QR Treasure Hunt

Yesterday, Learning Services launched their Code Breaker Challenge – aimed at getting new (and returning) students to find their way around the facilities and try out a bit of new technology along the way.

It makes use of QR Codes – 2D barcodes that can be scanned with a smartphone.  The payload of a QR code can be quite flexible – it can contain text, a web address, contact information or even send a text message.  In this case it launches a web page on the Learning Services blog – chosen because it’s already mobile friendly for a number of common devices.

There are four locations to scan – start in the entrance to the University Library.  Give it a go and you could win a £50 Argos voucher.

From my point of view this is a really interesting trial. Awareness of QR codes – while certainly not universal – is growing and as I’ve mentioned before on this blog we’re now in a position where significant numbers of students have modern phones with free or cheap data.  QR codes in themselves are not a solution to any particular problem we have but they have some interesting potential uses in connecting physical and virtual information.

Many companies are starting to use them on posters, cans of pop and all sorts of other places – the 2d code blog has some great examples of QR codes popping up in unusual places.

There are loads of QR code readers available for lots of different devices – i-nigma suggested on the LS blog is one of the better ones for iOS (sorry, I’ve only tried on iPhones!) but to find one for your phone type tigtags.com/getqr into your mobile’s browser to get suggestions.

When is a username not a username?

This week I bought a new mobile phone and moved networks to Vodafone.  I signed up for access to view bills online but 24 hours later when I tried to log back in I couldn’t for the life of me remember what username I’d chosen.

I tried all my usual combinations of usernames and passwords, searched my email but to no avail.  Then it struck me, the sign up process asked if I wanted to use my email address and I said “of course – I’ll never forget what that is!” yet logging in gives no clue that this is a possibility:

Vodafone Username

So web designers, if you accept email addresses for logging in, please don’t label the input “username”, and while you’re at it, examples of acceptable input is a really nice touch too.

Mobile Apps vs Mobile Web

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Power and I were approached to cover Anthony Doherty’s workshop Mobile Apps vs Mobile Web.  We spent a week working through some ideas then finalised what we were talking about on arrival in Sheffield on Monday afternoon.

After the session, Kirsty Pitkin collared me to record a short piece to camera about what we covered:

[Aside: Bath’s Phil Wilson described this as “best. still. ever.” You can see and hear Phil laughing like a girl in the background of Adrian Tribe’s Take Away video. :-D]

Many thanks to Jeremy Speller from UCL for demonstrating their implementation of campusM and to everyone in the session for taking part in what I hope was an interesting discussion. There was quite a lot of Mobile Apps/Web talk throughout IWMW this year so I was a little worried we’d be repeating what everyone else said but I think it’s important for institutions to have the debate over what approach is best for them, whether that is buying in a native mobile app, deploying a mobile web app framework such as Molly, or building mobile versions of their website.

Finally, to make this post a bit more useful than just things you can find elsewhere, here’s a list of some mobile websites I may have demonstrated:

Additionally, check out the following universities in the iTunes App Store:

  • Stanford (Blackboard)
  • LJMU (campusM)
  • Trent Valley University (iUni)
  • UCL Go! (campusM)
  • UCLan
  • MSU Mobile

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.

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.

Eduserv Symposium 2010: The Mobile University

Last Thursday was Eduserv’s annual symposium. The theme this year was “The Mobile University”, a topic we’ve been talking about for years as being the next big thing but has finally crept up the list of priorities and is now something we’re starting to act on. So I was really looking forward to spending the day at the Royal College of Physicians learning what others in the sector – and, more equally importantly, commercial sector – are doing for mobile devices.

The slides and videos are available online so I’ll just cover some of my thoughts on each and leave you to see the speakers for yourself.

Opening keynote: “Mobile, Mobile, Mobile!”

Paul Golding, CEO and Lead Innovation Architect, Wireless Wanders

Paul’s talk set the scene for the rest of the day by looking at the state of the mobile marketplace for example the trend of increasing smartphone market share. Established uses of mobile phones are clearly still king – 78% of people uses SMS in Q3 2009 – but over a fifth are now using the superinterweb on mobile phones and even early-adopter technologies like Location Based Services are being used by significant numbers.

He made the point that the introduction of Web 2.0 to mobile devices has opened up the platform to developers.  They are no longer controlled by network operators but have much greater access to users, devices and services.

The role of a University Computing Service in an increasingly mobile world. Or: “We don’t support that…”

Christine Sexton, Director of Corporate Information and Computing Services, University of Sheffield

I’ve been following Chris’ blog and Twitter feed for a couple of years and it’s really interesting to see the thinking behind decisions made in another “IT Services” department.  In her talk she challenged what is often perceived to be our approach to services – the response “we don’t support that”.  This is a bad reputation to have and one which I don’t think it always warranted – often it’s a case of us not communicating well.  My own view is that people often don’t mind being told “no” as long as it’s explained why, ideally with some alternative options presented.

Chris related this back to new services – while in the past we may have been able to “get away with” offering a single enforced desktop with no choice over browser, we must not be able to cope with a range of demands.  For some that will still mean being told what’s best for then with a package of systems that work together (and, more importantly, are supported).  Others want – even demand – the ability to use their own devices, software and services accepting that the level of support may be lower.

Students’ approach to IT provision by universities has changed.  In the past they would queue up to get a network account, email address and access to university systems, now new students just ask “where do I get the internet?”  In their annual new student survey, Sheffield found 30% of students have a “smartphone” and an astonishing 95% own laptops.  Say, how far are the 255 IP addresses your AP can allocate going to reach?

Chris then went on to show some screenshots of Sheffield’s (relatively) new iPhone app.  CampusM is a product by oMbiel and I’m not going to go into it too much here.  Suffice to say that while I understand the benefits Sheffield have got from their app, I don’t necessarily agree with the approach it takes to providing services to mobile devices.

To what extent will learning and teaching change in a mobile university? Thoughts from the University of Bath

Andy Ramsden, Head of e-Learning, University of Bath

Mr QR-Code himself although that wasn’t the point of the talk.  His talk used the context of what the landscape would look like int 2015 to examine what changes are happening.  There are a few example from the University of Bath using clickers and Twitter.  Andy made an interesting point about Moodle’s community approach to developing mobile solutions compared to vendor or third party solutions for student record systems.

There were yet more statistics in the slides re-enforcing findings from elsewhere that a large proportion (38%) of students have a data package included with their mobile tariff.

Real life experiences launching mobile apps

Tom Hume, Managing Director, Future Platforms

At time of writing Tom’s slides aren’t yet online so this is from my rather fragmented memory!  It started off quite depressing, highlighting just how many different devices, browsers and configurations there are in the mobile phone market.  Depressing too when he “exposed” manufacturers’ tactic of taking a silver/black phone, turning it pink and selling it to the female market!

While I believe the raw numbers he offered – things like the market share of all iPhone combined being less than 4% – I think it’s possible to read too much into this and get scared from doing anything for fear of not doing what you think is right.  The cynic in me might say that this might encourage some to go to vendors like Future Platforms to do the work for them!

Future Platforms do appear to have done very well at taming the early mobile internet beast, creating Java-based games such as crosswords for Puzzler but towards the end of his talk Tom seemed to get a bit more upbeat about the future.

Now when developing for mobile devices there are two approaches: pick one or more platforms and write specific applications for each or develop for the mobile web.  There are advantages to each but with the latter you can go some way to develop services available to a large proportion of likely users.  That might not be a particularly high proportion of the total number of devices but it may mean available to nearly all users with the data package and propensity to use it.

Closing keynote: Mobile and connected – the challenges and implications

John Traxler, Professor of Mobile Learning and Director of Learning Lab, University of Wolverhampton

For me the most important thing John’s closing keynote showed was that this whole mobile thing isn’t new.  He mentioned several examples over the years where hardware had been bought leading to the observation:

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

So the challenge now is to prove that we can run projects that make use of existing hardware owned by the user.

Lightning talks

Nick Skelton, University of Bristol

Nick introduced the Institute of Learning and Research Technology’s Mobile Campus Assistant project.  I’ve seen this project before and it looks like a very interesting approach to delivering internally focused services.

Wayne Barry, Canterbury Christ Church University

Edge Hill is up against Christ Church’s iBorrow project for the Times Higher ICT Initiative of the Year so I should be saying it’s rubbish and our project was much better… but I can’t because it’s actually quite a neat little idea:

The iBorrow project makes grabbing a computer as easy as borrowing a book.

The service offers 200 thin client netbook computers with things like location and use tracking. The presentation showed how availability of the computers boosted use of the wireless significantly. Probably the most interesting thing was that they were used for social networking just 14% of the time – far less than academic uses.

Simon Marsden, University of Edinburgh

Another – more thorough – review of statistics gathered about mobile usage by a survey.  Just shy of 2,000 responses from across the university.  Some key points:

  • 49.2% “smart” handsets
  • 60% had “sufficient” or unlimited mobile internet access
  • ability to view course information was requested most followed by timetables and PC availability

It’s worth a look through the slides to pick out extra details.

Tim Fernando, University of Oxford

Final lightening talk was about Oxford’s mobile project, now named Molly.  Again I’ve tried to keep track of developments over the last few months and it’s interesting to see them actively make the case for releasing the source code and the benefits it can bring to the project as a whole and individual institutions adopting the platform.  Molly has some nice touches like using OpenStreetMap Point of Interest information as well as the more mundane like supporting Z39.50 to integrate with library catalogues.


This post is in real danger of breaching my 48 hour rule and never getting out of draft so I’m not going to say much more for now about the conference.  It was a really useful day to see what other people are doing and to confirm in my mind some of the approaches we’ll be taking to mobile web developments over the coming months.

A few other links about #esym10:

Merseyrail mobile website?

Last week I was catching a train and noticed a poster in the station I’d not seen before advertising the new Merseyrail website. Even more interestingly they encouraged travellers to access from their mobile. Only one URL was printed on the poster – www.merseyrail.org was printed on the poster so I tapped it into my iPhone and was a little disappointed by the result.

Merseyrail website on an iPhone

I received the full Merseyrail website rather than the mobile friendly version I’d expected. On the train and there was another poster about the new website, this time heavily promoting the mobile site:

Poster on train for new Merseyrail websiteVisit www.merseyrail.org from your WAP enabled phone

That’s what I’m doing wrong but even on phones which support the so-called “full web”, users will often benefit from a mobile version tailored to the functions they’ll want to access out and about. For users with modern mobile browsers giving the choice between versions is the best thing to do.

We’ve been thinking a lot about the mobile web recently – in fact for the last couple of years but we don’t want to simply create a version of the site with stripped down stylesheets – it’s equally important that we change out Information Architecture to ensure that when people are using a mobile device, whether that’s on the train, walking around campus on sat on the couch, that they receive information that it relevant to their situation.

Jenny Jordan – our customer services manager and part time student here at Edge Hill – is currently undertaking some research into the area of mobile devices and related technologies and I’m planning to use some of her findings to guide what we develop over the coming year. You can help by completing a survey – you’ll also be entered into a prize draw – be quick though as you only have until 10th December.

Google Apps Mail – POP/IMAP/iPhone

As mentioned by our colleagues in Core Services first year students have been given Edge Hill University Google Mail accounts. We’re a couple of months into the semester and roll out seems to have gone OK. Students have been able to happily click on the Mail link in GO and be taken directly to their mail. On their main GO Home tab they’ll also have seen the Mail box which unfortunately wasn’t compatible with Google Mail. This has now been fixed as you can see here:


Clicking on the “Google Mail” title will take you to your inbox. But a new thing with Google Mail is that you can now click on individual emails and be taken directly to that message in your inbox.

Please note that the Google Mail box only shows you unread mail. So if you haven’t got any new messages waiting then they won’t appear.

This was all made possible due to a new development we’ve recently completed. Password syncing to Google Apps. Previously when you logged into Google Mail you either came through GO or you were redirected through GO to login. This meant that we were dealing with authentication and checking your passwords directly against our systems before handing you off to Google. Now we sync GO passwords with Google so if your not accessing your email through a web browser Google can check your password with it’s copy.

Doing this enables you to get your Google Mail in any format you like. You can now follow Google’s instructions on how to setup your client for POP, IMAP and even ActiveSync for Windows Mobile and iPhone!

When following the instructions remember that you are a Google Apps user, and that your username for this is the one shown on the top right when your accessing your Edge Hill University Google Mail account.


Before contacting us with any problems ensure you check out Google’s very extensive Google Mail help.

Ste Daniels

Blogs on the go

So mobile is the next big thing, right? People have been saying that for the last 10 years! First WAP, then those crazy phones from Japan… Now we’ve got Apple iPhone and Google Android and Palm’s Pre and even Nokia have been able to produce some reasonable devices! With modern phones come modern web browsers and bundled data making it cost effective enough to browse the web for more than 30 seconds.

All these phones are capable of browsing the so-called “full web” but equally, users often expect a version of the site optimised for mobiles. That’s what we’ve been able to do on the Edge Hill blogging platform using a nifty little WordPress plugin called WPtouch.

It intercepts requests from certain mobile devices (currently iPhone, iPod Touch & Android) and a special theme with a few custom features to integrate more closely with phones. If you want to see the original site, there’s a toggle switch at the bottom of the page.

It’s available for all blogs hosted on blogs.edgehill.ac.uk so if you’ve got one of these phones, give it a try and let us know what you think. We’re starting to look into doing more for the mobile web both for the corporate site and for GO so keep an eye out for future developments.

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