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We’ve used a couple of different usability tools at various stages through the library website project.  We’re fortunate in having access to a high level of expertise and advice/guidance from colleagues at the University’s Institute of Educational Technology .  This means that we have access to some advanced usability tools such as eye-tracking software.

We’ve used two different tools.  Firstly, Morae usability software, which we have on a laptop, and is used to track and record mouse movements and audio commentaries.  This is quite portable and allows us to do some small-scale testing.  We most recently used it for some of the search evaluation work.  Its limitation is that although it tracks what people do with the mouse it may be very different to where they are looking on screen.  

At a workshop I was at the other day, people talked about users scanning web-pages in an ‘F’ pattern, so would scan across in two horizontal lines followed by one vertical line on the left.  This implies that they will pick up items in the left hand column and across the top quite easily.   This was something reported by Jakob Nielsen here back in 2006, with some sample heatmap screenshots shown below.

For the latest testing, we’ve been able to use the Tobii eye-tracking system in the IET Usability labs, which as the name suggests track the users eye-movements about the screen and give a much richer indication of how they are interacting with the website.  So you can show where users are looking as a heatmap, as shown in Jakob Nielsen’s example above, or alternatively you can show gaze opacity.  This shows where users are looking in white, with the more opaque the white the more time their gaze is concentrated on that location.  So places that aren’t being viewed show up as black. Website gaze opacity image

The example shown is from the latest library website testing and you can quite clearly see the same sort of  ‘F’ shaped scanning behaviour on one of the sub-pages on the website.  Looking through some of the other pages then it isn’t always quite as clear cut. 

Keren, my colleague on the project team who has been running the usability testing stage is currently going through the images and the transcripts/notes at the moment and will pull out of it some recommendations to modify the website to address any areas that users found difficult to use.  These recommendations then get reviewed by our Website Editorial Group and prioritised as to whether they are high priority and need to be fixed before the site can go live, or of lesser priority and can be resolved over a longer time period.

The value of this sort of testing is quite high as it isn’t really until users actually engage with your website and try to use it in practice that you really find out how well it works.  It is time-consuming, in that there’s some organising to do to find people to take part in the testing (in our case a research panel to go through to get approval and then emails out to students).  It also takes time to write and fine-tune the scripts that will be used for the testing, and then time to carry out the testing and then to analyse the outputs, but that time is well-spent if you want to understand how easy users will find your site to use.

When you hear about an educational technology project that’s described as being inspired by Treasure Hunt, ‘… but without the helicopter’ then you know that it’s probably something slightly out of the ordinary.  And ‘Out There and In Here’ is certainly an interesting experiment in making use of educational technology in some innovative ways.  This week’s Coffee Morning session from Anne Adams and Tim Coughlan from the Institute of Educational Technology certainly demonstrated a fascinating approach to carrying out geology field trips, talking about the ‘Out There and In Here’ project which was a collaboration between IET, KMi, the Pervasive Lab, the Science Faculty, Microsoft and OOKL.

Out Here and In There project http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/otih/

Out Here and In There project http://www.open.ac.uk/blogs/otih/

Essentially the project ‘Out There and In Here’ looked at carrying out a geology field trip with two teams of postgrad students and instructors.  One team located back at base (the ‘In Here’ team), the other out in the field (‘Out There’).   In part the project was aiming to look at alternatives to field trips, which can be expensive, logistically difficult and not suitable for all students.  But it was also looking at the way the teams interacted, how the dynamics of the learning experience was changed, and how technology can support the learning.

Using laptops, phones and video cameras the teams tried to work together to establish and test several hypotheses.  The ‘Out There’ team used cameras and laptops to record images and data that could be accessed by the team back at base. The ‘In Here’ team used projectors, resources tables and an interactive tabletop to keep track of what was going on.    It was interesting to see how the groups worked together and the dynamics at play.  Both teams seemed to find the exercise challenging and it led to a very different learning experience, particularly in the way that it forced the participants to reflect on what they were doing.  It was interesting that there seemed to be considerable potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication and the project team are looking at how other technologies can help support this type of exercise.

It was a fascinating approach and it’s interesting the way that mobile technology now has the ability to allow this real-time interaction to take place.  I suppose that the most obvious  exponent of this type of real-time interaction now is the military, where video-surveillance, radio and global positionning systems are increasingly being used to allow commanders to direct military operations remotely.  While geology field trips aren’t going to have the range of technology that the military has access to at their disposal, I wonder if  some of the experience the military has with these systems may have any lessons for this type of project in the education sector.

I also started to think about how this type of technology might connect with the work that academic libraries do.  There’s a couple of areas that come to mind – firstly around the management of the data that is being created by the exercise – and secondly around facilitating access to data or information that might be of use to either of the teams.  Is it too much of a stretch to envisage this sort of exercise being supported by a remote librarian who can help with the stream of data coming from and going to the teams?  Ensuring that data is being curated appropriately and connections are made with other data that may be of use to the teams?  All-in-all a fascinating and thought-provoking session.

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