Thursday, 10 June 2010

Hermit crabs, Astronauts and the rest - what kind of mobile IT user are you?

Common Swift (Apus apus) in flight.Image via Wikipedia

Can you see yourself in one of these?
The Swift
Swifts migrate, between their summer and winter feeding grounds. Our swifts commute, between home and campus. They have nests in both locations, a work office and home office set up just the way they like. They don't carry much, and access their files through a VPN or Remote Desktop. But away from the nest they can get lost and frustrated, unable to get much done.
The Astronaut
Astronauts travel far, exploring hostile new frontiers. But they can't rely on any infrastructure in the places they find themselves, and must carry their entire life support systems. They have to worry about everything. A university astronaut might be a botanist in the jungle with their own satellite uplink and electricity generator.
The Nomad
Nomads are the opposite of astronauts - they are defined by what they leave behind, as the environment will provide it. A desert nomad carries little water as they know where the oases are. A digital nomad knows that every town has a Wetherspoons with coffee and free Wifi. They have no need for a heavy laptop with all their work on it. Nomads can be spotted by their lightweight netbook, Blackberry or iPhone. They store their work online and access it from any computer they come across.
The Hermit Crab
Hermit crabs are somewhere between astronauts and nomads. They travel, but have the burden of lugging a heavy bag everywhere they go. It's got the laptop, the charger, the spare battery, and a collection of all those annoying cables, dongles and adaptors that you hardly ever need except the one time you forget them.
The Monk
Monks spend most of their lives behind the walls of the monastery. They contemplate reality without leaving their cell, even if that gives them a narrow view of the world. On the rare occasions when they do venture outside they are calm and serene. They don't need any electronic communication tools as it is all in their head. They give you their undivided attention, free from all the interruptions that plague the modern multitaskers.
Based on the taxonomy of mobile users by Paul Saffo, forecaster and researcher at Stanford

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Mobile isn't special any more (and why this is a good thing)

I read a blog post this morning where Peter Tinson of UCISA turned his attention to mobile learning. Peter doubts that there is value in universities delivering learning resources for mobile platforms. Peter says:
What do students use their smartphones for?  I suspect that it is largely for the social aspects of their lives...
I agree. But students also use their laptops primarily for social purposes, and this doesn't stop us providing VLEs. The generation born with the Internet sees IT as a social tool - that's simply what a networked computer is for. Facebook is where it's at, not Microsoft Word.  This is great for us. The social purposes give students drivers to buy, carry and use powerful mobile devices. Once they have them the education will follow.
Would they attempt to use their phones for downloading educational material? The anecdotal evidence on network coverage suggests that it is unlikely that anyone would attempt to use their phone for anything complex. Do they use their phones to connect wirelessly where they can? Again I suspect not...
Yes, network coverage is pretty poor, and I agree that students won't use their phone for anything complex. That's why we make it simple. We have a wizard that sets up eduroam for your iPhone - just go to the webpage, enter your username and password once and it sets everything up for you. In future every time you are in range of a wireless signal it will automatically reconnect you. 

It is going to take many years for LTE (4G) to come along and replace 3G networks. In the meantime there's Wifi. Most universities have extensive wireless networks in their libraries, coffee shops - wherever the students hang out. At Bristol we're also providing flood wireless to rooms in our residences - a third of them by this October.
The cutbacks as a result of the current economic downturn are likely to drastically reduce the development of innovative learning material. Is the availability of learning material on smart phones something that offers real competitive advantage to an institution to merit investment? I doubt it.
Obviously cutbacks will hit us hard, and we will have to justify everything we do. So look at the best example of a mobile service in universities - Apple's iTunesU. iTunesU is phenomenally successful. 19 of the world's top 20 universities (by Times Higher rankings) have a presence on iTunesU, and millions of their lectures are downloaded.

Why is it so successful? What lessons can we learn from it and apply to other services? 
  • iTunesU is very easy to use
  • It doesn't need mobile connectivity all the time (podcasts are automatically copied to your iPod/iPhone and can be accessed any time)
  • It isn't just a mobile service (can be accessed on laptops and desktop PCs too)
  • It  provides a real competitive advantage. Most of Oxford's podcasts are downloaded outside the UK. This boosts their reputation and attracts lucrative international students. What better way is there to showcase your university than to show your best lecturers, for free, online?
I do think there is value in delivering mobile learning. But the way to do this right is to stop thinking about mobile as special. Is a smartphone mobile? A laptop? An iPad? The categories are blurring.  Mobile isn't it's own thing, it's just a part of the mix.

We must provide easy access to our learning resources in on whatever platforms our students want to use (i.e. all of the above). Think about the data not the platform. Make it simple, make it cross platform, make it just work. Use commonly supported standards, so you not have to reinvent it for every platform. Don't lock resources away tight, make them easy to get at. And get as many resources as possible out there in public to boost your visibility and reputation.

If we continue to think of mobile learning as something additional and special we will struggle to resource it. Concentrating on the platform may also warp our thinking and lead us to the wrong solutions. 

If we think instead about the learning materials, the content, then we are valuing what is important. It follows that we should make it available to all our students, as widely as feasible, irrespective of the platforms they possess. 

Thursday, 3 June 2010

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!

douglas adamsImage by michael_hughes via Flickr
Rejoice! Nick Jones of Gartner is blogging again! And anyone who quotes Douglas Adams is all right in my book...

I don't know of anyone who speaks more sense on the increasingly difficult task of how to manage mobile devices. For those of us in organisations too poor for a Gartner sub his blog is a precious free route that delivers unexpected pearls of wisdom.

Here's Nick:
Roughly speaking the management world splits into two camps: the traditionalists and the realists.

The traditionalists think that this is a battle which can still be won. They have 3 year strategies, roadmaps, user segmentation models, and a pile of technology such as device management tools, HVDs and virtualisation which they throw at their unfortunate users. They (finally and reluctantly) admitted they can’t stop iPhone but they’re busy building walls around what the users can do with it. They’re a bit like the philosophers in the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, they want rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty safely corralled within a neatly controlled universe.

The realists appreciate that the entire universe has become an area of doubt and uncertainty; control is no longer an option. Strategic segmentation models to define what facilities users need for their work are futile when new devices and services are emerging every month, the very nature of work is changing to become more autonomous, and adhocracies invent processes on the fly. Users – particularly knowledge workers – are saying: “I need new tools to do my job in new ways, and who cares if I downloaded them from an app store. I’m the one paying your salary and it’s unacceptable for the business to under-perform just to fit your outdated view of the world”. Realists are the inverse of the philosophers, they may implement a few rigidly controlled areas of certainty but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

Like many polarised conflicts neither side is entirely correct, but the world is shifting towards the realists...
The Gartner managed diversity model for mobile IT support has certainly influenced my thinking. I gave my take on it at our Futures Cafe last November. It included one Douglas Adams reference and a lot of restaurants, but not the one at the End of The Universe.

Here's something I wrote this morning, trying to establish the ground rules for our student laptop clinic:
We are happy to look at almost any hardware at the clinic, doesn't really matter if it is a laptop, netbook or iPad. The deal is:
  1. we commit to look at something, even if we think we can't help we don't dismiss problems out of hand,
  2. in exchange users understand there is no guarantee that we can resolve the issues,
  3. users meet us halfway - they don't dump problems on us, we work with them on it and they learn in the process, and can finish fixing it themselves when we've pointed them in the right direction,
  4. problems are contained within a fixed resource (time and staffing), they don't sprawl. Clinic finishes at 5pm prompt whether problem is fixed or not.
and on our forthcoming GetSatisfaction community support site for Mobile IT:
  1.  we have a willingness to engage with problems, and not dismiss them,
  2.  users understand we don't have all the answers and can't solve everything,
  3.  a contained forum, at a slight distance from the more guaranteed support mechanisms,
  4.  we work with users to produce answers together.

Hmmm. Am I being a traditionalist or a realist here? It rather looks as if I too want rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.

Perhaps I'm a pragmatist, recognising that a few such areas are all we can achieve in our current organisational context. If these work and prove themselves, then I may in time win the argument, and we'll let uncertainty take over Life, the Universe & Everything.