I was invited to concoct a vision document for mobile learning at the University of Bath. It is really just a first attempt at defining some of the issues, and is simply a starting point.
A Mobile Strategy for the University of Bath
Keith Brown, 1st May 2013
- A mobile-friendly university with the capability to release public and private apps
- A student community that can access all course materials, and engage with their university-life using phones and tablets. Learning is possible anytime and anywhere, even when there is no data-connectivity such as on the bus, or on holiday
A Typical Day in the Life of a Student 2017
Mark is a first year MPharm student. As part of his induction Mark was sent an email that he viewed on his phone and which allowed the installation of the core UOB apps. These included course information and a personalised lecture timetable, bus-timetables and a 2D campus map that could show his location on campus and provide directions to any venue. The apps were easily installed on both Marks iPhone 8 and Nexus 17 tablet.
When Mark gets up in the morning, he uses the timetable app to plan his day, and waits until the bus locator app shows an on-coming bus, before leaving the house. On the bus, Mark manages to get a seat and uses his tablet to view lecture notes for the upcoming lectures, makes some doodles and notes on some of the slides, and tries one of the quizzes. Although there is intermittent data-connection on the bus, all of the learning materials are available on the tablet, so it works fine.
Arriving at university, Mark first checks the friend-finder app to see if anyone is nearby. As he enters the lecture theatre, the automatic registration system recognises his phone and registers his attendance. This particular lecture presentation involves audience participation and Mark uses his phone like a 'clicker'. He also makes notes and doodles on the lecture slides as displayed on his tablet and surreptitiously looks at both the Student Union app to see what events are happening later, and the Cafe app to browse the lunchtime menus at the various cafes around campus.
For lunch, Mark arranges to a meet with friends using the friend-finder app. Over lunch, the main talking-point is the new Sim-man Augmented Reality app that provides a visualisation of what is happening inside the Sim-man while drugs are administered. Over lunch there is also a tweet about changes to a forthcoming lecture venue. Mark knows that the timetable app will automatically update every evening, but chooses to update the timetable manually and checks that the new venue appears.
Later that afternoon, Mark has a spare hour which he spends in the Library. Although he uses a desktop machine to browse the web, at the same time he also uses his tablet to make some notes and diagrams on the same lecture slides that he used earlier that morning. Before leaving for his next lecture, he spends ten minutes perusing the Reading-List app and decides to electronically download a couple of eBooks to his phone for reading later.
The next lecture is 'flipped' and there is an opportunity for the students to use the Flip app that provides information about the issues that were difficult to understand. The information from all students is projected on-screen and allows the lecturer to focus and prioritise the areas that most students found challenging. After the lecture Mark consults the bus-timetable app, and makes his way to the bus-stop. At this point, his attention is drawn to the Student Union app which he uses to purchase a couple of tickets for a band that evening.
Later that evening, Mark spends some time reading one of the eBooks he downloaded earlier, and also spends a half-hour interacting with a bespoke app that was built and provided by an academic as part of a Moodle unit. At 9 o'clock, Mark makes his way to the Student Union to see the band.
The App Store
In order for any organisation to publish an app, they will have chosen to join several App-Stores in order to release the apps to the various mobile operating systems such as iOS (for iPhones and iPads) and Google Play (for Android devices). The following are applicable for the University of Bath:
This includes general apps for visitors and prospective students. The following examples are potential apps:
- UCAS admissions
- open days
- visitor guide
- cafe finder
The private app stores would enable release of apps restricted to university students and staff. This opens possibilities for many types of apps:
- timetable for students and staff
- eLearning materials - lectures and quizzes
- augmented reality
- past papers
- reading lists
- unit booklets
- note taking
- bespoke apps created by academics
- study group room bookings
Some simple prototype apps have already been developed for timetable and eLearning as part of the MeLT project . Currently being trialled in P&P, early feedback shows these have resonance with students. However, the project has indicated that there is a need for a secure way to distribute the apps internally to students. This requires a Private App-Store.
Apps are the normality for students
Broadly-speaking, most young people belong to the App Culture. It is quick and easy - go to the App-store to install an app, and within minutes it is running. Apps are ubiquitous - not only do they offer specific functionality, organisations are increasingly releasing apps for their employees and clients. Apps are the de-facto method for providing functionality, data and information on a mobile-device.
Apps are in demand by students
In a recent UOB student survey  there is strong evidence that students desire university-based apps: 90% of students would like a timetable, 86% of students would like lecture notes, and 74% of students indicated that they would want quizzes.
Apps have already been published by the University. This includes the Timetable app and an app designed to support non-native speakers in the healthcare professions.
Mobile devices are the future
The same survey also found that 85% of undergraduates have a smart-phone, and 20% have a tablet. This indicates that the vast majority of students already belong to the App-Culture. Also, tablet ownership is predicted to rise:
Gartner  predicts tablets will outstrip combined shipments of notebooks and desktops.
A Mobile Initiative
Although the desktop will continue to play a part, it looks likely to be eclipsed by the world of tablet and smart-phones. In this new world, the aim is that a student can engage with the university using any of their devices, including phones, as required.
In order to achieve the vision, it is important to have App-Store capability and a well-defined process for approval and publication of apps:
1. App-Store Capability
In order to be able to release an app, it is necessary for the app developer to sign-up to an App-Store. The MeLT student survey indicated that iOS and Android are the two main mobile operating systems used by students, responsible for about 80% of smart-phones possessed by students. Therefore, at the moment, consideration of App-Stores can be limited to:
- iOS Public App-Store ($100 per annum)
- iOS Private App-Store ($300 per annum)
- Google Play - the Android Public App-Store ($25 per annum)
- Google Play Private Channel - the Android Private App-Store (free with Google Play)
It is understood that the UOB have joined the iOS Public App-Store, and the first app released (April 2013).
2. App Making Process
The usual process of making and publishing an app is technical and involves a programmer to create the app in code. This type of approach is resource intensive and is not cost effective for large-scale development of apps across the University.
It is essential that there is a well-defined route whereby an app can be easily created, developed, checked for robustness and then provisioned in the App Store(s). Ideally it should be possible for a non-programmer to publish an app with relative ease. In particular, it is hoped to streamline the production of apps to the private UOB App-Store for internal consumption by students and staff, such as for teaching and learning purposes.
The App Making process can be defined as a two-step process:
The design stage is where user-interface and content (such as text and graphics) are combined to form an app, which can be tested on simulators and actual devices. The output of this stage is a ‘raw’ app, that is app-store ready:
Publishing involves checking, approving and provisioning the app in one or more of the app-stores. Consideration must be given to issues such as robustness, IPR, branding/visual identitity, security and maintenance. These issues are highly-dependant on whether the target app-store is public or private
Some of the ingredients for a mobile strategy are already in place. For example, a pilot timetable app has been trialled, and the first UOB app has been approved and available in the Apple App-Store. The MeLT project has built some templates and prototypes that can be reused, and a cross-platform model for app delivery on both Android and iOS has already been determined.The main recommendations of this document are as follows:
1. Design – Exploit the App-Factory
The App-Factory has been described in the MeLT 2 project, and is effectively a pilot that caters for the Design stage of the App-Making process. The idea is to streamline this process to enable non-programmers to easily create an app. Although the main driver for the App-Factory is for teaching and learning applications, it is intended to be highly scalable and applicable for any type of app such as for Admissions, Open Days, Campus Maps, Bus Timetables etc.
Early preparatory work for an ‘App-Factory’ indicates that it will be possible to automatically convert Powerpoint slides and Moodle quizzes to a ‘raw’ app ready for publication:
2. Publishing – Develop the Infrastructure
This publishing stage involves taking the raw app from the design stage and making this available on one or more of the four possible app-stores (iOS Public App-Store, Android Public App-Store, iOS Private App-Store and Android Private App-Store. The processes involved have yet to be defined, and will be dependent on the obligations and technical requirements of membership of the various App-Stores.
The main recommendation is to draw together the existing work and develop the processes, templates and models required to publish the raw app in the various stores. In other words, the work required is to flush-out the full specifications, and to discover and develop the technical and administrative infrastructure, together with any other resources that are required to convert a raw app to a published app. This will cover issues such as:
- Transferral mechanism between Design stage and Publishing stage
- Software development standards
- App Publishing - checks for robustness of code
- Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for app publication
- Central Repository of the apps released and source-code archive
- Helpdesk support
- Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)
- Branding and Visual Identity
Further details are available in Appendix 1
Appendix 1 – Human Resources and Other Costs
This appendix outlines some of the issues and costs that will be incurred. It is hoped that these can be absorbed within existing resources.
Although the provision of apps in an App-Store is well-defined and generally a straightforward technical process, it does require technical resources. A simple example is icons for an app: the App-Stores for iOS and Android require an array of icons in different dimensions. Not only do icons need to be created, it is necessary to build the facility to export to a variety of formats.
Security is fundamental to a long-term plan for mobile devices. Consideration will need to be given to the security of the App-Stores and a risk/benefit analysis undertaken of materials placed in these stores.
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)
IPR is a fundamental aspect of any materials delivered as an app. For example, any material in the public app-store will need to be free of any third-party copyrighted materials. Although the private app-store is limited to students and staff, and the copyright restrictions are likely to be less onerous, it also needs careful consideration by IPR legal specialists.
Branding and Visual Identity
Each app will conform to the branding and visual identity of the university.
Some types of app, such as for course materials and a timetable will require updating. Although this could be achieved by an automatic update facility, there will be times when the actual app itself will require updating by releasing another version in the App-Store.
Student Evaluation is a key aspect. Although early signs from the MeLT project  are very encouraging, it is important to continue to evaluate apps with students and ensure that the apps really do meet student expectations and requirements. All evaluation work will be carried out in line with the university protocol for surveying students.
- MeLT – Mobile eLearning and Technology. (https://wiki.bath.ac.uk/display/melt) updated March 2013
- Quarterly Mobile PC Shipment and Forecast Report (NPD) January 2013
- MeLT 2 Project Proposal - TDF Bid 2013