on Moodle 1.9 showed much more prevalent iPad usage over the same period:

In addition, we took a snapshot in July to see how the distribution panned out across live modules and observed some peaks that can be explained partly by:

  • Residential schools giving rise to more access on-the-go
  • Some reference to mobile use in the workplace or as part of the curriculum, leading to possibly a more mobile-savvy constituency
  • Past reference to access via mobile, while not as yet officially promoted nor supported.

In conclusion, this is very much an ongoing test case, with the longer-term aim of providing more drill-down granularity to compare device usage within queries on the use of resources and activities – and also how much active contribution comes back from the students.

The charts shown here were originally prepared for the 1st Moodle Research conference and for a poster session, including a handout.

Reflections on recent activities

Posted on May 1st, 2012 at 11:00 am by Rhodri Thomas

It’s been a while since the last official project post following the completion of development work [and a number of new initiatives and work have taken over of late - not least planning curriculum usage of Google Apps integration, and finding a Realtime Collaboration solution for 2013 onwards]. With this in mind, a few points have crystallised following presentations, attendance and discussion with folks at a number of events in the first quarter of 2012.

Firstly, the decision and ongoing driver for the Mobile Web: the OU is not promoting this approach on the grounds of cost savings in development and maintenance, but more so that we can provide a mobile entry point in a space where our students may be bringing a whole range of personal technology to bear. We cannot continue with a lowest common denominator approach however [and this isn't sensible for mobile web browsing approaches generally]. The aim is to provide legacy devices with simpler HTML browsers at least the capability to view their progress – read-only. While some folks want a breakdown of what device can do what, I hope that the more generic support materials, coupled with peer support for specifics will address this longer-term. [See also the range of features I outlined previously].

Secondly is the approach taken to support distance learning on mobiles: from looking at a number of different (and some app-based) approaches, I really feel that the OU is distinctive in this area due to our differing needs and experience. Where discrete resources and small-scale activities may suit courses where a lot can be mediated (or overcome) face-to-face – we need much more narrative, signposting and in the cases of open-access students in their first years, scaffolding.
I’m not saying that we do this consistently across our whole online offering – but few others seem to provide a week-by-week or block-by-block online navigation path through a learning journey. Few also manage, by design, to direct and blend differing activities – a lot of successful approaches externally seem to have worked despite the interface or as workarounds to LMS/VLE models.

Thirdly – the ubiquity of mobile connectivity: although this could be characterised by the position favoured by Google and others, the current reality is still that good, consistent mobile connectivity is patchy. Apple and other folks more geared to the higher-quality print or media production equivalents see the blend more as an offline approach with online benefits. I’m not personally persuaded overly by either arguments [particularly since I was happy in the driver away from 'sideloading' to 'over-the-air'], but perhaps the aim towards convergence in this space as well as others in the history of mobile technology will prove the best approach.
Engaging in online activities with some caching or offline backup in case connectivity drops can complement working on longer-form text or media connecting online as required for collaboration or groupwork for example. While the OU has a larger investment in learning & teaching support than mobile services, and mobile web rather than mobile apps at present – we still see an approach for a native ‘shell’ app incorporating some caching, and simpler access to services in the mix for the future.

Finally, the inclusion of real collaboration in a mobile space: in a similar way to the whole ‘learning styles’ debate and inaccurate mentions by some commercial companies [i.e. that people only have one favoured style - rather than related to context], the use of ‘collaboration’ can be misused [i.e. an activity constructed so that it is the differing individual contributions to the whole that end up with an outcome impossible to achieve alone]. A lot of what is talked about in this space is really just group cooperation or discussion using more advanced tools.
I do welcome the increasing possibilities to include rich media in discussions so that more time can be given over to analysis and reflection rather than just description of fieldwork/practice-based work (as an example). On testing the water for collaborative support however, the most widespread approach seems to be activities supported by Google Apps toolset in particular – much improved by the mobile interfaces refined of late. Bespoke apps of course also have a place, but then you need to stitch these together [and provide alternates, arrange for bulk-buy/education discount??].
I don’t think we have an answer here yet by any means – it’s good to see work that bridges the physical world with online (e.g. QR codes at the simpler end, Augmented Reality at the more complex) to make the connections in this process easier/better. The challenge is to find meaningful learning outcomes appropriate for HE, and at scale, as well as some of the great work already explored at school level.

Informing this set of reflections have been the large number of discussions and contributions from colleagues at a number of recent events, including: BETT 2012, LWF12, OU Learn About Fair, Apple Mobility in HE seminar [to be followed by similar webinars on 2nd May & 5th May I suspect], London Knowledge Lab “What the research says” events, SCORE OER Open Education sessions, Blackboard Teaching & Learning conference [EU]. Internal sessions continue as well of course, although these have been largely informal – allowing more for catchup/coordination. It’s also good to be involved in more faculty staff development with IET in this area, and I still hope to get more granular learning analytics on existing use of mobiles by our students.

Complementing this period of reflection have been yet more advances in OU provision in the mobile space – particularly in public engagement and informal learning opportunities. More of our apps have been ported to Android, further prototyping has taken place with interactive iBooks and more recently iTunes U Courses. Most recently, the guidance on use of mobiles is starting to be made available in advance of promoting our offering more officially to students.

Review of mobile connections: coordinated work around the OU

Posted on November 24th, 2011 at 11:28 am by Rhodri Thomas

Having completed a talk on a range of mobile-related topics and work delivered, underway or in the proposal stages at the OU – for the IET Technology Coffee Morning series – here’s a slightly amended replay to incorporate demos and overlay prompt slides.

Since chaptering the podcast feed isn’t working as I’d hoped, please use the timecodes below to help find something of specific interest ['scrub' around using the playhead/slider below the video]
UPDATE: The timecodes below are also now hyperlinked to the appropriate segment on the IET YouTube channel as an alternate:
00:01:40 Overview
00:03:27 Student Usage [incl. background/context]
00:16:13 Student survey ’09
00:19:57 Mobile VLE beta [VLE1 on Moodle 1.9 – current, incl. staff demo via]
00:26:07 Student survey ’10
00:34:17 Mobile-optimisation: VLE2 [incl. live demos using mobile emulators]
00:50:48 Mobile support [covering some proposals before wider release/publicity]
00:59:07 Mobile coordination [practitioner info, strategy, mobile-friendliness, improved interfaces]
01:08:06 Mobile web applications and third-parties [reflection on OU web-based approach]
01:12:03 Mobile apps & resources [outline of ePub eBook work]
01:14:40 Mobile exposure [proposal for OU Home mobile]

You may also find the prompt slides useful to identify an area of interest [via]:

Mobile VLE – v2 wrap-up & wider context

Posted on November 4th, 2011 at 4:22 pm by Rhodri Thomas

In the last 4 posts, I have given an overview of new features and enhancements along with some rationale as part of the move from mobile-optimising Moodle 1.9 to 2.1 at the OU. There are a select number of modules that have now migrated to OU VLE2 in the October/November presentation period and more will follow through to February 2012 and beyond. Currently our students will continue on the same basis as before when using mobile – that is on an (open) beta trial with opportunities for feedback and some further enhancements due in December.

In parallel, work continues on proposals to better unify the OU mobile presence from the top down, which will be discussed in the upcoming IET Tech talk, but also mocked up in outline using Google Sites – all subject to approval. Part of this will be to offer commonly-accessible guidance and provide self-help where possible for novices and less familiar users of the (OU) mobile web – again an approach expected to be trialled in early 2012.

Other features of mobile delivery include the extensive work now underway in providing better solutions to ‘long-form’ content previously available only in print. Early prototyping using Structured Content materials in OpenLearn have yielded a range of more interactive and enhanced eBooks in the ePub format [currently implemented for iBooks, with Kindle on its way]. This is a precursor to being able to provide similar materials to students, accessed through OU VLE2 – with some early trialling underway in the OU Business School, Faculty of Business & Law.

Mobile VLE v2 – Quiz improvements

Posted on November 1st, 2011 at 7:41 pm by Rhodri Thomas

Another shorter post to be followed up with more detail at a later point… In this v2 of the Mobile VLE, we also intended to offer greater support for quizzes or interactive computer marked assignments, along with whatever integration was feasible with OU eAssessment tools.

In the first release, support for the more common web form-type quiz activties has been mobile optimised – which includes multiple choice, list selections and simple text box answers – as shown in the screenshots below:

In addition, support for questions involving multimedia are also possible through use of HTML5 media players:

As noted elsewhere, keeping parity between desktop and mobile views is important and so this has been rendered to mobile as well (including indicators on completion and correct/incorrect answers). Where question types aren’t currently supported, students receive a note to prompt completion when next at a desktop:

At this present time, drag-and-drop activity support is being worked on, along with rich text answers and those using scientific/maths notation, and the advice currently is that formative quizzes can be carried out while mobile, but students may prefer to conduct timed or summative assessment on more consistent desktop connections and browsers.

Mobile VLE v2 – Comms/Collaboration

Posted on November 1st, 2011 at 11:39 am by Rhodri Thomas

Only a short post on this set of features for now, but in the interests of maintaining the ability for students to keep on top of their studies, we have optimised as much as is feasible for the Forum, Wiki and Blog tools. However, in evaluating the v1 beta, we found that the plain-text entry form we needed to use gave rise to some potential issues particularly with the wiki, where small errors in adding to or amending the code view could have [detrimental] impact on a group activity. As such we’re still reviewing the best approach.

In the OU ForumNG tool, optimisation also includes being able to collapse and expand messages or threads in addition to replying and posting [with appropriate permissions]:

The OU wiki has been optimised to show a read-only view at present, and will be reviewed alongside other features added at a later date:

The OU blog has also been optimised and comments can be added to existing posts, with the ability to add [rich text] posts again under review at this time:

Going forward, we are also watching with particular interest how apps such as the official Moodle app can be used to enable devices to capture rich media and upload directly to a user filespace for embedding in the collaborative tools. Similarly, the great mobile-optimisation work done by Google on Docs [rich text editing] in particular may be of benefit as we integrate this further with the VLE.

Mobile VLE v2 – Learning content

Posted on November 1st, 2011 at 10:57 am by Rhodri Thomas

In line with the OU push to implement more of the curriculum narrative, scaffolding, signposting and activities online – rather than solely relying on a mixed blend of physical artefacts – the central study planner is a key route through a module. As mentioned in the previous post, this is carried through to the mobile view and in adopting Moodle 2.1 we are now using sub-pages to better structure what was essentially flat navigation [albeit with some inventive workarounds involving 'stealthing'] to a number of assets.

At the same time, while resource pages and PDFs of printed material remain, much of the OU resources have moved to being implemented according to structured content methods – which give rise to many outputs – web content being the main one available on the VLE. [Alternative formats are increasingly available, with personal preferences now simplifying the range of options]
Mobile optimisation of structured content is demonstrated in the screenshots below, with the ability to access the contents page for navigation:

Where possible, some of the more complex layouts including images, tables and sidenotes have been reflowed to better fit the smaller [default portrait] screen of a mobile device. Also similar to the desktop view, the document also indicates what section you last read [and this is carried through to whatever browser you use]:

At this time, some of the interactives, in particular Flash assets, may not work on some devices, but work is now underway to implement HTML5 versions of much of our rich media, including audiovisual clips. An additional feature that can be turned on by the curriculum team is to link (unfamiliar) words in text to the glossary, which has also been optimised in the mobile view. The glossary can also be accessed independently if made available as a resource.

Mobile VLE v2 – New look-and-feel

Posted on October 31st, 2011 at 5:42 pm by Rhodri Thomas

Further to previous blog posts [1][2][3], the new version of our Moodle 2.1-based VLE (or OU VLE2) has been designed with a mobile-optimised view or render in parallel from the beginning. Module websites were released on VLE2 in the last few weeks, and students are already starting to engage with the new implementation, with good feedback so far.

To give a better context, here’s a sample of a demonstration workspace, using examples as if it was a student account viewing the site (hence the full 3 column view) on a desktop – note that the current week is week 4 (offscreen):

On a current, popular handheld mobile (touchscreen) device the same site looks as shown, with 3 columns aligned into a single optimised view covering key aspects of the site with updates, learning materials and activities:

This particular view is optimised for higher-end mobiles, expected to become mainstream over the course of the staged migration cycle to the new VLE2. In particular, students arrive at an enhanced overview or ‘launchpad’ page containing updates on news items and notifying any unread forum messages, followed by the narrative and activities for the current week of study [week 4 highlighted above]. Students can then go to other pages on the new tabbed view to explore prior and future weeks in the study planner, all of their forums and any resources placed alongside for common access throughout the study period. The following screenshots are from an actual live module [D171 : Introduction to counselling]:

At any point, if the user determines that their mobile device is capable, or they prefer for other reasons – they can switch to a desktop view of the site instead (and switch back). Additional features to note are that the student can use the tick-boxes to keep track between devices/interfaces and that if they personalise with a note against any week this is also visible on mobiles.

For lower-end phones, such as ‘feature phones’ and some smartphones, depending on capabilities a different [and more read-only] view of the module site is available through a version of the launchpad similar to that available on VLE1 (or Mobile VLE v1 – beta).

Tablets are catered for in that the desktop experience is shown, but with the option for users to switch to a mobile view if they prefer. It should be noted that some of the interactive tools such as Elluminate will not work (nor will Flash, depending on device and the installation of plugins/apps).

As mentioned previously, the redesign has followed positive student feedback on the current Mobile VLE v1 beta and surveyed responses, to maintain quick access to enable them to keep on top of their studies. This was validated by usability testing and will now provide a common framework for faculties and curriculum teams to build on more mobile-specific activities as appropriate.

Upcoming updates on the Mobile VLE v.2

Posted on October 25th, 2011 at 11:53 am by Rhodri Thomas

It’s been a while, and a lot of development work has been going on with Moodle 2.x, alongside preparatory work for a more holistic mobile presence and support provision in recent months. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be providing more detail on the mobile optimisation work that Stewart Nixon and Anthony Forth in particular have been doing for the just-released new version of the Mobile VLE.

For OU staff there will also be an overview screencast [as part of Online Learning Systems pages for mobile] showing some of the new features, in addition to being able to view the current implementation. Further detail and the wider context will be covered in an IET Technology talk later in November.

Watch this space…

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