Saturday, December 01, 2007

Academic Network Conference 07 (10)

Developing mobile content for education

Richard John Hancock of Stoke-on-Trend College (UK), who lectures about mobile content and accessibility, presented a lecture on the complexities of developing accessible web content for mobile devices. Developing mobile content for education is certainly a challenge. Educators are typically seen as content experts as opposed to content developers. Developing content for the web requires a degree of proficiency, and developing content for a mobile device takes this proficiency one step further. It is likely in many cases that an educator does not possess the skill set to develop mobile content sufficiently. Of course staff training can be used to address this, but it is also recognised that tutors have very little time to get to grips with a technology as more are introduced.

With any project it is very important to involve the user at each stage of development and to ascertain user requirements. This can be very difficult in a mobile context for education as at present the majority of students do not see the potential for a mobile device as an aid to their learning. Student motivation to use the technology, simply for the sake of project development for example, can be very challenging.

With factors such as small screens, limited input technology, development costs, cost of data transfer and slower networks, both tutor and student could be very tempted to abandon the idea of a mobile project until a later date when technology is more mature and prices are cheaper.

If development of a mobile learning project does take place then inevitably it must be tested; not only for functional accuracy and integrity but also for its effectiveness and usage pattern. This stage of development will generate data that can be fed back into the user requirements stage so that the project can be refined over time and enhanced. This will be a lengthy process and gives rise to the possibility that technology will outpace the development of an educational application, especially ones where the main developer is a tutor whose primary function is to teach, and not to make web based resources.

There are a number of guides available for developers to use in order to produce accessible mobile content across a wide variety of platforms. Such guides include the Mobile Web Best Practices developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, the Global Authoring Practices for the Web (GAP) developed by Luca Passani, Best Practices in XHTML Design by OpenWave and Making Small Devices Look Great by Opera. However, it has been documented that certain guidelines have been misinterpreted by developers and that in some cases developers find the terminology difficult to understand. This situation can increase exasperation in tutors who are not experienced web developers and can ultimately lead to poor quality applications, or the abandonment of mobile related projects completely.

Richard presented an example as a case study. The Computer Architecture Online and Mobile application was developed to assist higher education students in a UK college to achieve better results in a given set of modules relating to computer hardware. The artefact used the JoomlaTM content management system as the main virtual learning environment, and then a special template was applied to allow the content to be reformatted for a mobile browser.

Figure 1 (left) above shows a screen shot from the mobile application illustrating a menu system at the top of the screen, followed by a list of hypertext links to navigate to relevant sections. Figure 2 (right) shown above shows a page of content, illustrating the concept of keeping content specific and in small, bite size chunks. The illustrations highlight the importance of a single column content structure that reduces vertical scrolling to a minimum and eliminates horizontal scrolling completely.

Blog Posting Number: 937


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