Saturday, January 08, 2005

OxPDA: Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 1

All staff and students at Oxford University are entitled to a pocket diary. It comes in a standard format measuring approximately 16cm * 8cm *1cm with a dark blue hardback cover emblazoned with a University crest. Opening the cover reveals it packed with various information specific to the life of the University - term dates, maps, contacts and so on.

For many they're an indispensible personal item - they are invariably pulled out at meetings. However, you only have to open to the inside cover to see the first of many limitations: the map of the University area (you'll have to log on to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) if you are looking for a campus).

You have to squint to read many of the details and even then the locations aren't so clear. I turn a page and see a map of hospitals, but no indication of how to reach them. Later on there's a list of religious festivals, but I can't find any reference to the Buddhist celebration of Vesakh. And aren't the contact names likely to change? More fundamentally, the two page week-to-view format, though quite ample, becomes rather crowded when you've more than the odd meeting,which prompts some to order desktop diaries in addition. And so on...

Back at the meeting table, more and more people are not pulling out their diary, but instead there appear electronic personal digitial assistants (PDAs). These devices contain many other kinds of information such as contact details, to do lists, various documents, a selection of music, and much greater space for jotting notes. Yet, when it comes to making a simple check for availability, their owners are often fumbling about and invariably ask, "What week is that?" Oxford has its own calendaring convention - terms have names such as Michaelmas and weeks are numbered, of which standard calendaring software has no knowledge. In fact, in practice PDAs have been very weakly utilised in the context of higher education, generally only for some elements of personal organisers, perhaps a note pad and some music, nothing that distinguishes them from, say, business use.

I've been working at Oxford since 2000, and have owned a PDA since 1998. I often end up taking both the diary and PDA with me, as they're both provide distinct advantages. However, for a year or two I've been mulling over in odd moments how PDAs might provide not only a genuine improvement in what the paper-based diary has offered, but many other features. I started with what I have imagined might be aspects in the daily life of a student here, in which the diary is just a smallpart. It goes something like this:

  • Jane starts by reminding herself with her 'To Do' list ... written in the back of her blue diary or on a scrap of paper,
  • she then checks the term dates .. and looks in her blue diary
  • to consult the day's lecture list .. she goes to departmental noticeboard or a user area PC to log on and consult a VLE
  • to sit a trial run of an online examination .. she wanders over to the Department, logs onto a PC, shows some ID, receives an authorisation token, and logs on ..
  • to provide feedback on a lecture course ... she fills in a paper-based questionnaire
  • to attend some special seminars in another department .. she checks the map in her blue diary and then walks over
  • to know about some concerts in the evening .. she pops over to another notice board or consults Daily Information
  • to look for accommodation .. she consults Daily Information
  • ... and so on ...
Over Christmas I came across an obituary of John Rose, the founder of Daily Information, the popular publication in Oxford, mentioned above. He identified a need to make available in one place a wide range of information, on jobs, accommodation, events, sales and wants etc., but especially to make it up-to-date. Daily Info posters are everywhere and it now has a Web site It is very much part of University life, yet it is actually a public service and not directly about education. It is easy to reflect on the educational process being conducted in personal study rooms, lecture theatres and other traditional educational haunts, but not elsewhere. But, of course, education is seldom so hermetically sealed - what happens in the classroom is dependent to some extent on what happens outside.

During the past few months I've been leading a project in mobile weblogs and their integration in institutional learning environments - it's called RAMBLE - see the project site and the project blog. We gave PDAs (HP iPaq and Palm devices) to two small groups of students and instructed them to blog learning experiences - in Chemistry and Medical Sciences respectively. Through blogging, students were able to publish their ideas, reflections and so on with great flexibility. It was obvious from both how the students felt free to make the blogs their own and itis evident how closely leisure and study are interrelated.

So, for a PDA to be owned (and cherished) by students I think it needs to provide a harmonious whole, certainly more than purelyacademic needs...

Enter the Oxford Personal Digital Assistant (OxPDA for short). An all in one solution for an undergraduate student always in touch, informed and able to connect in a convenient and timely manner. It will combine an interactive digital version of the current Oxford diary, made more current with address details etc; timetable information (lecture courses, seminars), linked into DailyInfo, college facilities, University's central services, OxfordUnion, all up-to-date via wireless services.

On hand at any time of day will be electronic 'To Do' lists; term dates available in a variety of formats, displaying by week, month, year; searchable lecture lists; access to e-mail, electronic resources from library, VLE, newsfeeds for events of interest etc. That's the vision. Coming up in the next blog (Part 2) I'll chat about technical solutions.

- Paul Trafford


Blogger Lexa said...

Hi Paul,

I'd be interested to get your contacts to discuss some issues around handhelds and eLearning, and possibly to invite you to join future expert panels.

My address is alexa [dot] joyce [at] eun [dot] org. You can see my own blog at

11 July 2007 at 06:17  
Blogger Paul Trafford said...

Hi Alexa,

Thanks for visiting this blog. I can be reached at: blog [at] chezpaul [dot] org [dot] uk. (I ought to indicate this somewhere more obvious...)

I'd be very happy to pick up share and discuss ideas - especially as my job currently doesn't afford much opportunity to develop them into practical reality.

- Paul

11 July 2007 at 12:55  

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