Technology Ecosystems


I feel a bit embarrassed having only secured one single blog post in 2013 . My mentor Martin Weller would be ashamed of me. Interestingly though, according to my annual feedback, my blog received almost as many visits in 2013 as 2012 (around 3000 visitors). Is that a reflection that the content is becoming more valuable as time passes?

Reflecting on 2013, for me it’s been the year of turning aspirations into products. For the iSpot project for example I created what I called a “Technical Roadmap”, which is really a grand way of saying that we had so much to deliver from a total of four different funders, we also been involved in BBC TV series (The Great British Year) and in the OU’s first Futurelearn MOOC on Ecosystems. (Which I took part but sadly became a drop-out!)

As a consequence we needed to ramp up the technical management of the project for what was an extremely challenging year and the Technical Roadmap helped us to keep our sanity (most of the time). Richard Greenwood has created a project blog about the main technical work during 2013.

Here are a some of my highlights:

globe1. Internationalisation/Community (the link takes you to the UK and Ireland community)- This is by far the biggest technical feat of the year for iSpot. The system now supports numerous communities organised according to geographical or taxonomic criteria. Richard Greenwood worked very hard on the functionality, which uses polygon mapping to calculate areas (and use multiple polygons so a region such as the UK, or Eastern Europe can be mapped out). The difficulty was providing communities without destroying the taxonomy (species dictionaries) as these sometimes span many areas. With the UK is was simple but now there are multiple dictionaries (one for Global iSpot) that need to be used in the correct places. Richard therefore couples the taxonomies to the observations locations, but decoupled it from the community (polygon) model, thus allowing freedom to create communities without having to use a dictionary that wasn’t relevant to their locale. The technology used is MariaDB and Open Street Map for creating polygons (and Google maps for displaying them). Richard also implemented Geo-IP to direct people to the correct community be default and the system will also allow people to move to different communities. Communities don’t have to be countries (we now have a budding Chilean community on iSpot for example ). Communities have their own News items and maps which are centred on their geographical region, and observations relevant to that community. Communities don’t just have to be geographical, they can also be around organisations or species or in fact anything that can be filtered against within iSpot, this makes the feature potentially very powerful.

species surfer2. A species surfer – The species surfer (or ID tool as it was originally called) allows anyone on iSpot to browse the species dictionary (taxonomy) using images to represent the main categories and sub-categories. Within a sub-category people can look at the variety of types to track down ones that are similar to their own observations. We know from talking to users that this is something they’ve been interested in having. Many people use Google and other sites to try to find out more about their observations and we thought that since iSpot has over 250,000 observations, the majority of which have been accurately identified, we should use that feature and draw it to people’s attention. It also acts as a learning tool and we hope it will be useful for field studies and research, from novices through to experts. This has only just been released so we still have further work to do to improve it but we want to get feedback from users since we know that there is still more work to do on this. The iSpot team have  provided  help information to guide people in how to use it correctly.

quiz13. Intelligent quiz – The existing crowdsourced identification model within iSpot, rewarding improvement in ability to identify observations, provides some of evidence that people are learning and improving their understanding of nature through iSpot, however it isn’t full-proof. For example a person may gain reputation through identifying very common species and without expanding their knowledge of other species. We therefore require empirical evidence of improvement in people’s ability to identify a greater variety of observations as their reputation improves; the iSpot intelligent quiz is designed to test this knowledge. The quiz was launched in July 2013, since then around 350 people per week have taken one or more quizzes, so an average of around 50 people per day. The quiz is tailored to the level and subject area that people request when they start a new quiz on iSpot. The reputation level that iSpot provides is a good indicator of the level that people should take but there is no restriction on the level so, for example, a level five expert could take  a level 1 quiz and vice versa. The data from the weekly logs shows however the people are averaging about 7 out of ten for quizzes across the skills levels which suggests that people are naturally finding a level which challenges them.

The quiz has a number of different types of question that test a range of knowledge within a specific domain, some questions are multiple choice and others are about entering the correct name or type of observation, some examples are shown below:-


The quiz is largely image-based and relies on people correctly identifying observations. The quiz is open to both visitors to the website who have not yet registered, and also to registered users. Registered users have the benefit of being able to look back at previous quizzes they have taken to compare results. As part of the intelligence the quiz tries to select images which have been agreements and ones which are non-contentious, for example it will attempt to filter out hybrid types. In the example below people can use the button in the right hand corner of the image to expand it and see additional detail.


Certain questions prompt people to enter correct names associated with an image, they are based on the names given within the species dictionary on iSpot. The system will look up the dictionary and offer suggestions for entries that match, or which are very similar to, the name entered by the user.


We collect overview information about the quizzes on a weekly basis, including information about preferred groups, as you can see from the chart below birds consistently prove to be the most popular category for people taking the quiz.



The weekly statistics show us that the percentage of visitors who take quizzes compared to registered users varies from week to week.

For example during w/c 16th September 2013 about three quarters of people taking the quiz are registered users as indicated in the following diagram.

Interestingly during the previous week the ratio was more like 60/40 in favour of registered users so this seems to be indicating that as time passes the quiz may be becoming more popular with registered users however this will require further data analysis.


Each quiz has up to ten questions so the table below shows that during the previous week there is an 80.7% completion rate.

The completion rate for the previous week was 89.1% and completion rates seem to fall consistently within 80%-89% percent range.

quiz8We are tracking the average scores of people who take the quiz and the results show us that there is only a very slight variation in score between people who class themselves as novice and take a level 1 quiz and people who class themselves as expert and take the level 5 quiz.

There is a slight decrease from 7.5 to 6.5 going from level 2 to level 3 and beyond however it is worth bearing in mind that the quiz provides novice users with up to three “lifelines” to use to help them (a lifeline is typically where two of the four choices are removed to make it simpler for people to find the correct remaining answer).

We have yet to analyse the raw data coming from the quizzes and because the service is relatively new we need more time before we can start to get useful trend data to help us demonstrate that people are increasing in their knowledge of nature through using iSpot.

In particular we need to understand the relationship between the amount of time people have been using iSpot and the level of knowledge they have attained. The data already indicates that people who use iSpot are gaining knowledge about nature and over the next few months we will be conducting further data analysis to understand exactly how this is being achieved.

These are just a selection of some of the new features in iSpot (I have at least 24 more to share with you!). I am very interested in how these systems evolve over time and the nature of the co-evolution of the technology and the people using that technology.

The Facebook we see today is very different from the first iteration of Facebook.

People are generally much more technology aware, and use technologies frequently for “selfies” and to share with others in a connected way. Systems must therefore evolve to support the changing perceptions of users to technology and iSpot can naturally support learning using images and photographs that people nowadays naturally want to share.

I’ve summarised some of the latest iSpot features that explain this co-evolution process in a presentation that I gave in December. We “technocrats” rely heavily on the community, and the subject experts to help us create services that are useful and provide mechanisms of learning and improvement.

I will be continuing  over the coming months to give examples of the richness of the  systems that we’re working on the Institute of Educational Technology. Working in partnership with the Science Faculty and Open Media Unit and the 36,000 users of iSpot.


iSpot roller banner - final

iSpot logo

I’ve been busy. Sorry. Very unbloggy recently. My contribution to the blogosphere and Twitter has been pathetic. Where was I?

Magile? = Mobile + Agile?

One of the reasons has been that I’ve been managing a project over the past year to create a participatory science mobile app for the iSpot project – actually it’s taken more than a year and we’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride with this one. I’ve documented the process in a conference paper that I’m pleased to say has been accepted for mLearn 2012. There’s a ‘stable beta’ version on the Google Play store, it’s really only a proof of concept as the more innovative pedagogic/technical features such as ‘around here’ (geo-spatial data about observations within a specific locale presented through a map view) and the posting of comments and identifications about other peoples observations are part of the new version which also has a fantastic user interface.

The paper focuses mainly on the reasons for creating a mobile app for participatory science and about the types of functionality and design considerations required during app development. I’ve quite pleased with the result. The paper iSpot Mobile –  A Natural History Participatory Science Application is available through the OU’s Knowledge Network.

If you’d like to try out the stable beta app (for Android) visit the Google Play app store (direct link to app) however before I move on from the app (there’s lots more I want to say about it but I’ll write a new post when the new version is released shortly) I want to conclude by saying that creating this has been an extremely liberating process. The work reminded me of the kind of hand crafting of HTML we did back in 1994/5 when building bespoke websites viewable through Netscape (if we were lucky) on our own custom built web servers based on Windows NT.  Thats what building this reminded me of, and I think that the HTMl5 v native issue will eventually get resolved but at the moment as Zack Epstein explains in his post the jury is still out! – which makes development expensive but hugely rewarding.

ispot mobile screenshot

ispot mobile


I’m going to be blogging more about iSpot as we’ve got a busy 18 months ahead with this project. It’s part of the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory project and has funding to internationalise, personalise, incorporate a social layer, work better for novice users, work via mobile, be interoperable or embeddable (through APIs) with other sites and services, and incorporate new ecology functions through funding from the The National Lottery, Garfield Weston Foundation and British Ecological Society respectively.

I’ve created a technical roadmap for iSpot to explain all this and I hope to regularly blog about what is happening throughout the next three years of that roadmap.

Lots to do I better get started.

Magile = Magic + Fragile?

Acquisitions and Mergers

I have been reading with interest the posts about Blackboard’s recent aquisition of MoodleRooms. There’s a good article by Christopher Dawson about it for ZDNet Education. The creation of an Open Source Services Group headed up by our old pal well known by the OU crowd – Charles “Chuck” Severance of Sakai fame. I think he’ll do a great job and he is upbeat about the Blackboard finally listening to his message about ” think[ing] more broadly about the LMS market”.

I’m sure I’m not the only one however that feels a little uncomfortable about the acquisition (and possible merger?) of these. The quote by Martin Dougiamas is interesting

“The decision of Moodlerooms and NetSpot to work under Blackboard may sound very strange at first to anyone in this industry…but it’s my understanding that these three companies have some good plans and synergies. I’m happy to say that Moodlerooms and NetSpot will remain Moodle Partners, and have promised to continue…participating in the community…and contributing financially to Moodle exactly as they always have.”

I think it’s a very interesting move by Blackboard. It reminds me of the Microsoft approach of the 90’s where they saw best-of-breed and acquired them to be merged into their ‘market leading’ technology group.

My feeling is that if all the organisations can remain pure to their ideals and founding principles then this should be treated as a positive move to financially support the onward development of the products and services. There is a little demon on my shoulder thought that’s whispering in my ear that Blackboard are not being altruistic in this venture. They are owned by a private equity firm. It’s a good move for them, it’s hedging their bets. It’s playing the percentages. It may however reduce consumer choice down the line.

Overall I’m not quite as upbeat about this as Christopher Dawson. I see this as a power-play by one of the giants in the LMS arena however a saving grace might be the fact that we’ve got a good guy in Chuck and a mature Open Source Community. If they don’t like a product they’ll build a better one.

I’m not for a proliferation of LMS’s but I am pro choice and I think we should be able to have interoperable systems and services without having to buy whole product suites. If Dr Chuck can manage to make that happen then I’ll buy him a drink. Possibly two.

Community Engagement

community image

We ran an eLearning Community event on 18th October to explain the new learning systems roadmap and the direction of travel for OU learning systems – by “we” I mean that the presenters were myself, Liz Burton-Pye, Head of Learning Teaching and Quality Office and Rhodri Meredith, Project Manager (Business Change) in Learning and Teaching Solutions. The event was well attended with over fifty people from across the University and all from a range of different backgrounds.

Firstly the three of us gave short (*cough*) presentations to explain the “Where we are now” with Learning Systems, “Where we’re going next” (i.e. the new Roadmap) and “Over the horizon”.

Here are my slides from the event which set the context of the workshop which took place after the presentations (and a brief break of tea and coffee).

For the workshop we split people into five tables. Each table represented one specific “scenario”. The scenarios were as follows:-

  •  The Qualification is Everything
  • OU Goes Global
  • Informal Learning is Cool
  • Learning is Disaggregated
  • Employers Just Want Key Skills

These were picked because they were the five most popular scenarios rated by people who visited us back in March at the Open University “Learn About Fair“.

persona workshopWe were keen to try to get a good representation of staff from across the OU at all the tables and we had at least five people at each table. Every table was co-ordinated by a facilitator (i.e. someone who knew in-depth about the scenario being developed).

We gave each group a set of persona cards. The persona cards are representations of typical types of OU student (for more on this use of personas see the “How we use personas” blog post that I publish earlier ).

We asked people to then take each persona in turn…

Persona cards

…and answer the following questions to map the personas against scenarios using a form similar to the one below..

Scenario questions

We engaged in some very interesting dialogue. When we finished each table then spent five minutes summarising what they had learned. There were some stimulating discussions and I know that I can’t do justice to them within a simple blog post but I’ll try to synthesise the main ones that sprang up during the workshop…

Informal Learning is Cool

Some people will use informal spaces to engage with a professional community (Martin) and as a means to an end. Some may not have time for informal study initially due to time pressures (Abila). However others like Jason who have had a bad experience with formal learning may find informal learning stimulating and engaging and structure can be applied later to keep him on track. The idea of having “Informal with badge” may be appealing, especially to those leisure learners like Margaret. Career oriented people may stay clear of informal (Win) but generally Digital Literacy may be a concern with  some personas and be a barrier to them engaging with informal learning.

The Qualification is Everything

Some learners may want to begin with an Openings module for various reasons before going through to qualification (Abila and Josie). Jason would want to build gradually perhaps through a diploma or certificate first. He would also benefit from community engagement and informal mechanisms to keep him stimulated and on track. Some students (like Rachel) may be put off by the level of commitment required.

Learning is Disaggregated

People like Win would like the flexibility as she maybe cannot commit to specific times (e.g. for assessment) but may also require structure so may be mixed blessing by going through disaggregated route. David may prefer structured approach but may also wish to choose an alternative assessment model as he may not favour continuous assessment.  Josie and Regi may both favour flexibility in their start and end times for different reasons. Some learners like George may be overwhelmed by disaggregation (this feeling over being overwhelmed keep recurring and is a known issue with a more small pieces approach).

Employers ‘Just’ Want Key Skills

Students use context for interest and engagement and learn key skills in the process. Do they need key skills personally or as a University should we provide them for others and are they useful? Split into two camps of learners who broadly agree that key skills would help with confidence building (Abila and Jason) and useful to have appropriate skills for marketplace (Martin). And those that disagree such as Rachel where the subject is more important to keep her focussed and the leisure learners such as Margaret who do it for the love of knowledge.

OU Goes Global

This was summarised through learner stories….

Student Story 1

In middle of studies, travelling and emigrating requires flexibility and ability to learn on the move. Use of mobile and internet cafes. Local partnership provides language adaptions and contextual content, using local payment and currency – makes use of Open media – setting different prices for different parts of the world.

Student Story 2

24/7 support very important of shift workers, added benefit and advantage, same for those with families. More flexible assessment due to shift work but students ‘hopping around’ is difficult for continuity of online advantage e.g. real time/ synchronous collaboration. Student follow paths/self-directed learning versus collaborating with others. Depends on nature of module. Put in as much variety to accommodate all.

Tutor Story

Tutor generated content from diverse tutor community (local knowledge). Good local examples from students.  Want local study but want it accredited. Uses mobile (or wifi) light versions of content but not interested in rich media. Tutor group listings via mobile or text alerts. Similar to email services currently on studenthome/tutorhome.


The overarching themes to emerge from the workshop were therefore :-

1. Learners need to be digitally literate enough to engage. We need to ensure they are provided with mechanisms to achieve that (handholding).

2. We could do more around exploring informal learning with “badging” to provide status associated with having understood material without having to go down a formal assessment route.

3. Flexibility and structure are both important so need to be built into the solution. The scenarios do not stand alone so a lot of the final discussions were about how they could be combined for greater benefit.

4. We need to be careful not to overwhelm potential learners. The “chocolate box approach” may seem appealing but actually just confuse people.

5. Feedback following the event is that some of the community wanted an opportunity to have an open ended discussion around the talks and topics arising. My suggestion is that people post into the discussion on Cloudworks associated with the event (..remember this is a public space!)

My special thanks to Chris Pegler for organising the eLearning Community events and providing us with design ideas, persona cards and event facilitation which made this event so effective. There are some more photos of the event on Flickr…

How we use Personas

Personas, scenarios and narratives have a long history in user centred design. Within the OU the intention is to use personas, scenarios and narrative as a methodology underpinning the production life-cycle of new learning systems, from conception through to design, development, testing and post production promotion.

We are confident that personas, scenarios and narratives can be used in this way as historically they have been used in formal development through Unified Modelling Language (UML). UML methodology has been applied to enterprise project partnerships with SUN Microsystems, Microsoft and IBM to create systems that were mapped and tested against use cases developed during the design stage. We also know from research within the OU that personas have been used as a method of explaining complex systems without requiring users to have specialist knowledge. Workshops using personas were successfully used in 2002 by Alexander Muir to explain complex system changes to the S292 module team.

Personas: A tool that helps build a picture of users

A persona, based on available data, is a fictional but relevant and realistic user.  In most cases, personas are synthesised from a series of interviews with real people, then captured in one page descriptions that include behaviour patterns, goals and skills, with a few fictional personal details to bring the persona to life.  Personas state situations in student terms, which are easily understood, as opposed to theoretical-educationalist terms, which require specialist knowledge.

A persona is a description of a person that defines a target user group. The best way to define a persona is to talk to real learners and use their feedback to build a persona for each target group. For example:

  • Jane Smith, 35 years old
  • Has 3 children, all in secondary education
  • Works full-time as a research assistant making a decent living
  • Separated from her husband
  • She has limited disposable income and no real savings

It is important to remember that personas define a range of user types and, when applied with attributes (below), should create a spectrum of target users of your services, hence you should avoid overtly stereotyping based on bias rather than factual data. “Stereotyping a persona is a danger that should be avoided, as stereotypes are based on bias rather than on factual data. Personas explore ranges of behaviour rather than seeking to establish an average user.” (Cooper & Reimann 2003).

Within the OU we have conducted interviews with learners to identify typical student types, we have also revised the persona set based on the information from the Monitor report and we have tested the personas against real learners visiting the labs to conduct user testing on our products. This ensures that the characteristics and methods of interaction are correctly described.

Personas: Attributes

Personas may have additional attributes applied to them to bring in an additional contextual element which can be applied across the whole range of personas. For example within the OU we’re considering the extent to which we should apply accessibility attributes that describe the range of accessibility challenges that people face with using OU technology. These attributes can then be added to test a scenario against a wide range of people with accessibility issues. Attributes may also include other contextual information (location, ethnic background etc.).

Scenarios: A description of the learning system needed to achieve a particular goal

Typically scenarios describe the experience that a user (persona) has with an organisation. In our context however we’re using scenarios as the description of the type of service being provided for a user to achieve a particular goal. So, in our context the scenario is a ‘system’ in a UML use case and the persona is the ‘actor’ who is using that system.

OU scenarios are shaped by conditions that will have an impact on the future system landscape outside of the user conditions; these include socio-cultural considerations, economic conditions and internal and external drivers for change. A scenario in the OU sense describes a ‘possible future’, for example systems that support qualification rather than modular study.

Scenarios then are not mutually exclusive and the learning systems must support the full range of scenarios that are delivered through the roadmap.

Narrative: Focus on activities that help achieve these goals

The key to a good user experience is to build a lasting relationship between the organisation and the learner. You do this by focusing on activities that will help the learners achieve their goals. To do this, walk through a scenario for a persona and see where they require your assistance to move toward their end goal. Start by defining the activities they might do, and then identify touch points where they interact with your organisation (e.g. public web site, Twitter, iTunesU, Openlearn). Next think about the services your business can provide to help them and what underlying structures you need to provide those services. To start the scenario for Jane, it may look like this:

  1. I want to research financial plans for college funds…
  2. Uses Google to search “financial plans for college funds” and one of the results points to an article on your website…
  3. I want to know what things I need to think about for college funds…
  4. She reads the article and clicks on a link for a planning calculator…
  5. I want a calculator that is easy to understand and use…

This is just a small part of a narrative for Jane. It describes the activities Jane is doing and the supporting services the organisation is offering to help her. This example is very high level.

Narratives: Cover more than websites

Defining narratives for learners is about more than just designing a learning system; it is about all the ways they can interact with the OU. A learning system website doesn’t stand alone – it’s the entire cross channel experience and it needs to be seamless. By creating personas and defining scenarios and user narratives, you can create your student learning experience to meet the needs of your target groups of learners (backed by the research conducted by Monitor) and how individual learning services are interrelated with the rest of the OU business communication channels.

Narratives and Personas: Using these to test and ensure quality

Through a series of iterative user testing cycles you can test the services being developed against the range of personas. You can do this through ensuring that the users interacting with the system cover the range of target learners and through conducting expert peer testing using the personas to ensure that the systems achieve high levels of usability and accessibility.

Personas, Scenarios and Narratives: A method to promote and explain

Narratives and personas are important and effective tools for professional development and disseminating changes within systems, which have been used successfully in the OU previously  as a method of describing complex system changes (e.g. see S292 above). These techniques were also used during the 2011 Learn About Fair to explain complex learning systems by describing a set of scenarios in a simple but effective way. We expect to continue this work by incorporating elements of personas, scenarios and narratives within Learn About Guides, Learning Design and Curriculum Business Modelling work, alongside other professional development resources, using them to describe changes more effectively to both academics and learners. The diagram below describes a learning system life-cycle.

System life-cycle diagram for using personas


The main risk when applying these techniques is that the people involved in the design, creating and dissemination of services don’t engage or understand the concept of personas and narratives and their importance in creating better services, this leads to a further risk that the tools are not applied holistically. To use these tools effectively you need to have all stakeholders fully briefed and trained in applying these within your organisation. Within the OU we conducting three personas workshops during September and October 2011, co-ordinated by Online Communications, to explain the concepts to all OU stakeholders and to explore the best methods of applying these within the OU. We  also held an eLearning Community event in October where personas were applied as a tool to help people begin the process of creating the stories that accompany the scenarios. (further blog post on that event to come).

The real power of the methodology described above is realised when it is applied to system engineering and design, and applied throughout the whole system life-cycle, and through this establishing systems and processes that are proven to meet the needs of the users. These techniques aren’t new and some of the concepts date back over eighty years however the application of these methods within the OU is new and therefore needs careful nurturing to ensure they are correctly embedded into OU practice.

References and further reading

Cooper, A., & Reimann, R. (2003). About face 2.0: The essentials of interaction design. 2nd Edition. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons

Cooper, A. (1999) The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, 1st Edition: Sams

Norman, D.A. (2002) The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books

Krug, S. (2005) Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition, New Riders Press

Neilsen, J. (1994) Guerrilla HCI: Using Discount Usability Engineering to Penetrate the Intimidation Barrier

Neilsen Norman Group, Usability Return on Investment

Pruitt, J., Tamara Adlin, T. (2006) The persona lifecycle: keeping people in mind throughout product design, Elsevier

A list of scholarly articles on “Personas and scenarios”

JISC (2010), Assembly on personas and User testing: Blog post

Woods, W. (2011) Personae Gratae: Blog post

Personae gratae

A group of us who are involved in developing the future learning system plans for the Open University are using a range of techniques taken from “User Centred Design” and User Experience (UX) to help us create the future systems for the OU and also to explain the complexity of the systems developments to senior management in a way that is easily understood and powerful. I wanted to share some of these techniques that we’re using without going into any of the detail which may be business sensitive.

man with hammer image

First of all what we’re doing is using a combination of Personas (some people suggest personae as the plural but I’ll use personas to describe these) and scenarios. There are many websites and blog posts going back years which talk about the power of personas and scenarios to design and development. JISC have used it within their design workshops and they’re used in different ways by different groups, for example here’s a post on “Web Design from scratch” by Ben Hunt which describes their use in design.

We’re using these in a slightly different way than for design but rather to describe areas of functionality to be developed to meet particular needs. In the persona development we adopted a range of persona’s that were created by the Online Communications team to describe target users for OU websites.

Here’s an example snippet of one of the persona’s to help explain them…

Age/personal:  18, lives in Glenrothes with his Mum
Job:  Works in Dixon’s part-time
Education:  Highers
Studying aim: Degree in Computing/IT
Online likes:  Interaction, multimedia,
customisation and iPhone apps
Web games, chats, texts; surfs fast, but without


We use a set of personas to describe a range of target users and they test the system through a typical use case. We also have some high level scenarios to describe the depth of a particular system in supporting users from end-to-end. Scenarios in our case describe the environmental elements not possible easily through personas, so our scenarios are focused on direction setting and understanding where the OU should be going to meet the demands of new learners. for example we have scenarios based around informal learning becoming prevalent and another scenario around the need for key skills.

Personas are powerful because they:-

  • Allow systems to be developed to meet specific user types
  • Afford consistency of development across different systems
  • Are a useful tool for describing how people will use the services
  • Are useful for testing and benchmarking services against requirement, i.e. are useful for usability and accessibility testing.
Scenarios are powerful to us because they:-
  • Describe the full end-to-end functionality of a system
  • Take socio-economic and other environmental factors into account
  • Set direction of development
  • Describe the strategic value and business benefits

We are using these to map through to a set of “Roadmaps” which describe how we intend to deliver the changes. The roadmaps, programmes and projects within it are along the lines of the JISC P3 model which itself is a variant of PRINCE 2 methodology and therefore well established. The creative bit is how we’re describing this through the combination of personas and scenarios. We have been through this process once before with a programme called RAP (Roadmap Acceleration Programme) where we used a world cafe approach to gathering requirements (see my previous post on Future Learning Systems ). We used the user testing sessions to “validate” the personas against real people to ensure that they’re accurate and complete and the testing informs the system development, this was particularly useful to establish what works in the less clearly defined areas of the roadmap such as the development of Google gadgets through the JISC DOULS project.

The next steps are to build in the marketing knowledge that we have received through consultancy reports on segmentation which can help us plan out which personas we particularly want to target, and  secondly to get areas of the OU to adopt sub-set of the personas and ensure that they refresh them to keep them relevant. We already have some success with this since Student Services have adopted a persona approach to describe the “targeted services” which they want to provide through StudentHome the OU Student portal.

I can’t stress enough though how important it is to have a single coherent set of OU personas. The power comes from system developments being mapped holistically i.e. when values are shared across the organisation about meeting specific user needs and creating, buying or customising systems to meet those needs.

Agile Ballooning

Over the next three months there are projects planned which will use 140% of the available resources. In reality this means that we’ve got to hire in freelancers and contractors to cover work and ensure we’re meeting all the commitments. All of the work is strategically significant and high priority, and I’m acutely aware that the funding available to make these things happen is only available until August is unlikely to be available again in the next couple of years so we have a small window of opportunity to get things done. I thought that I’d explain what the developments are and how we’re planning to manage them.

Firstly we’ve had a number of successful small bids by academic colleagues. One of the most interesting of these, led by Doug Clow, is the development of a community based version of iSpot – this project is called iSpot local and is JISC funded for the next six months. The project is around community engagement as much as technology and there are a number of Bio Blitz’s to engage locals. Because the system is can be largely standalone we’re using a freelancer to carry out the work and using a series of hooks to the main iSpot service. The plan is that the iSpot local modules will be made available and can be set-up by anyone using a generic Drupal instance. Then you request an API key to allow your service to connect to iSpot and transfer the data between the services. Without the key you’ll still get the local community toolkit but it only becomes really useful when you can overlay all the data, the ‘spots’, that are localised to your community. There will be a map which will be set to your region or area (you’ll need to configure it initially to set it for your region) and the sightings in your area will then be displayed. The freelancer is having to work pro-actively on a steep learning curve to get the services working efficiently but he has been making good progress and we’re confident that the system will be ready for the first Bio Blitz on the 21st May.

A second project which we’re currently involved in is around the aggregation and presentation of Digital Scholarship data, this is led by Martin Weller, this is interesting because it is getting data feeds from a number of existing services and pulling data to form a view of an academic’s digital profile. As Martin says

Boyer defines scholarship as being based around four functions: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. We can think of digital scholarship then as the changes in all four of these that are brought about by the impact of digital and internet technologies. For example, if we take ‘discovery’ to be largely synonymous with ‘research’ then a digital scholarship view would be interested in the way researchers are collaborating using new technologies, sharing and visualising data, forming research communities using social media, etc

Up to now we’ve been using a contract developer (Richard Greenwood) to build the service but Richard is now required on another project around developing android apps (see below) and so we’re employing a contract developer to complete the final phase of work which is around adding further data feeds and working with the researchers to develop the visualisations.

The third project we’re undertaking is to develop mobile apps for the iSpot service. iSpot recently passed the 10,000 user mark and so it’s at a stage where we’re considering the use cases and the baseline activities that need to be developed through to ‘production’ level service. I’m excited by the opportunity to work with the OU’s Knowledge Media Institute to create mobile apps. We’re concentrating on developing an app for Android and iPhone initially but we’re creating an API which can be used across mobile platforms. Richard Greenwood is going to be working on the API and also developing the beta iPhone app. The apps will allow users to easily use their phones to capture images and upload and share them. Because of the location specific information and the visual aspects of iSpot it is a perfect service to deploy as a mobile app and it will interesting to explore how things like the image carousel and mapping information can be recreated through an app.

The fourth project we’re working, led by Mary Thorpe, is called PePLE, the concept is to create a professional working environment to support social workers, as Mary says…

PePLE is a resource for the training and continuing professional development of social workers that can be used with flexibility to fit in with the operational demands of workplaces. The resources can be used to support independent study or existing employer led provision.

The site is unique in terms of the tools it provides and we had to make the difficult decision (as we did with Cloudworks) to use a framework other that Drupal for it because there were too many constraints within Drupal to allow it to be considered. By the way there’s a good blog post about the decision to move to CodeIgniter by another of the developers, Juliette Culver, for those that want to explore the pro and cons of different PHP framework environments. The work on this project is almost complete and the site is being used as a resource to support OU Health and Social Care courses.

The fifth project we working on is the development of the OU Media Player, which I’ve already blogged about in a previous post. Work is going to plan on this project but we’ve had to be very agile and flexible in our thinking and do some reassignment of work throughout the project, to ensure things get delivered as expected since there are fours units all working together on this project and the timescales are tight. There an early demonstration of the embed service in action (note not yet accessible!).

So these projects are all significant and all have deadlines of end of July. What are the lessons we’re learning for doing all these things together and with limited resource.

1. It’s the people who make the project work. Good people who are flexible in their thinking and are into solving rather than creating problems.

2. Being pragmatic. Don’t think you can do the ‘gold star’ service within three months. In particular getting a realistic scope and keep it realistic. The developers need to be good as deciding when the requirements come in how to manage those against existing ones.

3. Use freelancers and contractors where you can on the commodity items.

4. Keep reporting and documentation to minimum. Rely on the developers to self organise, using tools such as TimePanic to keep active tracking of their time on projects.

5. Organise meetings effectively. In the team we have a system which I’m exploring where we only arrange meetings on Monday or Tuesday and the rest of the week is purely for programming. This allows the ‘flow’ that is needed to develop. So all the team only arrange any project meetings on the Monday or Tuesday in any week. The meetings are kept short and a fixed agenda. I have monthly 1-2-1’s to check progress (the team use Google Docs to record their progress for these 1-2-1’s) and rely on project blogs to keep me informed of any day-to-day changes.

6. Issues are flagged up and recorded and resolved quickly and without fuss or blame. We assign an owner to problems and fix a date to have things resolved. We use the same Drupal module that use for managing bugs and feature enhancements. I bring in project support staff to assist me with organising resolutions if they involve multiple parties/units.

7. Ensure the developers are not ‘managing other people’s monkeys’, I use the 1-2-1’s as an opportunity to explore what the developers spend time on to try to ensure that the majority of time is on the development of the services and not on administration, design, support.

8. Be transparent. Keep active communication channels open with the project team, stakeholders and end users. This can be done in numerous ways and will help to ensure rapid feedback and iteration.

None of these things guarantee success but they help to reduce failure rates.