You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Personalisation’ category.

OpenTree sample badgeOne of the interesting features of our new library game OpenTree for me is that it is possible to engage with it in a few different ways.  Although at one level it’s about a game, with points and badges for interacting with the game and with library content, resources and webpages.  It’s social so you can connect with other people and review and share resources.

But, as a user you can choose the extent that you want to share.  So you can choose to share your activity with all users in OpenTree, or restrict it so only your friends can see your activity, or choose to keep your activity private.  You can also choose whether or not things you highlight are made public.

So you’d wonder what value you’d get in using it if you make your activity entirely private.  But you can use it as a way of tracking which library resources you are using.  And you can organise them by tagging them and writing notes about them so you’ve got a record of the resources you used for a particular assignment.  You might want to keep your activity private if you’re writing a paper and don’t want to share your sources or if you aren’t so keen on social aspects.

If you share your activities with friends and maybe connect with people studying the same module as you, then you could see some value in sharing useful resources with fellow students you might not meet otherwise.  In a distance-learning institution with potentially hundreds of students studying your module, students might meet a few students in local tutorials or on module forums but might never connect with most people following the same pathway as themselves.

And some people will be happy to share, will want to get engaged with all the social aspects and the gaming aspects of OpenTree.  It will be really interesting to see how users get to grips with OpenTree and what they make of it and to hear how people are using it.

It will particularly be interesting to see how our users engagement with it might differ from versions at bricks-and-mortar Universities at Huddersfield, Glasgow and Manchester.  OpenTree’s focus is online and digital so doesn’t include loans and library visits, and our users are often older, studying part-time and not campus-based.

Subject leaderboard screenshotIn early feedback, we’re already seeing a sense that some of the game aspects, such as the Subject leaderboard is of less interest than expected.  Maybe that reflects students being focused around outcomes much more, although research seems to suggest (Tomlinson 2014 ‘Exploring the impact of policy changes on students’ attitudes and approaches to learning in higher education’ HEA) that this isn’t just a factor for part-time and distance-learning students as a result of increased university fees and student loans.  It might also be that because we haven’t gone for an individual leaderboard that there’s less personal investment, or just that users aren’t so sure what it represents.



Photgraph of RobiniBeacon is an interesting piece of location-based Apple technology and I started wondering about how useful it might be in a library context.  Essentially (as this article from the Guardian describes) it is being sold as a micro-broadcast technology where transmitters can communicate with nearby smartphones.  So there have been applications that have been proposed to allow shops to send you messages about special offers for example as you walk past, a sort of advertising sandwich-board I suppose.

But that technology might be interesting in a library context.  You could see it directing you to where there is a public PC that is available for use, or telling you when you enter a library that something you have reserved is available for collection (or reminding you of things that are due for return).  You could envisage it flagging up new resources as you walk round different sections in a library, or maybe tell you about library events related to that section.  Browsing the fiction, maybe you might be interested in knowing about the ebooks that are available, or knowing about the book group that meets?

I wonder about how it might relate to the RFID tags in many libraries now and whether you could combine the technologies to use your phone to direct you round the library to find the book you wanted, and maybe to borrow it without ever needing to go near the self-service machines or a library checkout desk?

Photograph of sparrows in a baarn doorway It was Lorcan Dempsey who I believe coined the term, ‘Full library discovery’ in a blog post last year. As a stage beyond ‘full collection discovery’, ‘full library discovery’ added in results drawn from LibGuides or library websites, alongside resource material from collections.  So for example a search for psychology might include psychology resources, as well as help materials for those pyschology resources and contact details about the subject librarian that covers psychology.  Stanford and Michigan are two examples of that approach, combining lists of relevant resources with website results.

Princeton’s new All search feature offers a similar approach, discussed in detail on their FAQ.  This combines results from their Books+, Articles+, Databases, Library Website and Library Guides into a ‘bento box’ style results display. Princeton all searchPrinceton’s approach is similar to the search from North Carolina State University who I think were about the first to come up with this style.

Although in most of these cases I suspect that the underlying systems are quite different the approach is very similar.  It has the advantage of being a ‘loosely-coupled’ approach where your search results page is drawn together in a ‘federated’ search method by pushing your search terms to several different systems, making use of APIs and then displaying the results in a dashboard-style layout.  It has the advantage that changes to any of the underlying systems can be accommodated relatively easily, yet the display to your users stays consistent.

For me the disadvantages for this are in the lack of any overriding relevancy ranking for the material and that it perpetuates the ‘silo’ing’ of content to an extent (Books, Articles, Databases etc) which is driven largely by the underlying silos of systems that we rely on to manage that content.  I’ve never been entirely convinced that users understand the distinction about what a ‘database’ might be.  But the approach is probably as good as we can get until we get to truly unified resource management and more control over relevancy ranking.

Going beyond ‘full library discovery’
But ‘full library discovery’ is still very much a ‘passive’ search tool, and by that I mean that it isn’t personalised or ‘active’.  At some stage to use those resources a student will be logging in to that system and that opens up an important question for me.  Once you know who the user is, ‘how far should you go to provide a personalised search experience?’.  You know who they are, so you could provide recommendations based on what other students studying their course have looked at (or borrowed), you might even stray into ‘learning analytics’ territory and know what the resources were that the highest achieving students looked at.

You might know what resources are on the reading list for the course that student is studying – so do you search those resources first and offer those up as they might be most relevant?  You might even know what stage a student has got to in their studies and know what assignment they have to do, and what resources they need to be looking at.  Do you ‘push’ those to a student?

How far do you go in assembling a profile of what might be ‘recommended’ for a course, module or assignment, what other students on the cohort might be looking at, or looked at the last time this course ran?  Do you look at students previous search behaviour?  How much of this might you do to build and then search some form of ‘knowledge base’ with the aim of surfacing material that is likely to be of most relevance to a student.  Search for psychology on NCSU’s Search All search box gives you the top three articles out of 2,543,911 articles in Summon, and likely behaviour is not to look much beyond the first page of results.  So should we be making sure that they are likely to be the most relevant ones?

But, then there’s serendipity, there’s finding the different things that you haven’t looked for before, or read before, because they are new or different.  One of the issues with recommendations is the tendancy for them to be circular, ‘What gets recommended gets read’ to corrupt the performance indicator mantra.  So how far do you go?  ‘Mind reading search’ anyone?

Jisc elevator website screenshotIt was great to see this week that the latest opportunity on the Jisc Elevator website is one for students to pitch ideas about new technology ideas.  That’s really nice to see something that involves students in coming up with ideas and backing it up with a small amount of money to kickstart things.

Using students as co-designers for library services and in particularly in relation to websites and technology is something that I’m finding more and more compelling.  A lot of the credit for that goes to Matthew Reidsma from Grand Valley State University in US, whose blog ‘Good for whom?‘ is pretty much essential reading if you’re interested in usability and improving the user experience.   I’m starting to see that getting students involved in co-designing services is the next logical step on from usability testing.  So instead of a process where you design a system and then test it on users, you involve them from the start, by asking them what they need, maybe then getting them to feedback on solution designs and specifications and then going through the design process of prototyping, testing and iterating, by getting them to look at every stage.  Something that an agile development methodology particularly lends itself to.  Examples where people have started to employ students on the staff to help with getting that student ‘voice’ are also starting to appear.

There are some examples of fairly recent projects where Universities have been getting students (and others outside the institution) involved in designing services, so for example the Collaborate project at Exeter that looked at using students and employers to design ’employability focussed assessments’.  There is also Leeds Metropolitan with their PC3 project on the personalised curriculum and Manchester Metropolitan’s ‘Supporting Responsive Curricula’ project.    And you can add to that list of examples the Kritikos project at Liverpool that I blogged about recently.

For us, with our focus on websites and improving the user experience we’ve been working with a group of students to help us with designing some tools for a more personalised library experience.  I blogged a bit about it earlier in the year.   We’re now well into that programme of work and have put together a guest blog post for Jisc’s LMS Change project blog ‘Personalisation at the Open University’. Thanks to Ben Showers from Jisc and Helen Harrop from the LMS Change project for getting that published.  Credit for the work on this (and the text for the blog post) should go to my colleagues: Anne Gambles, Kirsty Baker and Keren Mills.  Having identified some key features to build we are well into getting the specification for the work finalised and start building the first few features soon.   It’s been an interesting first foray into working with students as co-designers and one I think has major potential for how we do things in the future.

Kritikos search interface screenshotI noticed an interesting Jisc-funded project at Liverpool today that I hadn’t previously heard about (blogged by Jisc today) that talked about a method of sharing resources amongst students using a crowdsourcing approach.  The service is called Kritikos and takes several quite interesting approaches.  At the heart of the system is some work that has been done with students to identify resources relevant to their subjects (in this case Engineering) and also to identify results that weren’t relevant (often because some engineering terms have different meanings elsewhere – e.g. stress). That’s an interesting approach as one of the criticisms I’ve heard about discovery systems is that they struggle to distinguish between terms that are used across different disciplines (differentiation for example having separate meanings in mathematics and biology).

The search system uses a Google Custom Search Engine but then presents the results as images which is a fascinating way of approaching this aspect.  Kritikos also makes use of the Learning Registry to store data about students interactions with the resource and whether they found them relevant or not.  It seems to be a really novel approach to providing a search system that could go some way to address one of the common comments that we’ve been seeing in some work we’ve been doing with students. They feel that they are being deluged with too much material and struggle to find the gold nuggets that give them everything they want.

Kritikos looks to be particularly useful for students in the later stages of their degrees, where they are more likely to be doing some research or independent study.  One of the things that we are finding from our work is that students at earlier stages are less interested in what other students are doing or what they might recommend.  But possibly if they were presented with something like Kritikos they might be more inclined to see the value of other students’ recommendations.

New tools concept
Earlier in the week we soft-launched a new section on our library website.  The New Tools section is a space where we can put out new ideas with the aim of trying to get some feedback about whether users will find them useful.  This parallels the work we’re also doing with a group of students from our Student Panel to work with them to design some new features (blogged about earlier in the week).

Our idea is that we’d use the New Tools section to put up beta tools based on ideas that have come up through a number of ways.  So the ideas that come through the personalisation study work with students will go through a private ‘alpha’ stage where they help with defining the ideas and feeding back on paper prototypes and ‘proof-of-concept’  tools.  Once the tools have been refined the best ones get released as ‘beta’ versions through the New Tools section.  We’d also look at releasing as beta tools some of the ideas that come from other work we’ve done in the past such as in the RISE recommender project and other ideas we’ve come up with.

The idea with the New tools section is that the tools aren’t fully supported but are there for people to try and let us know what they think about them.  If they work then we can refine them and take them into service.  If they aren’t useful then we’ll have a better idea of what people want and what they don’t.

First new tools – single search box
The first two tools that we’ve made available in beta are both around library resources.  The first one is a single search box (I”ve written before about the library quest for the google-like search box – and I’m starting to get more interested in the Google-like search box actually being Google and that libraries might be better concentrating on helping users in Google find library resources that they are entitled to access – but Google’s decision to ‘retire’ Google Reader certainly gives me pause in relying too much on something from Google).   Behind the search box is a search that pasSingle search box screenshotses your search string to our version of EBSCO Discovery (using their API) and also to the library resources database that powers the resource lists that are fed into the library website.  The idea behind this is that it will bring together results from our various systems into one place and particularly that it will be better at finding Journal titles that are direct matches.

Search results screenshotThis single search box is designed to also test the feasibility of bringing together different search results into a single interface.  It’s a bit federated-search-like in that the results are presented in separate boxes (sort of like a stacked bento-box approach inspired by Stanford and others – it’s interesting also to see the approach that Princeton have taken with their beta version of their library website).  We also haven’t strayed too much into the area of adding some of the surrounding functionality (saving citations, sharing etc features) that a fully-fledged system would need.  This is just about testing whether pulling together these results is a workable and useful thing to do.

First new tools – My recent resources
The second tool is about trying to see if giving users access to a list of library resources they have recently accessed is useful to them.   If you’re not an OU user (or aren’t signed-in) you’ll just see a demonstration list of resources.  But if you are signed-in you should see a list of the resources you’ve used, with the most recent ones first.  These resources will include ones you’ve looked at directly from the library website, or ones articles that you’ve viewed through our One Stop search discovery system.  For this prototype we have offered RSS and RIS formats to export your records so you can put them into your favourite reference management tool. My Resources screenshot We’ve also included a box on the right to list your most used resources, with the number of times in brackets.

The format and description of the entries just picks up the standard format we already use on the library website and we’ve started to add in book covers for ebooks (although that gets me thinking that I’ve never really worked out what the point is of a book cover for an ebook anyway – Kindles seem to take you to the start of the book, not to the cover, so maybe ebook covers aren’t that relevant anymore – but in any case it breaks up the blocks of text neatly).

Next steps
The plan is to develop more prototypes and build up a pool of tools in this space that we can get people to look at and comment on.  Hopefully it will be useful to people,

One of the bits of work that we’re doing at the moment is to talk to students about their thoughts about personalised library services. The aim of the work is to help us to understand what students might want (or not want) and to then use that information to build some tools that we can test with them.  In part it is being driven by a realisation that library websites and systems are competing against expectations that are shaped by sites such as Google and Amazon.  Traditional library websites such as OPACs seem to be a world away from a modern web experience (see Aaron Schmidt’s blogpost on Library Journal for example).

One of the interesting things that is coming out of the work for me is around attitudes and expectations for the personal use data that is being collected as part of user engagement with our systems.   I’d expected that students would be quite guarded about what they would expect a library system to know about them, because generally speaking, libraries rarely seem to use data to provide much in the way of a personalised service.  But expectations seem to be that once a student has logged in then library systems should know their name and the course they are studying, at least.  But that maybe the library systems should also know what previous courses they’d studied or their contact preferences.   And that is really interesting to know as it’s difficult to think of many (any? other than some experimental work) examples of library systems that do track what courses a student is studying and actively use that data to provide a tailored service.

When we asked some specific questions about whether students would object to us using certain data to tailor services, over 90% of respondents didn’t object to us using their course or previous material they’ve accessed as a means of providing personalised services.  More than 80% had no objection to using their previous courses or search terms for personalisation. I think I would have expected a larger number of respondents who objected to the use of their data.

What I think is that there’s a trade-off between privacy and service (highlighted in this article by Li and Unger ‘Willing to pay for quality personalization?‘ (link is to abstract) from European Journal of Information Systems (2012) 21, 621–642. doi:10.1057/ejis.2012.13).  So there is a conscious calculation being made in terms of being able to see that you, the user, are getting a direct benefit from allowing the system to know something about you.  As a user you make that calculation and judge whether it seems reasonable to you or not.  ‘Does the benefit outweigh the loss of privacy?’  It strikes me that there seems to be an element here where users might be ascribing a ‘value’ to their data and they’d ‘trade’ that value for a benefit.  That makes me wonder whether the likes of Google (that essentially make their business model in part at least out of the value they can leverage from user data) have had the effect of making users realise that their ‘data’ also has a value that they can swop for a service?

KPCB 2012 Internet trendsMobile trends
Although I’d picked up the growth of mobiles and tablets overtaking sales of desktop PCs and laptops, one thing that hadn’t become obvious to me was that we now seem to be approaching the time when the number of tablets/smartphones in circulation outnumbers the numbers of desktops/laptops.   December’s Internet Trends survey from Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers shows, in the graph reproduced here, that they’d expect that stage to be reached globally sometime this year.

Although I’d probably have a couple of caveats about smartphone adoption in the developing world slightly skewing the figures, and whether people might ordinarily have more tablets/smartphones than desktops/laptops, it nonetheless emphasises the point that mobile internet access is now mainstream.  For many people it may be their preferred means of accessing your services and their expectation is going to be that it should just work, and give an equivalent or better experience than the ‘traditional’ desktop browser experience.

But numbers of devices doesn’t yet map to the amount of usage of our websites.  For us our traffic is still under 10% from mobiles/tablets, so even if the numbers of devices in circulation is reaching parity, we aren’t yet at a stage where the majority of our use is coming from those devices.  But looking at the trends, that day is on the horizon maybe.

One of the interesting concepts in KPCB’s slideshow is the ‘asset-light’ idea.  KPCB 2012 Internet treands screenshotThe idea that more and more people, perhaps younger people especially, may be less inclined to wanting to own or acquire physical ‘stuff’ and have a more ‘mobile’ (as in being able to move more readily) lifestyle.  Characterised as having your music on spotify or iTunes rather than on physical CDs, or renting rather than buying your textbooks.  It also has in mind for me a personal version of the concept of ‘Just-in-time’ the production strategy based around reducing inventory in favour of delivery of items when you need them.  It’s the concept of ‘on-demand’ rather than ownership ‘just-in-case’.

Potentially, as characterised in this blogpost on Fail!lab it might mean major changes to our library websites, or even the concept of websites.  It’s a good and interesting thought.  For a while we’ve certainly been pushing content into places where students go, such as pushing library resources via RSS feeds into our VLE.  But these spaces are still websites.  Yet once you’ve got a stream or feed of data then you could push or pull it into numerous places, whether apps or webpages or systems.

The idea in the Fail!Lab blogpost around Artificially intelligent agents doing the ‘heavy-lifting’ of finding resources for users is something that Paul Walk raised as part of his Library Management Systems vision (slideshare and blog post) so it’s interesting to see someone else postulating a similar future.  For me it starts to envisage a future where users choose their environment/tools/agents and we build systems that are capable of feeding data/content to those agents and are built to a set of data sharing standards.  It suggests a time where users are able to write queries to interrogate your systems, whether for content or for help materials or skills development activity, and implies a world of profiles, entitlements and charging mechanisms that are a world away from the current model of – go to this website, signup and pass through the gateway into a ‘library’ of stuff.


Ok so it’s not a bus full of books
I must admit that whenever someone talks about mobile libraries my first thought is still about a library on wheels.  In my defence for much of my library career it has been a bus full of books.  And a lot of my time has been spent on trying to find ways of getting technology onto the bus – from psion organisers to mobile networks to satellite systems to finally almost reliable mobile phone signals… if you can just move your mobile library a little way down the road (of course it’s easy to get approval to do that…).

But mobile libraries is now about providing library services through mobile devices and is now a big deal, with a lot of effort into developing mobile services for libraries and it’s own international conference series, m-libraries .  Mobile is big business and increasingly ubiquitous, (Pew Internet recently reported that 85% of american have a cell phone) (and the BBC recently reported on the surge of mobile use in Africa)

But in the last few months I’ve become less convinced that ‘m’ or mobile is really the most appropriate term for this whole area, and looking through Google’s recent ‘Navigating the new multi-screen world’ report, (and blog) started to crystalise it for me.  Their survey had the comments that 60% of smartphone use and 79% of tablet use was in the home, not out-and-about.  And it makes me wonder whether ‘mobile’ is really the right word to use.  Looking at Google’s survey they report quite distinct contexts between mobile phones and tablets – one short-focus and short bursts, the other more leisurely use.  Yet we categorise these devices into  a single set and call it ‘mobile’ when how people use them, what they are doing, and when and where, are quite distinct.

What I think we are wanting to do is to make our services available to whoever needs them, wherever they are, whatever part of our service they want to use, whenever the want to use them and on whatever device they choose to use.   In reality our users might not actually be ‘mobile’ or using a phone, to benefit from the tools and technologies that the ‘mobile’ developments need to offer.

I’m starting to think that ‘mobile’ actually breaks down into several distinct areas, some of which aren’t actually ‘mobile’ at all:

  1. Services for users who are ‘on the move’ e.g. location based – where’s my nearest library, where’s the nearest library to me with a free PC/this book/SCONUL access etc
  2. Services to users who want to do something quickly – and mobility isn’t especially relevant but might be a context – e.g. find some resources and bookmark them for later, book or reserve something, look something up/quick reference – and that might equally be look something up quickly on a mobile while sitting in front of a PC
  3. Services for users with more time to engage in activities -regardless of device – but that might be a tablet or an ebook reader or a smart TV
  4. Designing for multiple screen sizes – from small phones through to 60″ flat panel smart TVs and beyond – mainly with responsive web design rather than with autodetect systems
  5. User experience, usability and accessibility, which has to underpin all user interactions, whether on desktop or tablet or phone, but needs to adhere to the same basic principles.

It seems to me though, that while you might characterise these areas as somehow distinct, that there are connections and relationships between them, a workflow almost, where you might start something on one device and follow up on another, and where your personalised environment remembers where you are and what you are doing and meshes them all together.

FOTE 2012 app screenshot“When did someone from Amazon last come round to your door and say sorry, we’ve changed the interface, would you like some training?” (Dave Coplin from Bing, at FOTE 2012).

I’ve blogged before about the idea that you shouldn’t have to give your users training for them to be able to use your website, so it was quite interesting to hear someone from a large IT company like Bing say pretty much the same thing at FOTE the other week.  And Dave Coplin’s presentation is worth catching up with on the FOTE mediasite (link at the bottom of this blog post).

It was my second time at FOTE and last time one of my reflections was on the amount of effort they had put into getting android and iOS apps for the conference.  So there was a similar set of apps this year, in green rather than yellow and it was certainly good to have everything together in a nice neat app.  One thing though I did notice was that the attendance list in the app was a bit sparse with names.  Not quite sure why but presumably people had to opt-in to have their names included.  In some ways that was a shame as it made it difficult to find out who was there – I only realised that someone who works in the same building as me was at the conference when they asked a question from the audience.  Although a lot of the networking at conferences these days takes place on social networks, mainly twitter and Google Plus, while the conference is taking place, it’s still good to have access to a list of delegates.

Learning Analytics
The first presentation by Cailean Hargrave from IBM talked largely about their work in the area of Learning Analytics, using an example from FE. It was really interesting to see a fully worked through example of the power and reach of learning analytics.  To see the tool being used to drive a portal for staff, students and employers, throughout the student journey was fascinating.  To see examples of how it could be used to make suggestions to students on what they might do to improve their grades I think was really eye-opening and really touched on some of the potentially scary elements of Learning Analytics.  It goes a long way beyond recommendations into areas where you are trying to shape particular behaviours and touches on some of the ethical issues that have been raised about learning analytics.

Research Data
I was also really interested to hear about Figshare a cloud-based respository for researchers data, that plays into the whole open research data agenda, mentioning the recent Royal Society ‘Science as an open enterprise‘ paper and the push by funders towards open access of research data.  The model for the system seems to be supported through a tie-up with an academic publisher and it will be really interesting to see whether this is a sustainable model.  It’s certainly another alternative for researchers and at a time when many institutions are still gearing themselves up to deliver research data management systems is an interesting alternative solution.

For a short one-day conference FOTE packed in a wide range of content, from ipads in learning, through game-based learning, to ebooks and a debate on the hot topic of ‘MOOCs’ Massively Open Online Courses.  Some good things to take away from the day.

Presentations from FOTE are all available from:

Twitter posts



July 2020

Creative Commons License