This project aims to bring some of the affordances of consumer social networks to teaching and learning, and will deliver applications within CamTools, our Sakai-based VLE. This is an informal blog by the project team at CARET, University of Cambridge.
Tuesday, 27 April 2010
The genesis of this project was in the rapid rise of social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and their uptake by academics and students. Earlier projects suggested that while using social networking sites exposed various privacy and IP problems, users found their interactions with these sites more rewarding than using institutional software. We wished to bring the affordances of these commercial systems to higher education, but in a fashion that allowed us to adapt them to academic purposes and requirements. We were also interested in the growing use of user-centric design (UCD), as design is an increasingly important factor in software creation in the HE world. We undertook user research into communications related to teaching and learning in the undergraduate, postgraduate and academic staff populations, to identify user needs, and took this forward with design work and user testing, then development work in Sakai3, building upon the gadget architecture of Apache Shindig. To do this, we worked with a commercial user design company (Flow Interactive), and Flow staff supported, worked with and trained our nascent UCD team; this was made possible by their willingness to engage in knowledge transfer, and other institutions should be aware that this kind of activity is open to them.
Although we have not moved forward with Shindig within Sakai at this stage, we acknowledge that the gadget architecture is powerful and believe that a gadget framework (Shindig or Wookie) will be valuable as the project moves forward. More importantly, we have found the gadget model to be a key factor in designing and developing powerful next generation interfaces, and the entire Sakai3 UI is structured around gadgets, making it easy to work with and modify. Thus the concepts behind our original choice of Shindig have come through in our final and ongoing work, even if the detail did not.
User-centric design: learning on the job
Flow felt that UCD is a scalable process, and were confident of some successful outcome at any budget. This is because for creative work such as design, and the well understood discipline of UCD, do not have “one right answer” - there are many potential reasonably good solutions, even with limited time and resources (compared to not attempting UCD). This means that even modest projects should be able to get good outputs of some sort using these methods.
User-centric design outputs
We have substantially added to the body of knowledge relating to user-centric design practice in UK HE, especially as regards emerging technologies such as social networking and other Web2 and new media systems. As well as experimenting with new methodologies, sharing with others how they might use these methods, and evaluating our experiences, our work has generated some concepts for designs and systems which we have not been able to take forward in this project, but which we hope that we, or others, will be able to take forward in the future. In particular, some of the early concepts from the user-centric design phase are engaging and intriguing, and will be worthy of further exploration. We also produced a range of materials for others who wish to undertake user-centred design in the HE sector, allowing them to benefit from our experience (our main handbook has been used at Georgia Tech, Michigan, and elsewhere).
User-centric design reflections
A full user-centric design process can be a powerful method for uncovering academic user needs and wants, which would not be uncovered by a project team working instead through a prototype&test iteration process (which may be more conventional in HE), and can lead to more usable IT systems in HE which address needs which might otherwise have been missed. To achieve this, a clear research question must be posed, and a team where technology-lead thinking is balanced with design and user-focussed thinking is essential throughout. Strong team working and group communication (using many methods and channels, as sharing design thoughts can be challenging) is also important. Nonetheless, there are real challenges in UCD, in communicating design work to stakeholders who have not been engaged throughout the process in detail, and in empowering stakeholders to assess design outputs effectively.
Social features in academic software
This project has hugely enhanced the capabilities of a major open source VLE/VRE (Sakai), by adding in scholarly networking functionality, including the ability for academics and students to communicate easily and flexibly, in the engaging manner pioneered by Facebook, but within an academic context and around learning and research content. Sakai3 will have social and collaborative aspects in every part of the system, with seamless creation and sharing content of all types throughout. Complex projects, whether VLEs or other systems, which seek to add social features or to evolve to more socially-oriented versions, should take a holistic viewpoint from the start, and tackle these problems across their systems, rather than attempting to retrofit small social widgets to existing platforms. User research, seeking answers to one or more well thought out research questions, is a strong way to start this sort of redesign effort.