Widgets and Mashups for Personal and Institutional Technologies

Yesterday I gave a lecture at KMI at the Open University on “widgets and mashups for personal and institutional technologies”. There was a broadcast of this, and in a short while this will be viewable from the KMI Podium website. In the meantime, I’ve uploaded the slides to Slideshare:

Coincidentally, John Traxler gave a talk the day before on a similar topic, as reported by Steve Wheeler.

I think the main difference between how I see the world of devices interacting in education and some of the articles I’ve seen recently is that I assume that most of these devices are personal technologies – and because of that they will always be heterogeneous. Not everyone will want to use an iPad, for example, even though some educators will be keen on them – something that came up in an article in The Chronicle (also worth reading is the response by Stephen Downes).

So the challenge for education is providing resources and activities in an open and flexible way that will work – at least in some fashion – on any device; if the focus is on providing superior resources focussed on a single platform – like the iPad – then the implication is you’ll have to provide the device – and attendant tech support – to all students and coerce them into using that as their platform. (Which is fine for a specific activity in the lab, but then its not personal technology, its lab equipment that just so happens to also be a consumer technology.)

Also, devices have both their own affordances of their form factor, as well as the context in which they are typically used. You are more likely to try reading something on a crowded bus using a phone, Galaxy Tab or Kindle than a laptop or iPad, as its something you can more easily hold in one hand while standing and holding onto a loop.

I think rather than worry about providing equivalent experiences across devices, or encouraging students to use particular kinds of devices, we should utilise all devices for their unique capabilities. So, phones are great for capturing contextual information, like taking photographs and voice memos, and for focussed practice activities, but not for writing anything substantial. Interactive whiteboards are good for standing around and working in a team to organise ideas. eReaders and tablets are good for more relaxed reading at home.

So, the first challenge is first to design resources and activities that work any device; there is some really good work going on today in the areas of progressive enhancement, multimodal access and accessibility, using things like CSS3, device APIs and media queries, so this is something you really can do. It may look nice and shiny on an iPad – but can you get your content or your application to also work well on a five-year old S40 feature phone? The answer is probably “yes”, but you may have to rethink your design process.

The second challenge is to design resources and activities that they are not only usable on any device, but can take advantage of particular device capabilities. So, a widget that on the whiteboard is used to group and tag field notes and has lots of screen space and floating palettes could morph into a stripped down interface aimed at capturing field notes (with location and time metadata) when used on a smartphone.  (a lot of the case studies in the Making Mobile Learning Work document that Traxler was talking about are around field capture).

The biggest obstacle to doing any of this right now is platform fragmentation, which is being addressed by a major concerted effort from W3C to extend web standards and get them adopted across devices.

Some institutions are going to be rich enough to hire developers to create apps in Objective-C for iOS, in Java for Android, and in Silverlight on Windows Phone 7 (or to standardise on one platform, hand out the devices to all their students and make them use them). But not many. So a better strategy is to invest in using web standards, and put pressure on vendors to adopt the W3C Device APIs that enable web applications to also make use of device features like cameras and SMS. (For more information on mobile web applications read the CETIS Mobile Web Apps briefing paper)

Another reason for going the web standards route is – innovation isn’t stopping. There will be more devices with different form factors coming along each year, and the one thing they are likely to have in common is that they will be web-enabled devices with browsers supporting HTML5 and CSS3. So when students start turning up with smart paper devices and morphs (or whatever) instead of iPads and Blackberries you don’t have to start again from scratch.

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