Monday, January 10, 2005

Pervasive e-Learning in your hands - Part 3: Ideas for Implementation

At the heart of the OxPDA vision is a replacement for the Oxford University pocket diary. A quick reminder of the diary's usefulness is provided in the Oxford Study Abroad Programme's Student Handbook which supports students coming from outside the UK and who are associated with Colleges of the University. In the preface, it states:
g. You should pick up an Oxford University diary upon your arrival. The book will be invaluable to you. It will allow you to write in your tutorial appointments, which may vary a bit from week to week, and to keep track of other events. It lists address and phone numbers of all the colleges, a handy map, and train and bus schedules. [You should get the latest schedules when you arrive since they change every now and then. There are special passes for those under 25 years old. Ask at the bus and train station.]
It recommends quite a number of other items, many of which could be incorporated to enhance OxPDA' provision of services. These include the Oxford [Student] Handbook available as one of OUSU's publications, plus guides to clubs and societies, college rules etc. Most of these are paper-based items, subject to becoming out of date, so ripe for digitisation. By incorporating many other digital sources of information, I envision OxPDA enabling an undergraduate student to more fully keep up-to-date and connected with whatever the day might bring. Ideally, OxPDA should fit like a glove.


Here are some software components that might provide the right kind of 'infrastructure'. Some require a lot of development, but I hope that it is nevertheless a credible setup overall. Unless otherwise stated, these are all features of the PDA.
  1. (server side) Relational database and management system (RDBMS) in which to store, update all the relevant details. It should expose the data in ways that are readibly accessible to the PDA and should be updateable via the Web, so probably should be implemented using Web services. Providing syndicated newsfeeds in Atom and RSS would be a simple and effective way to achieve the 'read' requirements.
  2. A highly polished software implementation of the Oxford University Pocket Diary itself - easy, intuitive and complete as is practical
  3. Close integration with DailyInfo or access to its types of information - so that items relating to events etc can be easily incorporated in the diary, say. (Will need to co-ordinate with the site).
  4. Good capacity for Internet connectivity, especially through WiFi and Bluetooth
  5. Internationalisation - a high proportion of Oxford's students are from overseas and who knows, perhaps OxPDA could be a product to market abroad one day?
  6. Internal hyperlinking supporting multiple access routes to information ...
  7. Bookmarks and annotations of various types ...
  8. Path creation schemes to navigate the routes... Software has been developed at Oxford that allows the user to create their own paths through learning, initially implemented in Virtual Seminars, more recently as Pacific pathways for the Pitt Rivers museum.
  9. Community support - tools for reading from and contributing to internal and external sources (e.g. online fora, blogs, wikis etc..)
  10. Pocket reference works - University handbooks, dictionaries, thesauri and even encyclopaedia should be available. For instance, Wikipedia is undoubtedly a valuable and extensive encyclopaeadia. Software such as Tomeraider allows its text archives to be browsed offline (around 200MB at present), which can easily fit on a memory card. Its academic rigour is questionable, but actually tutors and lectures can train students to critically analyse such sources of information, which is an essential skill.
  11. Dependable - reliable in operation, data backup regime, etc.
  12. Secure - multi-level security depending upon sensitivity of data
Now let's look in more detail ...

Oxford University's Pocket e-Diary

This should be the 'jewel in the crown' and this is where I reckon effort is well spent in combing the present diary page by page, considering each and every aspect, determining what and how to realise digitally. So the ideas below are just starters! 1. General: the display should allow lots of flexibility in personalisation, especially in the configuration of display (layout, foreground and background colours, fonts, etc), thereby being accessible, and convenient. Perhaps it could contain as the 'Today screen' a mini portal in which you can plug in components such as today's lectures, to do items, photo, etc.? 2. Interactive University Maps An interactive 'Oxford colleges and departments' map (might work similar to MS Pocket Streets, for which a rather lean Oxford map is available) with the following features:
  • vector-based, zoomable,
  • database driven
  • updateable (via Internet connectivity)... data objects stored in and retrieved from online database, with hyperlinks to web sites for these objects
  • connectivity to other University sources e.g. photo databases that can augment the maps
  • allows contributions from users, e.g. for places that are not yet listed
  • GPS-aware... think of: "Show me how to get from A to B in words and pictures..."
  • viewing modes: e.g. virtual mode: Diary as eBook, where you can turn pages etc, but access is augmented by rich hyperlinking
  • viewing options: checkboxes for different elements - colleges, tourist attractions, bus stops, etc.
  • clicking on dept or college can bring up: - list of general contacts, personal contacts - photos - general info - link to web site, Wikipedia entry, etc
3. Calendar system supporting Oxford terms, including:
  • term dates for several years
  • A 'Today' view - Term, Week, Day view
  • lecture lists
  • degree days
  • exam days
  • feast days (can link to a calendar of religious festivals, pity SHAP is no longer available online)
  • holidays
  • timetable information should be current (lecture courses, seminars)
The calendar should be linked into a logbook/journal/diary, which can be published as a blog containing text, images and perhaps even video. 4. Contacts Details as provided in the present diary, with mainly personal additions.
  • friends and family
  • university officers
  • colleges
  • departments
  • museums
  • clubs and societies
  • ...
These could be colour coded - for days, weeks, kinds of information, with individual icons for each type. 5. External sources of information such as: 6. Special Features Oxford has such a wealth of arts and cultural resource, that it would be valuable to incorporate this somehow - e.g. on touring a museum, one can download data and prompts on the objets d'arts, and leave comments for others to read. A few galleries and museums have already experimented with this kind of thing.

Seeking an Implementation

How might this materialise and work in practice? I think the key is appropriate wireless technology. The growth of WiFi community networks look very promising and Oxford's campus is fairly compact, allowing an efficient distribution of transmitters (base stations etc), so I feel we ought to be logging on in the streets soon. However, we have to convince OUCS' security team first and then the IT managers of all the colleges and departments ...! So far it seems to be mainly visiting academics from the USA who create the most fuss about not having it, but as such networks mushroom I think the demands will become much more vocal. I'm sure a marketing guru could conjure up a wealth of possibilities - on a fine summer's day some students are huddled together in University Parks discussing finer points of philosophy, waving their arms and in the background a fine strike of the ball from a game of cricket; meanwhile others are gliding through the narrow streets, walking past a college, picking up notices about forthcoming lectures, consulting their e-diaries; or emailing responses to their tutors; or viewing some of the fine architecture with notes, images and videos downloaded on demand. etc... etc... etc...

Some hardware and software specs

I haven't given much thought to this, but a suitable hardware spec shouldn't require the latest and greatest. The following should be fine:
  • a 16 bit colour PDA, 3.5" TFT screen, at least QVGA
  • 64 MB RAM
  • memory card slot, SD and/or Compact Flash
  • 200MHz processor
  • WiFi (802.11x or 802.1x) and/or Bluetooth - the former has greater range, needed for roaming, but consumes quite a lot more power; the latter uses low power, but has limited range (basically for a 'Personal Area Network' within a small room)
  • lightweight (less than 150g)
  • audio input with good inbuilt microphone
  • supports an external (collapsible) keyboard
Built-in software spec:
  • Web browser with CSS, JavaScript, and SSL support, in the latter case, especially for certificates used in WebAuth, the Secure Single Sign-on system being used here for the Web.
  • diary/calendaring
  • Mail client SSL/IMAP
  • Atom, RSS feed reader, aggregator
  • moblog authoring software allowing offline authoring and supporting common APIs such as Blogger API, Metaweblog API
  • Pocket office applications - especially Word-processing
  • Multimedia players (audio - MP3, video)

Taking an initial step to Realisation

Technically, I think we can quickly convey quite a good idea of the e-diary by developing mockups in Macromedia Flash, which is cross platform and being vector-based should suit the small screen. It may well be part of the final solution. However, if this is really to happen, then a lot of parties would need to be involved from students to PDA manufacturers. It is the kind of venture where many hands can help :-)


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