Friday, 17 January 2014

Designing for Mobile first

My iPad showing Bb Mobile Learn - CC BY
In the web design community, there has been talk in recent times about designing for mobile users first, in recognition of the growing number of web access via smartphones and tablet devices.

I've been wondering if we should we be considering the same thing when we 'design' our modules in VLEs? I know the term 'design' doesn't often spring to mind when academics consider uploading powerpoint files, etc, but perhaps we should start to consciously think of them in this way; as something that needs designing...

Take the server data from UoL as an example. Last year I shared some of the server stats, and it's grown even further this year:

  • Unique users over the last 12 month period have jumped to from 16,277 (taken 5/13) to 26,811 (taken 1/14) - of course we don't know how many people have multiple devices e.g. iPhone & iPad;
  • Peak days are reaching around 126,000 logins per day;
  • Access is still largely during the week and throughout the working day. This very well may suggest students are logging on whilst they're at Uni - accessing resources whilst in (or between) classes. 

This is where simple learning analytics comes in to play. If we know students are accessing the VLE from mobile devices, shouldn't we at least give them content that they can easily access? I think this responsibility lies partially in Blackboard's hands, but largely in those of module leaders.

Thankfully, Mobile Learn has improved over the years in its rendering of Microsoft office files (ppt/word) and its mobile quizzes, but there is still lots of areas it could improve - accessing 'contacts' still opens up in a browser despite it being a fairly basic Bb tool; and learning modules (something we used to rely heavily on at Edge Hill) are not so mobile-friendly.

I would love to hear how other people are consciously designing their modules to be mobile friendly.


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  1. Hi Peter - I've been contemplating this question too, and asked on my blog / Twitter / G+ / etc. about the 'mobile first' as opposed to 'mobile friendly' approach -

    To date I've heard nothing, not even from a direct email/tweet to Blackboard either!

    I hope you have better luck, please share your responses with me?

    All the best, David

  2. I've been thinking about this question since David posted it on his blog, and now Peter is asking the same question. It occurred to me that I do know of a case of a 'designed for mobile' course -- the MSc in Security, Conflict and International Development offered by University of Leicester Criminology. Because the students are constantly on-the-move, Criminology decided to ship them each an iPad and to create an app containing all the learning materials. The app is called SCID and it's free on the Apple store (well,you don't get all of the information unless you can put in a student login). This particularly mobile student profile pushed the decision to design for mobile..... but interestingly, it has worked so well that Criminology is strongly considering changing all of its distance learning courses to that iPad-and-app model, even for more typical student cohorts.

    Maybe people don't design for mobile because they don't see that they have to? They assume that the student will always have a desktop or laptop to sit down to at some point in the day, and that is probably a valid assumption. But it's probably also a valid assumption that the student has a smartphone or some sort of handheld device. How long before we swap the target of our learning materials, and aim for mobile as the "default' rather than desktop?

    Terese Bird, University of Leicester

    1. Hi Terese - I understand what you're trying to say, and agree the 'app' is a possible solution, but this is not a Bb course and does not fit into a Bb structure (although I know that the contents/materials wiithin the App are also available in a Bb course - which itself is not designed/structured around a mobile-first approach).

      You may indeed be right that no one has done this yet as there is no need, but we are constantly being told that mobile matters, and that students are more mobile than we think (really?) so i find it hard to think that no one has handled this in at least a small way? There may indeed not be any reason to design for mobile-first but surely we should know what that looks like (for mobile AND desktop)?


    2. Thanks for the comments guys.
      Yes I agree David - I'm surprised more hasn't been done.
      I think most people in our field recognise the prevalence of mobile devices now. That, coupled with the access hits shared above and the feedback from students (I shared from our student survey here: should be a pretty big driver to start considering mobile more.
      I think the app route is certainly an interesting approach (if you have the resources). Quite how scalable that is I'm not sure. We need simple tips and workflows in order to cater for the masses.
      I'm pretty sure Mark Wilcock (@wilcockm) shared something a while back based on the range of formats the Mobile Learn app can open natively, but I can't find it now. Something like that would be useful to help educate staff to think about mobile users more....

    3. The App route is certainly a valid one for some circumstances. In the example Terese has posted (and we've submitted a book chapter about) there is a well defined requirement for offline access to learning materials for students who are more often than not unable to connect to the Internet. It is a good model but the App, and other like it, are unable to connect to Bb for materials or interaction. Other Apps may be able to offer some of these features or functionality but are they linked to an institutional VLE?

      Food for thought (and a research project for someone who's got the time and inclination?).


    4. I've long been cautious of a mobile app route concluding that you could get everything you need from good responsive design. A recent post by Mike Caufield however got me thinking about the utility of the 'notifications bar' which is only reliability accessible via the app route On reflection perhaps really targeted communication through other channels which would appear in the users notification bar would be a better route

      I think Mark Stubbs was doing work in this area a couple of years ago and at the time student demand was for mobile versions of timetable and results. It would be interesting to revisit to see if the development of social apps for Facebook/Twitter have changed this view

    5. Thanks Martin,

      From my time at MMU I know Mark's stuff was around those wider 'hygiene factors' rather than in essence, a mobile VLE. And as I said above, Bb Mobile Learn, whilst very good, isn't perfect.
      We've got a responsive portal and other sites at Liverpool, but it's the everyday teaching materials I'm most interested in. I'm not sure Liverpool do as good a job at shouting about the work going on as in other institutions, but the computing services department really are doing some good stuff.

  3. Hi Peter,

    I stumbled across your post while looking into Blackboard Mobile Analytics. We are experiencing a problem a Newcastle University (as are some members of the wider mobile learn community) with regards inaccuracies of BB analytics in relation to iOS devices. Blackboard are aware of the issue but have asked for community support in identifying the exact nature of the problem. Looking at the stats you have posted I think you may be having the same issue. It would be really useful to talk to another UK institution experiencing this problem to see if we can find any common ground.

    All the best,


    1. Thanks Marc,
      I seen a Bb announcement that said the errors were related to logins per day. So I think the unique users, time of day, etc, is still accurate. Need to look it up in more detail though.

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