Open Apereo 2018

This summer I was lucky enough to attend Open Apereo – the annual conference run by the Apereo Foundation, a non-profit organization which develops and sustains open source software for education. The University of Edinburgh’s web portal, MyEd, runs on uPortal, which is one of a number of open source solutions supported by Apereo. This blog post highlights a few of the aspects of the conference that I found most worthwhile.

uPortal community

One of the most important aspects of the conference is the opportunity for the Apereo community to meet and share experiences and ideas.  As someone new to uPortal, being able to get to know some of the uPortal community, and meet many of the people who contribute to the project as well as other institutions who use it was incredibly valuable.  Seeing how other institutions implement uPortal, and understanding something of the very different, and also very similar priorities and concerns that we have encourages you to challenge and test your ideas, as well as sparking new ideas and perspectives.

Students as developers

Employing students, and the advantages of doing this was a topic that came up many times during the conference. This is something that we do a lot in Information Services, and have had very positive experiences of, but it was interesting to see other institutions’ perspectives on this. Oakland University ran a great session on this, co-presented by Aaron Grant, Associate Director of Emerging Technology and Joshua Brudnak, one of their student developers. Their programme supports students working for them over longer periods, up to a number of years in some cases, and encourages students to specialise in areas of particular interest to them. Students working over a longer period are able to build up significant expertise in their areas. It also allows for a greater degree of peer to peer support and mentoring. It was evident from the presentation that the students are really engaged and committed, and being able to see their work contributing over the long-term only builds on this.

User experience challenges

User experience was another area that was mentioned in many sessions. When users have to interact with an ever increasing number of online systems and services, how do you deliver a consistent user experience? This particular challenge was raised in reference to the NGDLE, but is also very relevant to the work that we’re doing with MyEd, and the work that other institutions are doing with uPortal.   Portals bring together data and services, and attempt to present this to users in a consistent and coherent way, but often they do this in an institution-centred way.  That’s certainly been the case for MyEd, and we know from the user research we have done, that this often doesn’t make sense to students.  It was interesting to hear how other institutions are trying to overcome their organisational structures, and some of the strategies they have employed to do this.

Collaboration days

I also had the opportunity to participate in the uPortal collaboration days after the main conference was over. These allow the uPortal community to meet and discuss areas of interest, and the roadmap for the project. I’m not going to try and cover everything in this post, but will just touch on one discussion, which was considering some of the challenges that organisations face when adopting open source, and ways that these could be mitigated. One of the great strengths of open source solutions is the freedom to adapt and change them to meet your own particular needs. Local customisation often seems to be the quickest and easiest approach to adopting open source technologies, but brings its own problems, and the community encourages adopters to contribute their customisations back into the core code so that everyone can benefit.  This is something that we want to try and do more at Edinburgh, so this discussion was very relevant for us.

Summary

Attending Open Apereo was a really positive experience. I’ve mentioned a few things above, but could have picked out many more – web components, accessibility, user research… overall it was one of the most useful conferences I have attended.

Presenting Notifications at Open Apereo 2018

Earlier this year I presented our work surrounding Notifications to the Apereo community at Open Apereo 2018. As an international event dedicated to developing and sustaining innovative open-source software solutions for education, it was a great opportunity to share what we have been doing at Edinburgh and within the Incubation Process we entered earlier in 2018.

What is it we are doing?

Here is an excerpt from our Incubation proposal:

“The Notification Backbone aims to transform task-related communications within higher education institutions, through delivering a cross-system solution for personalised notifications and emergency communications, enabling notifications to be created-by and consumed across multiple services and communication channels. It is hoped it will improve end-user experience, increase efficiency and effectiveness of internal communication, and standardise and simplify key communication processes.”

The Presentation

The bulk of my presentation shared with the community the journey we had embarked on over the previous year; what had been achieved, what didn’t go so well, what we’ve learnt and how we were working towards delivering a sustainable Service, for ourselves at Edinburgh and the wider higher education environment.

Here our the slides I used for the presentation: Rolling out a central notifications service.

The Feedback

It was great to share this work and to hear of interest from others. A colleague had previously delivered a similar presentation the year before when we were about to embark on this piece, so many were aware of what we were hoping to achieve. What I found most interesting was hearing alternative use cases for the Service, some that hadn’t come up in our early conversations.

Part of our Incubation Process involves sharing code on an open repository. This hadn’t been done in time for the conference, and was my main takeaway to ensure we did this; sooner rather than later! Sharing everything in the open is the first step in building a community of interest and engagement around the project.

Summary

Prior to the conference I had planned out which sessions and talks I had wanted to attend, and felt if I went to these alone (and made notes) it will have been a successful experience. Whilst I took a lot from each of the talks, actually being present and able to chat face-to-face (in some cases over dinner!) regarding current developments, challenges and approaches was by far the most invaluable experience I took from the 3 days. Presenting our work to others who have similar interests and needs was encouraging and confirmed we’re on the right path, and I hope our discussions continue between now and the next one.

MyEd User Survey

Over the summer we’re looking at ways we can improve the presentation and structure of content in MyEd to make it easier for students to find and access the information and tools they need. To help us with this we recently carried out a survey to understand more about how students use MyEd, and the tasks that they use it for most often. This blog post presents some of the findings from that survey.

How do students use MyEd?

710 students responded to the survey. One of the key questions in the survey was a “top tasks” question, which was intended to help us understand which tasks are the most important to students. We gave a list of 64 tasks that students might use MyEd for, and asked them to select the 5 that they considered to be most important for them.

Course learning materials was identified as the most important task, closely followed by Grades and feedback, and Email. These three tasks accounted for 28% of all votes cast.  7 of the 64 tasks received 50% of all votes cast.Chart showing the 7 top tasks

Digging a bit deeper, and looking at votes cast by undergraduate and postgraduate students separately, we saw that there’s some variation. The table below shows the 5 most important tasks for each group in order of the number of votes received:

Undergraduate Students Postgraduate Students
Course learning materials (e.g. Learn, Moodle) Course learning materials (e.g. Learn, Moodle)
Course timetables Grades and feedback
Grades and feedback Email
Email Library search
Past exam papers Assignment submission

You may notice that Past exam papers appear in the list for undergraduates: it’s worth noting that the survey was carried out during exam period, and it’s likely that this affected students’ voting patterns.  We’re aware that different tasks may be more important at different times of year, and this is something we plan to explore more.

What do we plan to do with this data?   Well, we know from previous feedback that content on MyEd isn’t always organised in ways that make the most sense to students.   One of the complaints is that the portlets on the Home tab aren’t the portlets that student use most often, so we’re going to look at changing the layout to ensure that the portlets students use most often are more easily accessible.

What do students think about MyEd?

We also gave students a free text comment box to allow them to give us any feedback that they wanted to about MyEd.   Lots of students took the opportunity to do this, and we got some very useful feedback.  We’re still in the process of looking at this, but there are some clear themes:

  • many students find MyEd confusing, and find it hard to know where to look for content
  • MyEd is difficult to use on a mobile device
  • some of the content that students use frequently is hard to find, or requires lots of clicks to access.

We’re going to be looking in more detail at these and the other themes that emerge.   Where there are quick and easy helpful changes we can make, we’ll implement these.  In some cases we’ll need more information, and we’re going to be doing some more research that will help us with this.   We’ll share information about all the changes we’ll be making in future blog posts – watch this space!

Changes to MyEd

Over the next few months we’re going to be making some changes to MyEd. Last summer we updated the look and feel of MyEd, and made it easier to access all MyEd content on a mobile device. However, we know there’s still work to do, and next we’re going to look at ways we can improve the presentation and structure of content within MyEd to make it easier for students to find and access the information and tools they need.

Why are we doing this?

We’ve been doing quite a lot of research over the last few months to find out how students use MyEd. We know that it can be difficult to find information at times, and that some students find the amount of information on MyEd overwhelming. We’ve also had feedback that the way that content is organised isn’t as helpful as it could be. This feedback, as well as usage data which tells us which content on MyEd is used the most, has suggested a number of improvements we can make. The goal is to make MyEd easier to use, and designed around student requirements.

What will we be doing?

We’re going to be reviewing the user research we have done so far, and undertaking some more. We’re going to use the information that we get to review the current portlets (channels) and tabs within MyEd, and identify where we think we can make changes that will improve students’ experience of MyEd. We’ll work with the owners of the content to make the changes, put them into MyEd, and then we’ll ask students how well they have worked. We’ll do this by posting up links within MyEd to ask for feedback, and we’ll also be running pop-up workshops in social spaces around the University to ask students to try out changes and let us know what they think of them. For larger changes, we’d like to test these with a student user group first, so that we can gather feedback on them, and if necessary make further changes before we make them available to everyone.

We’ll be keeping you posted about what we’re doing through this blog. You won’t see changes every day, but you will be able to find out what we’re doing, and we’ll post up information about what we find out through our user research. There will also be plenty of opportunities for you to get involved if you want, by providing feedback when we make changes, coming along to one of our pop-up workshops, or joining our student user group.

Volunteers please!

What’s your experience of using MyEd? Do you find it annoying/frustrating/baffling/brilliant/adequate/boring? This is your opportunity to help make it better! If you’re a student interested in helping us to improve MyEd, and would be willing to join our student user group, we’d love to hear from you. You don’t need any specials skills or knowledge – all you need is to use MyEd regularly, be willing to try out some of the changes that we’ll be making, then let us know what you think. Interested? Sign up here.

User Story workshops within the Notifications Service rollout project

As part of the “Notifications Service – Rollout, Integrations and Subscribers” project, the team have run a number of user story workshops with interested staff and students. The most recent of these were held within Services Marketing and Marketing of Services lectures, where stories were captured by 61 students; both undergraduate and postgraduate.

The service aims to transform task-related communication at the University. The purpose of this post is to describe the approaches and outputs of these workshops, to provide us as a project team and other service areas, insight into the key areas participants discussed and prioritised, in terms of receiving task based notifications.

What we did

Notifications Service user story workshop
User stories creation

We chose to use the user story workshop approach, as this was an effective way to make the most of the time we had with participants (both staff and students). User stories allow us to establish and validate user requirements in plain English. Shifting the focus from what we need as developers, service owners etc., to what the user needs helps us to reflect on why we want to do a particular thing, and what value and benefit it has to the user.

Our most recent workshops have been delivered in four parts:

  1. Introducing the service. The problem it aims to help solve, along with how we hope to see it being adopted.
  2. User story creation. The hands-on aspect of the sessions, allowing students to create stories relating to tasks they considered important to be notified of, as well as methods of receiving notifications. There was no limit to how many they could create and to encourage conversation students worked in small groups, to discuss various ‘tasks’ or ‘triggers’ they might expect a notification from, or already receive in some form.
  3. Familiarisation of stories. Allowing groups to read out and explain each of their stories.
  4. Prioritising the stories as a wider group. All the stories were collated and grouped, allowing participants to vote on stories that they felt were important to them. Participants were given five sticky dots and encouraged to vote on the stories that were most important to them. They could have split their 5 dots across any number of stories.
Unfortunately as these were scheduled lectures, we weren’t able to use preferred locations. In one session we used floor space for the prioritisation task!Prioritising user stories

Whilst the purpose of this project is to rollout the service based on the technology and previous user research, we are keen to continue engaging with students and staff within it, to validate everything that has been gathered up to now, to ensure we are prioritising our efforts in the relevant areas.

The user stories created span multiple areas within the University, and as such sharing the output like this seems sensible, allowing relevant service areas outside of WGI to access the output of these workshops, and how it may be of relevance to them.

From a Notifications Service viewpoint, our aim is to understand these stories to help shape the service, as well as sharing with others. This will assist in the deployment of processing such task based notifications with future adopters.

For the students involved it allowed an opportunity to not only feed into the project, but also experience a real-life example of service improvement.

“I think this exercise was very useful to students in my class as it provided them with a real-life opportunity to apply the concepts they have learned about measuring service quality.” Dr.Dahlia El-Manstrly

What we found

Our last set of workshops captured 72 stories from 61 students within Service Quality lectures at the Business School. These have been merged and categorised into one manageable view. The categories included:

• Assessment (17% of stories)
• Employment opportunities (4% of stories)
• Events (1% of stories)
• Library (8% of stories)
• MyEd & User Centred Portal (13% of stories)
• Notification Features (17% of stories)
• Printing (3% of stories)
• School communications (10% of stories)
• Timetable (13% of stories)
• VLE (14% of stories)

Categorising stories will allow us to share with colleagues across different services our findings and to spread awareness of how they may want to integrate with the Notifications Service in the future.

Whilst we expected stories covering a mix of areas, one category that surfaced which wasn’t necessarily anticipated related to features of notifications. Stories relating (and not limited) to end user administration/categorising of notifications, formatting and receiving mediums were discussed in all the workshops.

Of all the stories created, two ‘trigger points’ of notifications were seen in all the sessions as high priorities for participants. These notifications related to, in their simplest forms:

1. The cancellation of a timetabled event.
2. Availability of published exam results.

Interestingly, both of these user stories fall into work packages being considered within the project, where the project team are working with or have plans to work with stakeholders in the areas that deliver services relating to these and other related stories.

It is worthwhile to point out that some stories didn’t necessarily relate to the Notifications Service rollout, but it was felt important to include these in our output for staff.

What we’re doing next

We’re working towards the basic deployment of the service that allows for manual notifications to be generated, and then delivered via MyEd. It will also include service processes for future adopters to follow in order to integrate with the service.

A defined group of users will be piloting the service in the first instance.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Graeme Ferris, Rosalyn Claase and Dr. Dahlia El-Manstrly of the Business School for their involvement in the set up and organisation of sessions.

Additional thanks to the project team involved in the delivery of workshops, as well as all participants, both students and staff, who attended our workshops in 2017/18.

Interested in hearing more?

If you’re interested in hearing more about the project and/or service, content is available on the service wiki and project’s website. We also have a mailing list. If you would like to be added to this, or have further questions, please get in touch.