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Using the Kindle for research and studying

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Nov 2014, 15:03

I have to confess, that when it comes to some technologies, I am a bit of a laggard.  It was only very recently that decided to get to grips with understanding the mysterious world of eReaders.  I have two excuses: the first is that there’s just so much ‘tech’ to keep on top of, which means that it’s difficult to know what to do next (which is actually a pretty lame excuse), and secondly, I’ve always been a bit sceptical about the screen quality of eReaders.

About a month ago, I requested a new book from the University library to do some preparatory reading for a new course I’m involved with.  The library turned around my request pretty quickly, but they also sent me an email that suggested that I’ve got some figuring out to do.  It was: ‘we only supply that text book in eBook format’.  No dead tree variety?  No, apparently they don’t do that anymore.

Back at home, I searched around for a box that contained a discarded Christmas present that one of my relatives had received and had then given to me after a couple of months; it was an Amazon Kindle.  After figuring out how to give it some power, the first thing I did was connect it up to my Amazon account.  I was gradually finding my way into being a ‘contemporary reader’.

This blog might be useful for anyone who has to use these eReader devices for their studies.  It might also be useful for any of my colleagues who have to battle with the mixture of convenience and frustration that accompanies the use of eReaders. 

I say ‘eReaders’, what I actually mean is ‘Kindle’, for now.  And when I say ‘Kindle’, is actually the really old ones with keyboards and black and white screen, and not any those new-fangled colour models.

The first section is all about figuring out how to read a text book.  The second section is all about how to download Open University on-line materials to your device (so you can read it on the go).  Some of the OU courses are presented entirely on line.  Two examples of this are: TT284 Web technologies, and H810 Accessible on-line learning: supporting disabled students. I describe how you might (potentially) go about downloading an on-line course to your device, so you can get ahead with your studies.

The third part is a bit of useful fun.  I asked myself the question, ‘I wonder what books I can get hold of for free?’  The answer is, ‘actually, quite a few’.  In the final section I share a few tips about how to download books that are out of copyright.  I, for one, haven’t been a great reader of the classics (I’ve been too busy messing around with computers; another lame excuse), but there are loads that are clearly available.

Working with text books

Apparently, the OU has a website called Mobile Connections, which offers some guidance about the use of mobile devices (OU website) and pointers to mobile strategy documents.  This is all very well, but how do I get a text book onto my device.

After clicking around the university library and attempting to access the text book that I wanted to ‘take out’, I was presented with the following message: "Patrons using iPads, iPhones or Android devices can download and read EBL content via the free Bluefire reader app. "  Now, I don’t have an iPad or an iPhone, and I’ve explicitly made a decision not to read any textbooks on my Android phone simply because my eyes are not up to it.  I haven’t heard about the Bluefire app, but the Bluefire website may or not be useful.

Another part of the library message was that "Downloaded EBL ebooks can also be transferred to any portable ebook reader that supports Adobe Digital Editions (ADE). There's a list of these compatible devices on the ADE website"

I had never heard of Adobe Digital Editions before but I’ve managed to find an Adobe website that offers a bit of information.  I had a good look on the ‘compatible devices’ list and my Kindle device wasn’t listed, which was pretty frustrating (to put it mildly).

All this frustration highlighted a division between two different formats: one called ePub and another called mobi.  Apparently ePub is an open standard, whereas mobi is owned by Amazon.  I soon saw that you couldn’t put ePubs on my Kindle, which was a bit rubbish.

 I asked myself two inevitable questions: ‘is it possible to convert an ePub to a mobi, and if you can, how do you do it?’  Thankfully, the internet is a wonderful thing, and I soon found a product called Calibre (website).  Calibre is described as a ‘free and open source e-book library management application developed by users of e-books for users of e-books’.  It’s a tool that you can download onto your PC, put an ePub in one side, and get a Kindle mobi book out of the other (with a bit of clicking and messing around in between).

 One thing that Calibre can’t do is take account of DRM.  DRM, or digital rights management, is used to protect media from being copied between different devices (which is why you need software like the Amazon Digital Editions).  If your ePub is protected by DRM (or, someone has said that you can’t copy it), then you can’t convert from one format to another.

For sake of argument, let’s say you’ve got a freely available text book that is useful with your module.  How do you go about transferring it to your Kindle?  In my naivety, I thought I could use the ‘old school’ technique of plugging it into the USB port of my computer and dragging files around.  Unfortunately, due to local OU system policies, staff cannot to write data to external USB devices due to an information security management policy.   As soon as I connected up my Kindle, I was presented with a message that read, ‘do you want to encrypt your device?’  If you’re ever asked that question in response to any e-reader you have, say ‘no’ straight away.  Thankfully, I did have the foresight to say no, as otherwise my Kindle would have probably been rendered useless.

Since I was unable to transfer my mobi files directly from my PC to my Kindle, how should I do it?  The answer came from a colleague: you email the books or any files that you want to read through your device to your Kindle account.  When you’ve done this, and you turn on your Kindle, magic happens, your document is downloaded.  If you’re interested, Amazon have some helpful pages (Amazon website).

Working with OU resources

More and more OU resources are being made available in Kindle and ePub formats.  This, I believe, can only be described as a ‘very good thing’ since some of the OU books can be pretty bulky.  When you’re working with an eReader, you can sometimes put all your module materials on your device.  When I go to tutorials, I tend to bring all the OU books with me – but rather than carrying them, I have them all preloaded on a Kindle.  This said, I am a great fan of paper; you can do things on paper that you can’t do with electronic devices and visa-versa, i.e. you can search for a term in an eBook, and you can scribble in your books with different coloured pens (and stick things between pages).

Not long after starting to mess around with my Kindle I realised I could do exactly the same with the other module materials I need to work with from time to time. I quickly realised that there would be a problem: things would start to get pretty confusing if I had all the different eBooks in one place on my Kindle.  Thankfully, there is a concept of a category.

After emailing a load of different mobi books to my Kindle, I noticed that my ‘TT284 category’ (I thought it was a good idea to group resources based on module code) became quickly overloaded, and I noticed that the default display order was the order in which the books were downloaded in.  Although this was useful, I got myself into a bit of a muddle with the download sequence.  I soon realised that it’s possible to change the ordering according to the title which made for a really nice sequence of module materials.

I’ve now got categories for all of the different modules I have downloaded resources for: H810, TT284 and M364 Fundamentals of Interaction Design.  For M364, I have a mobi version of the assignment booklet, and PDF copies of the four blocks.  I don’t, however, have a copy of the set text. 

The M364 set text is huge, and it’s a real pain to carry around, and students have regularly asked whether there are electronic versions that they could download.  Unfortunately, publishers are only just beginning to catch up with the new ways in which institutions and students consume their materials.  For now, we’ve got to battle on with a mixture of paper text books and OU materials which can be provided in a digital format.

Free books!

After months of it being in a box on my shelf, I’ve finally figured out how to use my Kindle.  Now that it’s jam packed with learning resources and I’m getting used to its screen (which isn’t too bad), I started to think about how I might use it to read stuff ‘for fun’, i.e. using it to read novels and non-fiction.

I quickly remembered Project Gutenberg which was a project dedicated to digitising books that were out of copyright.  I took another quick look at this and discovered that they now had books in eBook format, which was great news.  A quick look around took me to an interesting page called the Best Books Ever Listings (Project Gutenberg) I also discovered all these different ‘bookshelves’ organised by topic.  I really recommend that you have a good look around.

Another really good source of free (or really cheap) books is Amazon.  Within minutes of looking around I found a number of classics that I had never read before.  I clicked on a ‘buy’ button, and these new books were delivered to my device.  (Plus, since an eBook doesn’t have a cover, you can download some particularly racy books and read them when you’re on the train and no one would be any the wiser…!)

And finally…

As I said earlier, it sometimes takes me a while to get on top of a technology; I used to be someone who always wanted to mess around with the latest technologies and gadgets.

I don’t really know why it’s taken me so long to get to grips with eReaders.  I’m someone who likes the feel and smell, and flexibility of physical books.  This said, I’ve come to see that eReaders can give learners a flexibility that they never had before; an ability to carry everything around easily, and the ability to search for terms and phrases.  When a lot of material has moved ‘on-line’, eReaders can help us to access content in a convenient way without being always tied to a computer.  I think this is a really good thing.

I’m someone who loves to make notes.  One thing that you can’t do (very easily) is make scribbly notes on eBook pages, but that is okay: I’ll just have to figure out some new study strategies.

The more that you look at something, the more you think about different possibilities.  Looking at the Kindle has caused me to ask myself a further question, which is: how might you create an eBook from scratch?

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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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HEA Workshop: Teaching and learning programming for mobile and tablet devices

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Monday, 3 Mar 2014, 18:44

On 25 June 2013, I popped over to the London Metropolitan University to attend a HEA sponsored workshop that was all about how to best teach the programming of mobile devices.  My role there was to present something about an OU module that I help out on: TT284 Web Technologies, but I'll be saying a bit more about that in a little while.

Yanguo Jing, from London Met kicked off the day by talking about the twenty credit MSc module that he leads.  Yanguo said that his module is strongly connected with industry and various technology vendors and important themes are that of innovation and enterprise.  Importantly, students have an opportunity to carry out research themselves, create their own projects, develop their own apps and present their own findings.  One way that they do this is by making their own videos (which is also a great way to create evidence which can be contributed to assessments).

Yanguo also mentioned something called the Wow Agency. One of the important points of having a more direct connection with industry is that students get more immediate exposure to demands from industry.  This was thought provoking stuff.

Teach the future, not the past: Blackberry 10 development

Luca Sale and Simon Howard gave the first of two vendor presentations.  I'll put my hand up and say that I know next to nothing about developing applications for Blackberry devices.  In fact, I don't think I've ever used a Blackberry device other than to scroll through a message, when a friend briefly gave me their device to look at!

This presentation was all about developing for a new device, the Blackberry 10.  I have heard bits and pieces about this, but the new device has a totally new operating system called Z10.  Interestingly, it is based on an operating system called QNX (Wikipedia) (which I had vaguely heard of before).  Basically, it uses a microkernal architecture (which means it has a way to enforce stronger separation between the hardware and the main operating system that runs a device), it's pretty small, and is used in a range of different embedded systems.

Apparently, there are number of Software Development kits (SDKs) which means that it's possible to take an existing Android app and port it to the Blackberry (and have it deployed to users via the Blackberry equivalent of an app store).  The SDKs that were mentioned included Qt, HTML 5, Blackberry native, Adobe Air, and Java Android Runtime.

There was a quick live coding demo of how to create apps using the HTML 5 framework.  Other languages that might be used to craft code included Javascript (in conjunction with HTML 5), C++, and Java (as far as I understand).  At the end of the presentations, Nafeesa Dajda described the Blackberry Academic Programme (Blackberry).

Microsoft devices and services

Lee Stott continued the vendor specific part of the day by making a Microsoft themed presentation.  Microsoft, of course, has been investing significantly into the mobile devices space.  Not only do they have Windows phones, but they (of course) also have their Touch PCs.  So much so, that their new operating system (Windows 8) aims to create an experience specifically for tablet devices.

Lee talked about software eco systems and mentioned that services (as well as devices) are important too.   Services can also be thought of in terms of cloud services, and we were told that the cloud was becoming more and more important.  Since data is stored elsewhere, users have the potential to move between different devices and still have access to their documents and data, thus enhancing the user experience.  

One of the most interesting part of Lee's talk was where he spoke about the Microsoft Azure services.  I have to confess that it's been quite a while since I've been a Microsoft developer (in the intervening years I've done some PHP and coding using open-source frameworks), so it was useful to learn what the company has been up to and what services they are offering.

One of the challenges that I've always puzzled over is if you run your own tech company, how you might go about running and maintaining your own servers and databases.  System administration is a necessary, important and essential evil: getting to grips with real kit and devices is important, but is a detailed technical specialism in its own right.

If I've understood this correctly, Microsoft can host a virtual server which then can host your own database.  I'm also assuming that if you want, you can also write your own web services to do whatever magic stuff you need to do, which can then be consumed by users of mobile devices (or any other kind of client).  Customers of this service are then billed per minute of processor time.  I can see the benefits; server plant depreciates quickly and keeping them maintained is always going to cost money.  I find this approach to hosting and consuming data really interesting, especially since it offers an approach to devolve risk to a third party.  Of course, there are a number of competitors (Wikipedia) in the cloud services arena.  This whole area seems to be a new subject in its own right.

Just in case you're interested, here's a couple of links I've gathered up: the main Microsoft Faculty pages, the UK faculty connection blog, and a link to the Azure education blog.   Another link is DreamSpark which seems to be about giving students and institutions access to some of the latest tools and technologies.

TouchDevelop for Windows Mobile 8

The next talk was by David Renton, who is a lecturer in Computer Games Development.  David introduces a platform called TouchDevelop (Microsoft website) which used to be a Microsoft Research project. TouchDevelop is a programming language that has a graphical feel.  Programs that are created using it have an appearance of a textual language, but elements of code can be created using a series of menus (as far as I can understand).

The software that you can create using TouchDevelop can be run on different mobile devices.  In some respects, TouchDevelop occupies the same space as Scratch (MIT website).  David makes the point that it's difficult to create good games in Scratch.  I can (personally) neither confirm nor deny David's assertion, but my own view is that Scratch is a fun and useful environment which allows users to escape from the tyranny of syntax, whilst at the same gradually introducing users to different (and essential) programming constructs.

What was really interesting was that TouchDevelop contains cool stuff, such as a physics engine.  By providing such a facility, I can certainly see how and why such an environment could be particularly interesting and engaging.  Again, for those who are interested, David has a blog called Games4Learning.  A final interesting point is that TouchDevelop runs in a web browser, so will work on different platforms.

Shorter presentations: Lua and Corona, Digital Summer Camp

Ian Masters gave a short presentation entitled, 'teaching cross-platform mobile development using Lua and Corona'.  Corona (website) is a software development SDK and Lua (Wikipedia) is a programming language.  Like TouchDevelop, Ian demonstrated the use of an integral physics engine.  During the follow on discussion, there was quite a bit of talk about the Unity Engine (Wikipedia), which I've heard mentioned at a number of other HEA gaming and mobile events.

Martin Underwood talked about Digital Summer Camp which is an event where universities, colleges, industry vendors and other organisations have come together help to inspire young people who are interested in technology.  The Open University is also one of the 'digital skill leaders'.

iPhone game development at Robert Gordon University

Gordon Eccleston has been teaching the development of apps for quite some time.  He gave a short talk on what works and what hasn't worked.  Gordon introduced a new term: a flip classroom!  I hadn't heard this term before, but apparently this is where students do some preparatory work at home to prepare for tutorials (I think I've got that right!)

Gordon spoke about how things have changed.  These days students invariable have their own devices.  One difficulty is that vendors are always changing their devices, which means that lecturers face challenge in terms of an inability to control in their own environment.  This said Gordon does have access to some iPod Touch devices, allowing code created using the XCode platform (the environment used to create iOS applications) to real devices.

Gordon also mentioned that the school had access to the Unity3D engine.  This gave way to an interesting discussion about the difference between games programming versus games design courses.  I've also made a note that when it comes to submission of course work, submission to an apps store represents one judgement on quality.  When it comes to further assessment by the lecturer, one approach is to ask students to create a screen cast.  Assessment, I seem to recall, is a perpetual challenge (especially with the continual changes in technology), as is how to provide both teaching and resources through a web based environment.

Mobile apps development: enhancing student employability

Sally Smith and Scott McGowan, both from Edinburgh Napier University gave a short talk and presentation on the importance of employability skills.  Sally, who is the head of school, said that employers value relevant experience, want to see applicants who have a relevant degree, and have good soft skills. 

Faced with the necessity to demonstrate employability skills, it was argued that it would be useful if students could create something (say, an app, or some other related project) that can be both added to a CV and talked about in an interview.  Sally also talked about the importance of industrial experience and how her institution and school tackled this issue.

Teaching and assessment strategies in mobile development

David Glass teaches mobile development to second year undergraduates at the University of Ulster.  Students can create apps for the Android platform with Java using Eclipse.  Important parts of the module that I've noted down are subjects such as user interface design, data persistence and networking.  There is also a period of self-study where students are to gain an overview of mobile devices.

Challenges include teaching of programming and understanding what to assess and how.  The assessment approach that David mentions sounds really interesting.  Students are required to address legal, ethical and social issues.  They are then required to develop a basic app before moving on to creating something that is more advanced.  A basic app might be something such as a simple calculator or a measurement converter.  

Interestingly, a more advanced app might be something called a 'my run tracker' app.  David made the important point that the task of creating apps lends themselves to more open-ended assessment and group work.  Taking this approach has the potential to encourage creativity and help with motivation.

Design designers, don't program programmers

Lindsay Marshall, from the University of Newcastle, gave an impromptu talk that described his own ten credit postgraduate module and connected with many of the earlier debates.  At the end of his module, students are required to submit a portfolio.  Relating to the challenges of assessments, students were allowed to choose whatever platform they wanted, and choose whatever problem they wished to solve.  Students were encouraged to produce a design log and to present some kind of demonstration.  Moving forward this may take the form of a video presentation or recording.

Lindsay made the important point that it is also important to take the time to look at the code, as well as the final product.  Another component is the writing of a reflective essay, to describe what was learnt during the project.  Interestingly, there are no lab sessions.  Instead, Lindsay mentioned the importance of crit sessions, which is an important technique used in design.

What was really struck me from Lindsay's presentation was something that was also pretty obvious: that there are significant connections between the design disciplines and software development.  Both are fundamentally creative subjects, and both require people to understand the inherent nature and characteristics of problems.

Web technologies

And finally, it was my turn.  During my slot I spoke about a new Open University module called Web Technologies (TT284, Open University website), emphasising the point that there are so many important technologies that underpin the use of mobile technologies and devices. 

TT284 is interesting in a number of different ways.  Firstly, is uses a set of case studies of increasing size.  Students move from understanding how to create an app for a small club or society, through to understanding what might happen as a part of a software development company.  Students are then introduced to 'software in the large' (or sites that have incredibly high volumes), and what practical issues might need to be addressed.

When it comes to mobile technologies, drawing on a case study, students are asked to create an app for an Android device using MIT App Inventor (MIT website).  App Inventor is a graphical programming language, where code can be moved to real advices.  One of the challenges for any module that aims to either teach mobile technologies is the way that technology changes so quickly.  A really good aspect of this particular module is that it also addresses a good number of fundamental and really important standards and technologies.

Reflections

I learnt quite a lot from the vendor presentations and it's always useful to hear about the industrial perspective, particularly in a field that is moving so phenomenally quickly.  Whilst it's great for academics to learn what industry is getting up to (and you might argue that this is a thoroughly essential part of the job description), the presence of vendors links to an implicit battle for the hearts and mind for developers.  Users choose devices and technology that allows them to do cool stuff.  Cool stuff is created by developers.  Developers, in many cases, come from universities.  Taking this even further, developers are employed by industries who ultimately want people to be skilled in using particular software infrastructures and ecologies. 

Things have changed since I first started to go to these mobile technology events.  There are now many more devices than there were before.  The devices themselves have changed - they have more memory and power, and on the horizon there is a new generation of faster mobile networks.  By the same token, there are, of course, new tools, development environments, frameworks and libraries.  Educators are faced with the challenge of what to teach.  Some educators choose particular platforms, whereas others leave this decision entirely up to students.

When it comes to pedagogy, project and group work appears to be fundamentally important, particularly when it comes to developing employability skills and creating artefacts that can be presented to potential employers.  Keeping things open (in terms of either platforms or the problems that can be solved by the application of mobile technology) can present some challenges when it comes to assessment.  There seems to be some consensus in terms of asking students to produce videos of their working apps might be a good approach.

Making a decision about what platform to use or to develop for isn't an easy one.  When I was a student I was once told by a faculty member that 'you really need to know how to use all types of technology'.  His point was that you will more readily be able to move between one platform and another.  In doing so, you'll gain a degree of flexibility that will allow you to appreciate how things might be done in different ways.  This is a perspective that has stuck with me and one that is important since the platform that you're using now will eventually become obsolete in a couple of years' time.

When it comes to mobile technology, everyone is trying to figure what things we should be teaching and what the best approaches for teaching might be.  When we're dealing with an industry that is moving as quick as it is, these kind of events can be useful in terms of making connections and putting a marker in the ground whilst saying, 'this is how we do things today'. 

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