mlearn project

Charles Sturt University's Mobile Learning Project

Issues

The mLearn Project has faced many challenges introducing a range of new technologies into the CSU ecosystem. Most technical challenges could be overcome through consultation between the users, the Project team and DIT. Other challenges around practice and process were able to be met through the diligent work of the academics and the support of the Project team. However, a number of ongoing issues have arisen that cannot be simply fixed and require more consideration and effort.

CSU Connect

For internal students the advent of CSU Connect has been immense. It has simplified access and created a system where more devices can now be connected. These improvements can be seen in the level of uptake and the amount of traffic this component of the network now attracts.

The coverage on most campuses is exceptional with very few areas that do not have an acceptable signal. However, the most complained about component of the project has been CSU Connect. The student surveys and feedback from staff highlight a number of key concerns:

  • stability of connection – many users experience drop outs during class and general usage. Staff and students often have to re-login or manually connect back into the network.
  • unable to connect – while this problem is difficult to diagnose from the projects, students and staff are often left unable to connect. Signal strength is good but attempts to connect are unsuccessful – often showing just the spinning busy icon.
  • slowness of network – some classes have significant data requirements and heavy usage across a class. CSU Connect can often feel like a bottleneck in these classes as apps, websites and services grind to a halt due to the overwhelming use.
  • Sleep and Wake cycle – most mobile devices will frequently activate a sleep cycle to preserve battery longevity. This often creates issues with re-connecting to the WiFi and many students and staff have to manually reconnect every time.
  • IAS login – IAS login process is often obscured because many connections to the Internet are not done through the web browser but through applications. This need to authenticate is often not apparent with applications returning obscure and unhelpful error messages.

These issues are often not singularly experienced and are regularly combined – so lack of a stable connection, the Sleep/Wake cycle and the IAS authentication all happening simultaneously, which often creates an overwhelmingly frustrating user experience. This negative user experience is what the staff and students have fed back to the Project asking specifically to identify problems and areas that impact on the experience of using mobile devices at CSU. A bad user experience is not something that will often be reported through standard reporting functions – service desk and student central – so DIT is most probably operating in the dark.

Another problem occurred in the Library trials of the Sony Readers on CSUConnect as the network encryption method (EAP) is not supported by the Reader. Instead, a personal Wi-Fi point must be used with security type Open, WEP or WPA.

The issues related to User Experience are going to be increasingly relevant and important as it becomes relied on for assessments, class work, subject administration and access to online content and resources. With the number of devices now available, especially those that have no ‘wired’ alternative, the WiFi network will be critical for the core business of the university. The reliance on WiFi for mobile devices means that CSU Connect is a vital component of CSU’s overall mobile strategy, so it is important to highlight a number of areas that would improve the experience:

  • Security over Experience – the overwhelming experience of using CSU Connect is one where there is a concentrated effort around security, but this has come at the expense of the user’s experience. It would be beneficial to have greater balance in this area. There is a need to balance being completely risk adverse with a manageable level to improve user experience. Longer timeout times, trusted devices or associating specific devices to student/staff are possible solutions to assist in creating a more balanced approach to security.
  • Bandwidth Balancing – An ongoing issue will be ensuring spaces have access to appropriate bandwidth. Some classes in some spaces are going to require increased bandwidth to adequately cope with the demands including, data hungry applications and large cohorts of students with devices. The Project can provide some cases for testing that could assist in these issues being worked through.
  • Mobile Optimisation – the lack of an optimised login or IAS authentication page has a negative impact on the experience. It requires students to resize the page on their screen to a legible view and the input process could be made simpler to login. Having a Remember Me type of login option or autofill would provide faster access. Another option may be turning off hiding the password on mobile devices, as according to the Nielsen Norman Group “Masking passwords doesn’t even increase security, but it does cost you business due to login failures.” …and it’s worse on mobile. One other area where this option may have validity is for accessibility. Frequently screen readers, particularly those on mobile devices, will read the hidden password as “dot, dot, dot”, and without a physical keyboard these users are unable to verify mistakes or realistically typing in a password correctly every time. Accessibility is good practice, not just a legal requirement, and often provides a better experience for all users.

An Agile Approach

The Project’s development of the Subject Outlines as a web application has been accompanied by a range of new issues and challenges. The use of an agile development process has ensured that the team has been able to adapt quickly to changes in circumstances, particularly the rapid technological changes in the mobile space, which has also led to some significant delays. These delays have been primarily caused by the friction of an agile development approach trying to mesh with CSU’s existing waterfall methodology. In essence, these are two systems operating in different ways, agile as a cyclical process and waterfall as a staged progression, but it was hoped that the two would be able to complement each other. However, the experience of mLearn has highlighted that the current methodology and process relies on a strict process and documentation workflow to be followed, so what eventuates is a two speed system, where the gears tend to jam and clash at key points in the process.

The mLearn Project has always been driven to explore the practicalities of mobile in situ, and it is only through this experimentation that we have been able to measure and learn from the process. The requirement for mobile development to be agile, adaptive and iterative is linked explicitly to the realities of the marketplace and the technology sector, as it undergoes massive growth, expansion and investment. Change is the norm in the mobile space and agility is a requirement, not an option. In some ways this is in contrast to CSU’s requirement for its IT systems to be risk averse, stable and planned for the long term. This is not to undermine the fundamental business requirements, but additional scope and capacity for agility, is becoming increasingly vital for innovation, particularly in the learning and teaching space.

Learning Resources

After investigating, the Project found that existing formats are too specific for their delivery, and the mobilisation of existing resources is too difficult to adapt to a huge variety of mobile devices. This is also challenged, but there is a lack of consistency in development processes – some being done by media services to a high level of skill, others done by less capable academics and using software that creates a proprietary level of code to the content. The final level of complexity comes from the diverse content across our broad course profile. There are so many different types of content across the courses and discipline areas, which often require bespoke and customised solutions.

In essence what we have found is that a solution to mobile requires not a ‘one size fits all’ approach, but a way of creating content that is adaptable to many points, such as a way of creating and authoring content once it has the ability to be adapted to many end points (print, web, app, eBook), and the ability to Create Once Publish Everywhere (Jacobson, 2009).  Content has traditionally been linked directly to presentation – books were developed to be printed, web pages for web sites, video for TV. However, new digital formats and devices are challenging that behaviour. To provide a consistent user experience, content needs to flow like water, changing its shape to match every presentation channel. In 2013 the Project aims to address this by developing a proof of concept that would allow the development of adaptive educational resources.

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