Monthly Archives: June 2010

Style Matters

Style Council - 13.03.1987

Yahoo! have just launched a new Style Guide online and in print. Now style guides are not new – newspapers have had them for decades – but these invariably have their roots in print and there are many differences online.

The Yahoo! guide is written with digital publishing as the focus, concentrating on things that make writing for the web different to print. While most of what Yahoo! have collected isn’t new, it is good to see things collated in one place.

The guide also contains prompts for things organisations can do to build their own style guide, for example forming a style committee (one might say a Style Council, ha!) to make decisions, and maintaining a word list.

With an increasing demand for everyone to be able to publish to the web, a formal style guide may be required to ensure our high standards are maintained and advanced.

Live Blogging the Budget

This week’s budget gave a good opportunity to see how different news organisations handled live reporting on their websites so I did a quick scan through a few TV and newspaper websites and screen grabbed what I could see.

The reason I’m interested is that the 125 anniversary has provided an opportunity for a large number of events on campus for some of these like the Manifesto for Change event to have a remote audience engaging online via streaming video and live chat.

Read more after the break!

Continue reading

Flickr’s photo page Ajax trick

Flickr recently started previewing their new photo pages. They’re quite nice but it does something that’s been driving me mad and I can’t work out how it’s doing it. It only happens in Google Chrome 5 and I’ve only seen it in a few places.

Take a look at this screen capture of Flickr’s new lightbox view. Note how the URL updates each time I click through to a new view. Nothing surprising there until you realise it’s not doing a full refresh of the page and is actually an Ajax call back to the server. (You may want to hit the full screen button, bottom right.)

Contrast that with what happens in Firefox – it’s still doing Ajax calls to make flicking between photos quick but the URL changes after the fragment

This technique is pretty common – Facebook have been using it for a couple of years and we even use it to give tabbed pages history on our site. It’s necessary because JavaScript isn’t allowed to set the full page URL without a page refresh, or at least that’s what I thought!

Google Maps has been doing the same as Flickr for a couple of months but I’ve still no idea how! Anyone care to read the Chromium source code or dig around Flickr’s JavaScript to see if there’s something different?

Update: also works in Safari, thanks Ross.

Live Chat with Learning Services

Over the last couple of months we’ve been working with colleagues in Learning Services to roll out a “live chat” service allowing students to ask helpdesk staff questions online.

Here’s what it looks like for the student:

Live Chat web client

And a sneak peak of what the staff interface looks like:

Live Chat agent client

It makes use of an XMPP/Jabber server called Openfire with a plugin called Fastpath that talks to the Spark client installed on staff machines. Fastpath provides a web interface that can be embedded into the Learning Services website.

The service is currently a trial running 11am – 3pm so go along and take a look.

Mobile device usage

Last week I mentioned that while I couldn’t give a definitive list, our initial focus for a mobile website would be higher end devices. One thing we do know is what people are using at the moment to access our sites on the move:

Mobile device usage for www.edgehill.ac.uk

Data for the above chart is taken from 14th April – 13th June 2010 and the usual warnings apply to statistics sourced from Google Analytics – it only includes browsers executing JavaScript.

What is clear though is that Apple’s devices are massively more popular than anything else – over 75% of page views are from iPhones and iPod Touch browsers.

Mobile usage is fast moving so we’ll be continuing to monitor trends and statistics will drive much of what we do in our forthcoming developments.

Think inside the box

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Earlier Steve Daniels sent me a link to a BBC Manchester news story about offices made out of shipping containers. Long time readers may recall that I have a bit of a thing about using shipping containers for interesting purposes so it’s worth a read read:

“These are new shipping containers where, in very simple terms, we’ve taken the front of the container off and we’ve put a glass screen in with glass doors.

“We’ve fitted them out with carpet and supply power and broadband connectivity and the tenants bring their own furniture – very simple and very affordable.”

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Creative commons photos by James K Thorp

Going mobile

a Mobile phone Timeline

Exactly a year ago we launched our first mobile websites at Edge Hill using a plugin for WordPress to provide a mobile friendly theme for our blogs. Yesterday we committed the first code for a mobile version of the main Edge Hill website.

It’s been a long time coming with a lot of talk followed by research and attending conferences but we’re finally on our way.  Universities all over the UK and abroad are waking up to growing mobile usage and an expectation that we will provide services on multiple platforms.  And there are almost as many approaches to take as there are universities from dedicated mobile applications for each platform to open source libraries.

Each HEI must decide who their target audience is, what they want from mobile services and the best way to deliver that information. For us, with limited resources, that means making choices about where to start and prioritise.

At Edge Hill we have for a long time had quite a clear split between internal and external content.  The corporate website – www.edgehill.ac.uk – is the place for public information about the University: courses, history, departments, news, events etc.

GO on the other hand is clearly inward facing.  It targets staff and students with personalised information of interest to them. Access to web based university systems is provided through it most of the time you only have to log in once per session to get to everything.

This provides a nice divide that can apply to what we do for mobile devices. Initially we will be working on a mobile version of the corporate website with internal systems following later.

So what does that mean? For me there a number of things that we need to address.

  1. Make pages look good on small screens
  2. Tailor information for mobile-device situations
  3. A new mobile information architecture

Let’s address each of those in turn.

Make pages look good on small screens

With the new iPhone 4 having a resolution of 960 × 640 pixels it’s no longer fair to say they are low resolution – that’s higher than a printed page! But there’s no escaping that mobile devices have small screens.  This means that normal web pages must be zoomed out to unreadable levels to display fully.  Additionally, older devices have poor quality web browsers unable to properly render the complex HTML we use on our websites and making the site look even worse.

For mobile devices we will be redirecting requests to a separate version of each page rendered with a different template.  Pages will be stripped down and designed for maximum readability.  Exactly how pages look will depend on the phone (and the web browser).  I can’t give an exact list of devices that we’ll be testing against and aiming to support but it we will initially be focusing efforts on higher-end phones for example, iPhones, Android and Palm Pre.

Aside: there are two main factors that promote the use of mobile websites – devices and data.  Modern phones make browsing mobile websites much easier, they often have applications for direct access to services like Facebook or Twitter further promoting use on the move but without data this is impossible.  Unless a user has free or very cheap data they will be disinclined to make use of services. Therefore we can get maximum return on investment by targeting services at those users with both devices capable of accessing our site and the data package that allows them to do so.

Tailor information for mobile-device situations

I was struggling to come up with a good title for this point, can you tell? Essentially it breaks down into two things: place and position.  Place is where you are when accessing a mobile website, for example you’ve got off the train at Ormskirk railway station and need to know how to get to campus.  Position reflects common use of mobile devices while sat on a couch or on the bus in lieu of a normal computer.  Both these affect the type of information you offer and may require changes to be made to existing content.

A new mobile information architecture

Tying together these two things is the site structure. Having pretty looking mobile pages is no use if you need to navigate through several pages to get to the information you want.  What might be a feature on the homepage of the desktop website may be unimportant for most people accessing from a mobile device.  The aim here isn’t to make some content inaccessible, merely to highlight key areas and make it easy for users to find that information.

So this is week one and it’s still early days.  Because the mobile website will sit alongside the existing site it’s likely we will preview alpha and beta versions ahead of a full launch. We obviously cannot afford to buy every possible device so we’re looking to recruit testers that we can get feedback from so if you have a mobile phone with free or cheap data that you don’t mind using to try out our mobile sites, let me know in the comments or by email.

Stay tuned for more about the progress of this project over the summer – there should be lots of juicy technical detail of our design and development process!

A mobile phone timeline by Khedara.

iPad at the CUC

2 Jun 2010

On Wednesday evening I headed into Liverpool for an event at the CUC about iPad application development.  It was run by Vision + Media, an organisation I’ve not come across before that supports digital and creative industries in the North West.

My brother (who has had an iPad for a week) has written a pretty thorough post summarising the event so go read that and come back for my thoughts.

Much of the event was clearly focused on developing iPad apps and how the marketplace might evolve with the suggestion that iPad owners may be prepared to pay more for apps but prices would eventually be driven down and that a smaller number of higher-quality developers would emerge. I’m not so certain about that – the larger form factor lends itself to a wider range of content and if app developers think they can make a quick buck by repurposing open content to create spammy apps, they will do.

2 Jun 2010

Katie Lips’ talk outlining some research done by her company Kisky Netmedia including some interesting predictions.  There was a suggestion that tablet devices will break into Health and Education sectors and while I don’t doubt this will happen at some point, I’d be very surprised it this was mainstream within three years.  As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last month while you can make improvements to processes by “throwing” money at a problem (by, for example, buying every student an iPad) this approach cannot scale.  To take things beyond small-scale pilots you must adapt to technologies that are already deployed or are cheap to do so which right now doesn’t include the iPad.

Other interesting talks were Dave Verwer’s introduction to iPad UI patterns which showed off a lot of the subtle thought that’s gone into making the iPad pleasant to use and Guy Dickenson on the future of reading and some of the possibilities the iPad opens up for authors and publishers.

2 Jun 2010

In discussions in the bar afterwards it came up that someone who’s had an iPad for two months now has started to notice their usage tailing off.  This mirrors my own experience as an early adopter of netbooks.  I have one of the first generation Asus EeePC 701 and for a few months I used it extensively. Over time I found the limitations of the device more frustrating (and the epic failure at the 2008 SOLSTICE Conference wasn’t good) and went back to using my full-size laptop for most things.

In July last year I bought a Samsung N110 and the experience has been completely different. The larger keyboard, screen and battery have solved virtually all the failings of the first generation device and I use it as my main device outside work.

I can see this will happen with the iPad.  While the lack of a camera or USB ports might not prevent a lot of people buying an iPad, it could deter it from becoming an integral part of their digital life.

This ties in with another point made by Katie Lips that the iPad marks a shift to devices which are essentially designed mainly for consumption: listening to music, watching videos, reading books, all paid for from Apple’s store.  While that may be the case it could be the block to speedy adoption. With no USB port you must buy Apple’s dongle costing $30.  Want to output video to an external screen – that’ll be another cable you need, and you can only get video out of certain applications. WordPress’ app for writing blog posts involves hand coding HTML while limited access to the file system makes it hard to easily move documents around  between applications.

Don’t get me wrong – the iPad will change everything.  The idea of a simple, instant-on device with a battery that lasts the full day appeals to me greatly.  90% of my digital life is in “the cloud” so I can access it on the move from anywhere with an internet connection. But for me, content creation, curation and consumption must be balanced and I would struggle to find the place in my life for a pure “entertainment” device.

I remember when I was studying Computer Science and living in halls – only one person I knew had a laptop, everyone else had a desktop PC.  Now when you walk around campus, students can connect to the WiFi from pretty much every building from their own laptop, and mobile phone, and from next semester, many of them will start bringing tablets.

We need to be ready for that.

SOLSTICE Conference 2010

Today was my fourth (2007, 2008/p2, 2009) SOLSTICE conference held here at Edge Hill University, this time in the Faculty of Health building (also the home to SOLSTICE itself).

Once again this year I live-tweeted the conference using my @MikeNolanLive account which seemed quite successful – certainly avoided dozens of people unfollowing me!  As with last year I’ll do a brief summary of each of the sessions I attended.

Professor Gilly Salmon: Pathways to Learning Futures

Gilly Salmon

Good start to the conference with Gilly introducing some of the experiences the University of Leicester have had with promoting and embedding technologies. Of particular interest is the Media Zoo and its presence online, in the real world, in second life and for students:

Media Zoo

It’s an interesting concept (although I think some of their acronyms are a little forced because of it – PANTHER, CALF, DUCKLING, SWIFT…) and has made them, through this matrix, consider a broader range of technical levels and audiences:

University of Leicester: Learning Innovation Strategy

Paul Lowe: OPEN-i – Building a Virtual Community of Practice for Photojournalism

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Paul’s fast-paced talk was a great blend of some of the background behind Communities of Practice combined with some details of what they’ve created around photojournalism courses.  They have used Ning as the basis of the community combined with Wimba for live seminars which are recorded and made available for later viewing.

It was interesting that they have had less success with asynchronous communication tools like forums with the suggestion that they were already served well elsewhere and people liked the real-time content they offered.

Partnering with other organisations has been successful in building critical mass around events.  Academics acting as the “critical friend” to the sector has also been well received with them offering something and not just being seen to use professionals for their free experience.

Jim Turner: Review on LJMU Innovative and Technologically Enhanced Learning Spaces

Jim Turner: Review on LJMU Innovative and Technologically Enhanced Learning Spaces

First of two sessions by Jim today. This one was a bit of a whistle-stop tour of different types of learning space at LJMU. Sometimes at Edge Hill it seems space is such a premium that it’s not possible to innovate as much as we could or should.

Shirley Hunter-Barnett: Embedded Audio Feedback

Shirley Hunter-Barnett: Embedded Audio Feedback

Building on research from last year, Shirley is looking at whether the use of audio feedback can help make students feel less isolated.  Results appeared a bit inconclusive and an increasing resistance from tutors to use audio feedback. Reasons given included worries about giving one student someone else’s feedback, concern about the extra time it takes and not liking the sound of their voice.

Jim Turner: Stitching the Web Together with Yahoo! Pipes

Jim Turner: Stitching the Web Together with Yahoo! Pipes

After lunch and skipping back to the office to work on a few things (which unfortunately meant I missed Peter Hartley’s keynote) I went down to the SOLSTICE Red Room for Jim’s second session of the day.

I must admit I’ve heard everything he said before having attended several of Tony Hirst’s talks but what I found very useful was the beginner’s approach and I’d be more comfortable now telling someone else how to get started with Pipes through some basic examples.

Julie Swain and Sue Atkinson: “Meeting Employers’ Needs”

Sue Atkinson and Julie Swain from Plymouth talk ePortfolios

I sometimes struggle to really get electronic portfolios and how they’re any more than just a website where you put stuff but what they’re doing with the University of Plymouth and Colleges seems to be well received by students and employers. They’re using PebblePad but there was some discussion afterwards about alternative products.

Dr Mary Dean: Take hundreds of eDocuments Wherever You Go

Forgot to take a photo of this session but readers at Edge Hill can go and see Mary in person!

Mary gave a summary of the initial progress on Edge Hill’s JISC funded project looking into the use of eReaders for university committees. They are looking at two meetings the members of which are supplied with Sony Touch eReaders that can be loaded with PDFs of the papers.

Some challenges have been found in the way people prepare for meetings and how tables, diagrams and images in PDFs appear on the smaller screen.

I have one concern with these kinds of projects which time didn’t allow me to raise during the session and that’s one that was made at the Eduserv Symposium last month.  There, John Traxler said something along the lines of:

We run the risk of proving that spending money on education improves education.

In this context, supplying devices to groups of people should, with the right support, enable them to do things more efficiently but that simply doesn’t scale.  Without significant investment in hardware and training it isn’t possible to turn every meeting held in the University into a (near) paperless one.  Perhaps, as someone in the session was suggesting, we should be looking at how we can better enable individuals to use the devices they already own or will be buying in the next six to twelve months for university work.

Summary

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Overall another good conference. The backchannel had a similar level of engagement to last year and you can see more about it over on Twapper Keeper and Summarizr.  I managed to improve my workflow somewhat by using an Eye-Fi card in my camera to automagically upload photos to Flickr from where I could tweet them straight out.  I’ve tagged all my photos with solstice2010 so you should be able to see them alongside others from the conference.

No ducklings this year but maybe these two are some of the ones I spotted a year ago:

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