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.