Thursday, August 30, 2012

Conclusions and Recommendations

Mobile phone apps can benefit from interacting with public display information as a 'call to action' for students information use. The reluctance of students to experiment with offsite access appears to be less when directions are clear and focussed, and targetted on a known and specific topic.

At the more detailed design level, it is important to take a conservative approach to using communication protocols and technology. Students are reticent about using new technologies as these may require learning new controls, reconfiguring their phone or downloading further applications. Well-designed proxy access controls turned out to be a major advantage to the project, as focussing a user's contact to specific content is a key factor in a positive evaluation of an online resource.

This raises the general point that large, aggregated databases are difficult resources to navigate, and identifying specific content (e.g. one issue of a journal, or a conference series) is much more easily evaluated for utility than a general overview or search box. We very much benefitted from the advice of our subject librarian, and the provision of judiciously chosen material was a key factor in our design's success, besides the careful user-centred design approach we undertook.

Technical Approach

As we had experience with iOS development, this was the approach that was taken during our development. We also know that the specific techniques we used would work equally well with other popular smartphone environments such as Android.

The access 'cards' were downloaded from the electronic display controller via a standard internet connection (on site there is a good quality WiFi connection), in PDF format. The use of PDF allows, potentially, for rich visual content but also for hyperlinks, etc. without the manifest problems of multi-part web content.

The specific access controls used for the target resources is a relatively simple proxy arrangement (as is increasingly often the case at university libraries), but the use of appropriate URLs allows for the direct access to individual journals or conference series, rather than for the 'home page' of a larger resource. This brought the benefit of taking the user directly to specific content, and avoiding navigation or search activity. Furthermore, the app could be configured with the user's account name and password, allowing for those to be automatically provided to the access control proxy without having to type (as text entry is laborious on a smartphone).

The electronic display simply carouselled through a series of web pages that were specifically designed for the screen proportions of the device. For our protoype, this was an Apple iMac (simplifying code development and allowing some code-sharing with the mobile app). The pages were simply kept on a local folder and read in (alphanumeric) order. Each page had a corresponding PDF, for downloading to mobile devices as required.

Lessons Learned

MoPED taught us that some caution is needed in adopting the very latest communication technologies. In particular, the very popular presence of QR codes was not at all reflected in the behaviour of the students who we canvassed on the topic of smartphone use. The experience of the vast majority of the students was negative, as using QR codes required specific apps that students were uncertain how to obtain, and even where some experimental use had been attempted, the outcome was seen as underwhelming.

In our approach, we ultimately had to adopt well-rehearsed mobile norms such as using an app and basic 3G/WiFi communication, rather than any of the more specialist communication techniques. Novel technologies proved discouraging even to students with a clear confidence with computing technology in general.

Our prototype large display showed a sequence of online resources, and if the student's mobile phone ran our bespoke app, this could then be used to 'grab' the relevant access instructions which were downloaded to their smartphone. These instructions could then be read on screen both on and off site, regardless of the student's internet access (or lack of it). While the interaction was initially unfamiliar, it was deemed much simpler than more technological approaches.

In a simple experimental setup, access was achieved much more frequently than had been the case in our initial data-gathering, where only 16% of reported successful access to any online resource off-site. The prototype achieved a rate of 80%, and while this is an early result it does indicate that a simple intervention can reduce the perceived challenge of accessing digital content at home (or elsewhere).

The Mobile Advantage

The benefit of mobile phones is that they are continuously with students. While these devices famously have a small display, they now have sufficiently large displays - in the case of smartphones - to communicate focussed information effectively.

A range of improved communication technologies, from 3G Internet connection, visual codes such as QR codes, contactless sensors such as RFID or NFC, and established technologies such as Bluetooth allow for the timely delivery of much richer information than in even the recent past. Some users even now use mobile devices as a preferred tool for opportunistic, short-term reading due to high portability of these devices. More pertinently, phones are typically used for simple note-taking and organisational tasks such as diary maintenance and time-keeping.

In this context, smartphones can provide focussed, specific information that is readily on hand. This benefit is doubly so if the content is retained on the phone itself, rather than online (and hence requiring a good quality WiFi or 3G internet connection).

In the MoPED project, we found that mobile phones have potential both as reference tools to support offsite access to online resources. More generally, this demonstrates the opportunity to use short, focussed information as a starting point for more intensive knowledge tasks on desktop and laptop PCs.

In addition, the combination of simple interactive public displays to announce the availability of mobile resources seems to be a potentially effective technique to promote the uptake of both mobile and internet information services that a university provides.

The Challenge

Student use of online resources is less widespread than may be hoped for. For over a decade, digital library researchers have shown that access controls, and in particular the variety of different login, password and filtering strategies have combined to produce a confusing digital environment for accessing information.

While many universities now benefit from relatively painless access on-site, once off-site, publishers' natural anxiety about protecting their content often results in a recurrence of the established problems of varied control mechanisms. The complexity of this situation results in confusion and anxiety about accessing information offsite, and it is known that frequently students only turn to find information when under acute time pressure.

The challenge of the project was to minimise the opportunity cost of students' acquiring knowledge about how to access information offsite, and to provide clear guidance on how to access digital resources through simple information stored on their mobile phone. Previous strategies for resolving this problem have included subject-focussed guidance on library websites, (semi-) formal training for students in class, and providing written instructions in online learning environments such as Moodle.

However, this information is often separated from the moment at which students most need access to information by gaps in time (e.g. training some weeks or months ago), availability (e.g. the location of specific information needs to be recollected) and access (e.g. guidance is at university when the student is at home).


The MoPED project took place a City University, a 1960's "glass-plate" university which has a relatively congested city-centre site in Islington, London. The university library has embarked on a major investment in digital resources, as physical space limitations and an expansion of both the university's taught disciplines and number of students has produced an acute pressure on space.

Students who participated in the studies were a combination of computer- and information- science students in the third year of bachelor degree programmes, or involved in postgraduate study. It was known, from consultation with subject specialists at the university library and faculty members, that student use of online resources was generally poor, and offsite access was perceived as being difficult for a variety of practical reasons, including access controls.

The aim of the MoPED project was to discover if public displays of information, which advertised downloadable information on accessing specific resources (e.g. journals recommended by faculty staff), could be combined with students' mobile phones to improve the likelihood of students using the available online resources. The primary anticipated solution was to provide downloadable access information to mobile phones that could then be read at home to reduce the difficulty of successfully downloading online content off site.

Major Outputs

The main outputs of the MoPED project were:

  • Results of our investigation of the use of smartphone communication features
  • Prototype software for connecting mobile phones to electronic displays
  • Recommendations for future use of mobile phone and electronic display combinations
The major findings included:
  • While 54% of students had a smartphone, 46% still used a traditional mobile device (or 'featurephone')
  • 31% of smartphone users did not possess a personal PC (desktop or laptop)
  • 23% of students lacked broadband access at home
  • Only two students (from 35) had used QR codes more than once
  • 63% had never attempted to use a QR code
...and these figures reflected use by students from technical disciplines.

With our prototype system:
  • 6/10 students discovered a new online resource they were unaware they had access to off-site
  • 8/10 successfully accessed an online database they had not previously logged into
when the online resource had been publicised in modules taken by these students