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Using the cloud to get to the OU campus

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 21 Nov 2019, 11:25

I get to visit the Open University campus in Milton Keynes with alarming regularity and getting there is always a bit of a trauma; I need to take three trains and then a shuttle bus.  After doing this journey for about two years, I’ve managed to get the timing down to a fine art, but sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as you hope:  I sometimes miss the shuttle bus and I have to catch a taxi. 

I can’t help the feeling that catching a taxi, on your own, is an extraordinary extravagance.  About a year ago, when my train was delayed, I got chatting to a fellow train traveller who was sat opposite me in the same carriage.  I noticed that he was rifling through some papers that contained the unmistakeable university logo.

‘Are you heading to Walton Hall?’ I asked.  It turned out that he was, and my fellow traveller, like me, was planning to catch a taxi to the campus.

‘Fancy sharing a cab?’ I asked.

I turned out that my fellow traveller, who I had never met before, had pretty much the same job as I had: he had the job title of staff tutor, but was based in Wales and worked in the Health and Social Care faculty.  He had travelled up to Milton Keynes after spending a night out with friends in London.  If I hadn’t nosily spotted his university papers, we would have incurred double the amount of expenses, and missed out on an opportunity for a nice chat.

Sharing lifts

Hundreds of people work at The Open University campus in Milton Keynes.  There are so many people travelling between the university and the train station that the university puts on a shuttle bus at peak hours - but what happens if you travel outside of peak hours?  The answer is you either catch a cab (which is costly), or you try to catch a local bus which takes ages and is pretty infrequent.

I don’t mind sharing taxi rides with colleagues.  The problem is that because there are so many of them that I don’t know who they are!  Even if I did know who they were, they might be in another carriage and have hailed and taxi and left the station forecourt before I had a chance to catch up with them.

One solution might be to loiter around the taxi rank and bellow: ‘is there anyone here who is going to THE OPEN UNIVERSITY? Does anyone WANT TO SHARE A CAB?!’ and see what happens.  The problem is that since I’m exceptionally English and doing things like this instils in me a morbid fear of being arrested.

Connections

When I was travelling to the campus one morning, an idle thought went through my mind.  I thought: ‘wouldn’t it be good if I could just take out my mobile phone, start an app, and push a button that says “I’m on the train from London to Milton Keynes – and I would be happy to share a lift to the campus if anyone is up for it…”’ 

This imaginary app would then tell me whether there was anyone else who was on the same train as me, or offer me an alert if anyone on the train would like to share a ride to my destination.  Another variation of this would be to try to find strangers to share journeys with, who might be going to roughly the same part of the city that you were travelling to.  To keep it simple, I thought, ‘no, that would just increase the complexity – let’s just think about this in terms of a single organisation’.

I imagined my app would be able to display the first name of fellow travellers, the faculty or department that they were in (which would be really useful in terms of facilitating a conversation), and also have a picture – so you know what a fellow traveller may look like when you get to the taxi rank.

There would be two obvious wins and one positive side effect.  The two wins were economic (it saves the university money), and environmental (less fuel is burnt to get to the campus).  The side effect is that you might be able to have some great chats, which might help you to keep up to date with what’s going on across the university.

Technical questions

So, how might we make this idea a reality?  Well, we need to figure out how to write an app.  Secondly, we need to figure out how to save data (so we can make a record of who is travelling on which train).  Thirdly, we need to get some data somehow (so we can get information about different trains).  Finally, we need to do a bit of ‘data crunching’ somewhere so we can be alerted as to whether there are other people on our train that we could share a lift with.

Creating an app

So, how do we go about creating an app?  The answer is: there are loads of different ways.  You can either create ‘native apps’ or you could create ‘web apps’ using HTML 5 and Javascript. 

When it comes to native apps, you might want to create an app for either an Android phone, or an iPhone.  If you’re thinking of developing an app for an iPhone, you might use xCode, which is a toolset from Apple (where there is a fancy new programming language called Swift). 

If you’re thinking of developing for an Android phone, you might consider using Android Studio, NetBeans (NBAndroid) or MIT AppInventor (I’m sure there are other tools out there!)  The problem, of course, is that some OU staff use Android phones, and some use iPhones.  To attempt to take the pain away from the nightmare of different platforms, there’s something called PhoneGap (but I don’t know too much about that… it’s all new to me!)

Storing data

Assuming that we build an app, then how do we store (and share) data?  This is where the cloud comes in.  The problem is that I don’t want to spend any money setting up services.  Plus, it’s been an absolute age since I’ve done any of that stuff.  Another solution is to make use of services from existing businesses that have already done all the hard work for you.

There are a quite a few different providers.  One of the biggest is Amazon.  Amazon offers a service that allows you to ‘plug into’ their existing computing and network infrastructure, allowing you to create and use your own virtual machines, which then can store data (since these virtual machines can host databases, like MySQL).  Rather than having to pay, host, and power a whole server (which, arguably, is likely to remain idle for quite a lot of time), you can instead pay for how much processor time, network capacity and data storage you consume.  It’s as if a server has become a utility.  Rather than having to worry about backups and whether you need to buy more processing power, this can all be looked after by a third party: you pay for what you use, allowing you to concentrate on the task of writing code and solving your problem.

Of course, you might not want to use Amazon.  If not, there are loads of other cloud data and service providers you might use.  Two of them who come to mind are that of Rackspace and Microsoft.  The interesting thing about Microsoft (and providers who are similar to them), is that you can choose where your virtual servers live.  If most of your customers are located in North America, it probably makes sense (in terms of network performance) to have your virtual servers served from that part of the world.  If more of your users are located in Europe (such as users who are travelling to and from Milton Keynes), you’re likely to want to host your virtual machines in data centres in Europe.

Another thought is: perhaps you don’t want to store your data in machines that are managed by Amazon or Microsoft.  If so, another approach could be to set up your own private cloud (providing you have your own infrastructure to do this, of course).  You might want to do this if your organisation has already invested quite a lot of capital into IT resources, or government or institutional policy dictates that you wish to make sure that your data is only within the remit of a particular jurisdiction.  Everything in life is always a compromise.  You might want to use your own private cloud as opposed to using a public cloud, but a private cloud is likely to cost in terms of hardware, power and administrative overheads.

If I were seriously writing this app, what would I do?  I would ask the IT people in The Open University to see if they have got a cloud system that I could use.  Whilst I wait for them to get back to me (which can sometimes take quite some time) I also might try to experiment and create a prototype using a public cloud provider, since some of them can give you ‘trial accounts’.

Getting data

Let’s say I’m going to a module meeting in Milton Keynes and I’m sat on the 8.46 train from London Euston.  There are two things I need to do: I need to say ‘I’m on this train’, which means storing a record so other people (meaning: other Open University colleagues) can see that I would be up for sharing a taxi, and also recording which train I was on.  The problem is: I don’t want to go through the trouble of entering ‘8.46 from Euston, London Midland’, since I’m lazy and I don’t have too much patience.  Plus, we need to iron out any ambiguity.

One way to solve this problem is see what trains are currently running (because, what happens if my train is delayed?)  Thankfully, Network Rail provides loads of data feeds (Network Rail), which we could use to choose the right train (and, I’m wondering whether we might be able to use the magic of GPS positioning too!)

As a brief aside, being a London resident, I’m a great fan of an app called CityMapper  (CityMapper website).  It gives you loads of information about different bus routes, trains, underground stations, and hooks up to Google Maps so you can see where you’re going.  An interesting question is: how does it work?  One answer lies with the availability of different data feeds, such as the data feeds that Transport for London provides (TfL data feed summary page).  

Why do TfL provide all this data?  The answer is: that TfL are in the business of providing transport, they’re not in the business of creating new apps for new-fangled computing devices: that’s not their core business.  Once feeds are made available, they can be used in new and creative ways.

Back to our ‘taxi ride sharing’ scenario: let’s say we’ve got a group of four people on the train that are prepared to share a ride to the campus, then what happens?  Who is going to make the call to the taxi company?  One thought is that the colleague who instigated a ‘taxi share request’ could do that job.  Or, alternatively, the taxi app might do it for us (if our chosen taxi company has some kind of mechanism to accept taxi bookings from recognised apps). 

Other issues

When we start to think about all this, we come up against questions of user identity and what it means in terms of a mobile device.  Some of my mobile apps make use of my Google+ account, whereas others make use of Facebook.  This can make things a whole lot easier, but it does worry me a little, mostly because I don’t know the extent to which my data is being used (we’re again back to the question of compromise: convenience traded off for ease of use).  One thing that we might want to do is to create our own ‘identity’ management system.

Another issue is that we’re beginning to step into is the currently fashionable area of smart cities (Wikipedia); the possibility that journeys through urban environments can be aided and abetted by the use and sharing of data.  (Not to mention costs and communications).

Final thoughts

Just as I was finishing this blog, the following email popped into my inbox: ‘would anyone like to share a taxi from MK station tomorrow?  I have a choice of trains, the first one arriving MK at 10:02, if that fits with anyone else’s plans?’

I remember this other time when I was travelling to the University of West of England from Paddington to Bristol Parkway train station.  When I got to Bristol Parkway, I had to catch a taxi from the station to the campus.  When I arrived on campus and started to walk where I needed to go, I recognised someone.  That someone was the gentleman who was sitting on the next row along from me.  Again, if only we had known, or had talked, or hadn’t been so English about our early morning journey, we could have shared a taxi together.

A final question is: given all the things that I’ve found out, am I going to go ahead and create this app?  Sadly, I’ve got a whole load of other deadlines to attend to, which means that I can’t afford to invest the time – but I would really like to, and I hope that someone does go ahead and creates it!  I, for one, would really like to give it a try.

In the meantime, what I have decided to do is to make more of an effort to chat to the people who catch the same shuttle bus as I do.  This way, if the train ever gets delayed, I might have more of a clue about who I could share a taxi with. 

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e-Learning community event: mobile devices

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Thursday, 20 Feb 2014, 12:01

Mobile devices are everywhere.  On a typical tube ride to the regional office in London, I see loads of different devices.  You can easily recognise the Amazon Kindle; you see the old type with buttons, and the more modern version with its touch screen.  Other passengers read electronic books with Android and Apple tablets.  Other commuters study their smart phones with intensity, and I’m fascinated with what is becoming possible with the bigger screen phones, such as the Samsung Note (or phablets, as I understand they’re called).  Technology is giving us both convenience and an opportunity to snatch moments of reading in the dead time of travel.

I have a connection with a module which is all about accessible online learning (H810 module description).  In the context of the module, accessibility is all about making materials, products and tools usable for people who have disabilities.  Accessibility can also be considered in a wider sense, in terms of making materials available to learners irrespective of their situation or environment.  In the most recent presentation of H810, the module team has made available much of the learning materials in eBook or Kindle format.  The fact that materials can be made available in this format can be potentially transformative and open up opportunities to ‘snatch’ more moments of learning.

An event I attended on 11 February 2014, held in the university library, was all about sharing research and practice about the use of mobile devices.  I missed the first presentation, which was all about the use of OU Live (an on-line real time conferencing system) using tablet devices.  The other two presentations (which I’ve made notes about) explored two different perspectives: the perspective of the student, and the perspective of the associate lecturer (or tutor).

(It was also interesting to note that the event was packed to capacity; it was standing room only.  Mobile technology and its impact on learning seems to be a hot topic).

Do students study and learn differently using e-readers?

The first presentation I managed to pay attention to was by Anne Campbell who had conducted a study about how students use e-readers.  Her research question (according to my notes) was whether users of these devices could perform deep reading (when you become absorbed and immersed in a text) and active learning, or alternatively, do learners get easily distracted by the technology?  Active learning can be thought of carrying out activities such as highlighting, note taking and summarising – all the things that you used to be able to do with a paper based text book and materials.

Anne gave us a bit of context.  Apparently half of OU postgraduate students use a tablet or e-reader, and most use it for studying.  Also, half of UK households have some kind of e-reader.  Anne also told us that there was very little research on how students study and learn using e-readers.  To try to learn more, Anne has conducted a small research project to try to learn more about how students consume and work with electronic resources and readers.

The study comprised of seventeen students.  Six students were from the social sciences and eleven students were studying science.  All were from a broad range of ages.  The study was a longitudinal diary study.  Whenever students used their devices, they were required to make an entry.  This was complemented with a series of semi-structured interviews.  Subsequently, a huge amount of rich qualitative data was collected and then analysed using a technique known as grounded theory.   (The key themes and subjects that are contained within the data are gradually exposed by looking at the detail of what the participants have said and have written).

One of the differences between using e-readers and traditional text books is the lack of spatial cues.  We’re used to the physical size of a book, so it’s possible to (roughly) know where certain chapters are once we’re familiar with its contents.  It’s also harder to skim read with e-readers, but on the other hand this may force readers to read in more depth.  One comment I’ve noted is, ‘I think with the Kindle… it is sinking in more’.  This, however, isn’t true for all students.

I’ve also noted that there clear benefits in terms of size.  Some text books are clearly very heavy and bulky; you need a reasonably sized bag to move them around from place to place, but with an e-reader, you can (of course) transfer all the books that you need for a module to the device.  Other advantages are that you can search for key phrases using an e-reader.  I’ve learnt that some e-readers contain a built in dictionary (which means that readers can look up words without having to reach for a paper dictionary).  Other advantages include a ‘clickable index’ (which can help with the navigation).  Other more implicit advantages can include the ability to change the size of the text of the display, and the ability to use the ‘voice readout’ function of a mobile device (but I don’t think any participants used this feature).

I also noted that e-readers might not be as well suited for active learning for the reasons that I touched on above, but apparently it’s possible to perform highlights and to record notes within an ebook.

My final note of this session was, ‘new types of study advice needed?’   More of this thought later.

Perspectives from a remote and rural AL

Tamsin Smith, from the Faculty of Science, talked about how mobile technology helps her in her role as an associate lecturer.  I found the subject of this talk immediately interesting and was very keen to hear learn about Tamsin’s experiences.  One of the modules that Tamsin tutors on consists of seven health science books.  The size and convenience of e-readers can also obviously benefit tutors as well as students.

On some modules, key documents such as assignment guides or tutor notes are available as PDFs.  If they’re not directly available, they can be converted into PDFs using freely available software tools.  When you have got the documents in this format, you can access them using your device of choice.  In Tamsin’s case, this was an iPad mini. 

On the subject of different devices, Tamsin also mentioned a new app called OU Anywhere, which is available for both iOS and Android devices.  After this talk, I gave OU Anywhere a try, downloading it to my smartphone.  I soon saw that I could access all the core blocks for the module that I tutor on, along with a whole bunch of other modules.  I could also access videos that were available through the DVD that was supplied with the module.  Clearly, this appeared to be (at a first glance) pretty useful, and was something that I needed to spend a bit more time looking at.

Other than the clear advantages of size and mobility, Tamsin also said that there were other advantages.  These included an ability to highlight sections, to add notes, to save bookmarks and to perform searches.  Searching was highlighted as particularly valuable.  Tutors could, for example, perform searches for relevant module materials during the middle of tutorials. 

Through an internet connection, our devices can allow access to the OU library, on line tutorials through OU Live (as covered during the first presentation that I missed), and tutor group discussion forums allowing tutors to keep track of discussions and support students whilst they’re on the move.  This said, internet access is not available everywhere, so the facility to download and store resources is a valuable necessity.  This, it was said, was the biggest change to practice; the ability to carry all materials easily and access them quickly. 

One point that I did learn from this presentation is that there is an ETMA file handler that available for the iPad (but not one that is official sanctioned or supported by the university).

Final thoughts

What I really liked about Anne’s study was its research approach.  I really liked the fact that it used something called a diary study (which is a technique that is touched on as a part of the M364 Interaction Design module).  This study aimed to learn how learning is done.  It struck me that some learners (including myself) might have to experiment with different combinations of study approaches and techniques to find out what works and what doesn’t.  Study technique (I thought) might be a judgement for the individual.

When I enrolled on my first postgraduate module with the Open University, I was sent a book entitled, The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northedge (companion website).  It was one of those books where I thought to myself, ‘how come it’s taken me such a long time to get around to reading this?’, and, ‘if only I had read this as an undergraduate, I might have perhaps managed to get a higher score in some of my exams’.  It was packed filled with practical advice about topics as time management, using a computer to study, reading, making notes, writing and preparing for exams.

It was interesting to hear from Anne’s presentation that studying using our new-fangled devices is that little bit different.  Whilst on one hand we lose some of our ability to put post it notes between pages and see where our thumbs have been, we gain mobility, convenience and extra facilities such as searching. 

It is very clear that more and more of university materials can now be accessed using electronic readers.  Whilst this is likely to be a good thing (in terms of convenience), there are two main issues (that are connected to each other) that I think that we need to bear in mind. 

The first is a very practical issue.  It is: how do you get the materials onto our device?  Two related questions are: how can we move our materials between different devices? and, how do we effectively manage the materials once we have saved them to our devices?  We might end up downloading a whole set of different files, ranging from different module blocks, assignments and other guidance documents.  It’s important to figure out a way to best manage these files:  we need to be literate in how we use our devices.   (As an aside, these questions loosely connect with the nebulous concept of the Personal Learning Environment).

The second issue relates to learning.  In the first presentation, Anne mentioned the term ‘active learning’.  The Good Study Guide contains a chapter about ‘making notes’.  Everyone is different, but I can’t help but think that there’s an opportunity for ‘practice sharing’.  What I mean is that there’s an opportunity to share stories of how learners can effectively make use of these mobile devices, perhaps in combination with more traditional approaches for study (such as note taking and paraphrasing).  Sharing tips and tricks about how mobile devices can fit into a personalised study plan has the potential to show how these new tools can be successfully applied.

A final thought relates to the broad subject of learning design.  Given that half of all households now have access to e-readers of one form or another (as stated in the first presentation I’ve covered) module teams need to be mindful of the opportunities and challenges that these devices can offer.  Although this is slightly away from my home discipline and core subject, I certainly feel that there needs to be work to be done to further understand what these challenges and opportunities might be.  I’m sure that there has been a lot more work carried out than I am aware of.  If you know of any studies that are relevant, please feel free to comment below.

Video recordings of these presentations are available through the university Stadium website.

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Using and teaching mobile technologies for ICT and computer science

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:48

 I recently attended an event entitled Mobile Technologies - The Challenge of Learner Devices Delivering Computer Science held at Birmingham City University last week, organised by the Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) Higher Education Academy (HEA) subject centre.

This blog post aims to present a summary of proceedings as well as my own reflections on the day. If any of the delegates or presenters read this (and have any comments), then please feel free to post a reply to add to or correct anything that I've written. I hope these notes might be useful to someone.

Keynote

The day was kicked off by John Traxler from the University of Wolverhampton. Just as any good keynote should, John asked a number of searching questions. The ones that jumped out at me were whether information technology (or computers) had accelerated the industrialisation of education, and whether mobile technologies may contribute to this.

John wondered about the changing nature of technology ownership. On one hand universities maintain rooms filled with computers that students can use, but on the other hand students increasingly have their own devices, such as laptops or mobile phones. 

John also pointed us towards an article in the Guardian, published in July 2010 about teenagers and technology which has a rather challenging subtitle. Mobility and connectedness, it is argued, has now become a part of our identity.

One thing John said jumped out at me: 'requiring students to use a VLE is like asking them to wear a school uniform'. This analogy points towards a lot of issues that can be unpacked. Certainly, a VLE has the potential to present institutional branding, and a uniform suggests that things might done in a particular way. But a VLE also has the potential be be an invaluable source of information to ensure that we know what we need to know to navigate around an institution.

For those of us who had to wear school uniforms, very many of us customised them as much as we possibly could without getting told off for breaking the rules. Within their constraints, it would be possible to express individuality whilst conforming (to get an education). The notion of customisation and services also has a connection with the idea of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) (wikipedia), which, in reality, might exist somewhere in between the world of the mobile, a personal laptop and the services that an institution provides.

Session I

The first session was opened by Kathy Maitland from Birmingham City University. Kathy talked about how she used cloud computing to enable students using different hardware to access different different software services. She spoke about the challenge of using different hardware (and operating system) platforms to access services and the technical challenges of ensuring correct configuration.

John Busch from Queen's university, Belfast made a presentation about how to record lectures using a mobile phone. It was great to see a (relatively) low tech approach being used to make educational materials available for students. All John needed to share his lectures with a wider audience was a mid range mobile phone, a tiny tripod, a desk to perch the mobile phone on, and (presumably) a lot of hard won experience.

John gave the audience a lot of tips about how to make the best use of technology, along with a result from a survey where he asked students how they made use of the recordings he made of his computer gaming lectures. 

A part of his talk was necessarily technical, where he spoke about different data encoding standards and which standard was supported by which mobile (or desktop) platform. One of the members of the audience pointed us to Encoding.com, a website that enables transcoding of digital media. The presentation gave way to interesting discussions about privacy. One of the things that I really liked about John's presentation was that is addressed 'mobile' from different perspectives at the same time: using mobile technology to produce content that may, in turn, be consumed by other mobile devices.

Laura Crane, from Lancaster University then gave an interesting presentation about using location, context and preference in VLE information delivery. Laura's main research question appeared to be, 'which is (potentially) more useful - it is information that is presented at a particular location, or information that is presented in a particular time?'

This reminded me of some research that I had heard of a couple of years ago called context modelling. Laura mentioned a subject or area that was new to me, namely, Situation Theory.  Laura's talk was very well received and it inspired a lot of debate. Topics discussed include the nature of mobility research, the importance of personal or learner attributes on learning (such as learning styles). Discussions edged towards the very active area of recommender research (recommender system, Wikipedia), and out to wider questions of combining location, recommender and affective interfaces (interfaces or systems that could give recommendations or make suggestions depending on emotion). A great talk!

Darren Mundy and Keith Dykes gave a presentation about the WILD Project funded by JISC. WILD is an abbreviation for Wireless Interactive Lecture Demonstrator. The idea behind the project is one that is simple and compelling: how to make use of personal technology to enable students to make a contribution to lectures. By contribution, I mean allowing students to add comments and text to a shared PowerPoint presentation.

A lecturer prepares a PowerPoint presentation and providing there is appropriate internet connectivity, there is a link to a WILD webpage, which the students can send messages to. This might be used to facilitate debate about a particular subject, but also enable those learners who are less reluctant to contribute to 'speak up' by 'texting out'. We were also directed towards the project source code.

During the talk, I was introduced to a word that I had never heard of before: prosumerism (but apparently Wikipedia had!). At the end of the talk, during the Q&A session, one delegate pointed us towards the SAP Twitter PowerPoint plug in, which might be able to achieve similar things.

This last presentation of the morning really got me thinking about my own educational practice, and perhaps this is one of the really powerful aspects of using and working learning technology: it can have the potential to encourage reflection about what is and what is not possible, both inside and outside the classroom. I tutor on an undergraduate interaction design course with the Open University, where I facilitate a number of face to face sessions.

Due to various reasons my tutorials are not well as attended as they could be. Students may have difficulty travelling to a tutorial session, they may have family responsibilities, or even have jobs at the weekend. This is a shame, since I sense that some students would really benefit from these face to face sessions. The WILD presentation make me wonder whether those students who attend a face to face tutorial might be able to collectively author a summary PowerPoint that could then be shared with the group of students who were unable to attend. Interactivity, of course, has the potential to foster inclusivity and ownership. Simply put, the more a student does within a lecture (or puts into it) the more they may get out of it.

Session II

After lunch, the second session proved to be slightly more technical. The first half was merely a warm up!

The second session kicked off with demonstration by Doug Belshaw. Doug works for JISCInfoNet. This part of JISC aims to provide information and products known as InfoKits which can be used by senior management to understand and appreciate a range of different education and technology issues. We were directed towards examples, such as effective practice in a digital age, and effective assessment in a digital age. A new kit, entitled JISC mobile and wireless technologies review is currently under presentation.

Doug asked the audience to share information about any case studies. A number of projects were mentioned, along with a set of links. During the discussion part of the demo we were directed towards m.sunderland.ac.uk , and this makes me wonder whether the 'm.' is a convention that I'm not aware of (and perhaps ought to be!) Something called iWebKit was also mentioned. Other projects included MyMobileBristol.com, in collaboration with Bristol University and Bristol City Council. For more information visit the m.bristol.ac.uk site.

There was also a mention of a service provided by Oxford University, m.ox.ac.uk (the project also has an accompanying press release) This service appears to have been developed in association with something called the Molly Project, which seems to be a mobile application development framework. There was a lot to take in!

Gordon Eccleston from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen gave a fabulous presentation about his work teaching programming the iPhone. Having remained steadfastly in the desktop world, and admitting to being a laggard on the mobile technology front, Gordon answered many questions that I have always had about how one might potentially begin to write an iPhone application. Gordon introduce us to the iPhone software development kit, which I understand was free to universities. The software used to create Apps is called Xcode.  Having predominantly worked within a PC software development environment for too many years than I would care to admit, a quick poke around the Apple Tools website looked rather exciting; a whole new world of languages, terms and technologies.

Gordon had a number of views about the future of App development. He thought that XHTML 5, CSS 3 and accompanying technologies would have an increasingly important role to play. On a related note, the cross mobile platform PhoneGap was mentioned during the following presentation which makes use of some of these same technologies. (Digging further into the web, there's a Wikipedia page called Multiple phone web based application framework, which might prove to be interesting.  There was also some debate about which platform mobile might dominate (and whether mobile dominance may depend on whether how many Apple stores there may be within a particular city or country!)

Gordon also briefly talked about some of the student project he has been involved with. A notable example was an iPhone app for medical students to learn ophthalmology terms and concepts. There were some really good ideas here; how to create applications that have direct benefit to learners by the application of mobile technology through learning how they can be developed.

Karsten Lundqvist from the University of Reading offered technology balance to the day by presenting his work teaching the development of Android applications. Karsten began his presentation by considering the different platforms: iPhone, RIM, and Android, but the choice of platform was ultimately decided by the availability of existing hardware, namely, PC's running Windows or Linux. In place of using Xcode, Java with Eclipse was used. I seem to remember that students may have had some experience using C/C++ before attending the classes, but I can't quite remember.

The question and answer session was really interesting. One delegate asked Karsten whether he had heard of something called the Google Android App Inventor, another mobile software development platform. It was also interesting to hear about the different demo apps. Karsten showed us a picture of a phone in a mini-segway cradle, demonstrating the concept of real-time control, there was also a reference to an app that may help people with language difficulties, and Karsten pointed us to his own website where he has been developing a game template by means of a blog tutorial.

Towards the end of Karsten's session, I recall an echo from the earlier HEA employability event which explored computing forensics. One of the ideas coming from this event was that perhaps it might be a good idea for institutions to share forensic data sets. An idea posed within this event was that perhaps institutions might be able to share application ideas or templates, perhaps for different platforms. Some ideas might include fitness utilities, 'finding your way around' apps (very useful: I still remember my days being a confused fresher during my undergrad days!), simple game templates, and flash card apps to help students to learn a number of different concepts.

Plenary

The plenary discussion was quite wide ranging, and is quite difficult to down to a couple of paragraphs. My own attempt at making sense of the day was to understand the key topics in terms of 'paired terms', which might be either subject dimensions or tensions (depending on how you look at it).

VLEs and apps: different software with different purposes, which connect to the idea of information and content. Information might be where to go to find a lecture theatre, or the location of a bank, and content is a representation of the course materials itself.

Ownership and provision: invariably students will have their own technology, but to what extent should an organisation provide technology to facilitate learning? Provision has been historically thought of in terms of rooms filled with computers, and necessarily conservative institutional IT provision (to make sure that everything keeps working). Entwined with these issues is the notion of legacy information and the need for institutions (and learners) to keep up with technology.

Development and usage: where does the information or content come from? To what extent might consumers of mobile information potentially participate in the development of their own content? Might this also create potential dangers for institutions and individuals. This is related to another tension of control, namely, institutional versus individual control, of either information, content or technology.

Guidance and figuring things out: when it comes to learning, there is always a balance to be reached between providing just enough guidance that enables learners to gain enough information so that they find the information that they need. On one hand, there may be certain apps that facilitate learning in their own right, apps that provide information, and apps that may present content held within a VLE. One idea might be that we may need a taxonomy of uses for both an institution and an individual.

Industry and academia: a two way relationship. We must provide education (about mobile) that industry needs, and also make use of innovations coming from industry, but also we have a role to innovate ourselves and potentially feedback into industry. (I seem to recall quite a few delegates mentioning something called mCampus, but I haven't been able to uncover any information about it!)

Other discussion points that were raised included the observation that location-based information provision is new, and the need to interact with people is one of the things that is driving the development of technology. A broader question, posed by John Traxler was, 'does mobile have the potential to transform teaching and learning?' Learners, of course, differ very widely in terms of their experience and attitude to interactive products.

Points such as accessibility, whether it being availability of technology or ability to perceive information through assistive technologies are also substantial issues. The wider organisational and political environment is also a significant factor when it comes to the development of mobile applications, and their subsequent consumption.

Footnote

All in all, a very enjoyable day! As I travelled into Birmingham from London on the train on the morning of the event my eye caught what used to be the site of an old industrial centre. I had no idea what it used to be. I could see the foundations of what might have been a big factory or a depot. I was quite surprised to discover that Millenium Point building also overlooked the same area.

Walking to the train station for my return journey to London, I thought, 'wouldn't it be great if there was an app that could use your location to get articles and pictures about what used to be here before; perhaps there could be a timeline control which users could change to go back in time to see what was there perhaps twenty, thirty or even one hundred years before'. I imagined a personal time machine in the palm of your hand. I then recalled a mash-up between Google Maps and Wikipedia, and had soon uncovered something called Wikimapia.

Like so many of these passing ideas, there's no such thing as an original thought. What really matters is how such technology thoughts are realised, and the ultimate benefit they may have to the different sets of end user.

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