Apple’s new education apps

For a graduate assistant in DUX, I’m actually a bit of a luddite when it comes to new technology.  My phone is not smart, my computer remains firmly planted on a desk, and my books are the kind that won’t crash when you spill coffee on them (a necessity, given my reading habits).  That said, when I read about Apple’s new iBooks Author software, I drooled a little bit.  iBooks Author works in conjunction with the iBooks 2 app, released by Apple in mid-January, to allow Joe Nobody to publish his very own digital book.  It’s clearly geared toward the educational community with an emphasis on textbook publishing, but ostensibly you can publish any kind of book your heart desires (yes, even that sci-fi novel you wrote when you were 16.  HarperCollins doesn’t know what it was missing).

No, I don’t harbor a secret desire to publish a textbook (or Zombie Vampires from Mars, even though it would have been an instant classic), but I do harbor a not-so-secret desire to see educational materials become more accessible.  Apple has teamed up with several prominent publishers to deliver textbooks that normally cost somewhere in the triple digits at much lower (dare I say reasonable?) prices.  Digital distribution makes good sense in the textbook market, where new editions come out every few years.  Who wants to drop another $200 because the editors added a new chapter and updated citations?  No one!  Just consider how much coffee $200 could buy.  iBooks Author further increases accessibility by enabling instructors to publish their own materials digitally.  I could see this technology easily taking the place of traditional course packs, which are expensive for the university to print, expensive for students to buy, and wasteful of natural resources (yay trees!).  All this with the fun of mixed media (embedded YouTube videos in my textbook?  Yes, please!) makes me think that edu-apps like iBooks and iBooks Author are indicative of the future of educational materials.

Caveat 1: As it stands, iBooks textbooks are only viewable on Apple mobile devices.  There seems to be some way to convert these files to PDFs so they can be viewed on other devices, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details and Apple’s documentation certainly isn’t helping me out on this front.  In the name of educational democracy, a work-around for students without iPads would need to be in place before the iBooks app is fully implemented in the classroom.

Caveat 2: There’s some lingering confusion about authors’ rights with regard to the content they publish and sell using the iBooks Author platform.  Check out this post from the New York Times technology blog and this article from the Telegraph to read about the two sides of the issue.

As a future librarian, my question is this: How can libraries get it in on the edu-app fun?  Here in DUX, we’re working daily to make our available resources more mobile-friendly.  What else can libraries do to reach students who increasingly learn digitally?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Mobile Redesign – Usability Testing

Usability testing was an important part of our recent redesign of the IU Libraries mobile web site. Below are some of the things we learned by talking to users over the course of three usability sessions this summer.

The overall response to the site was very positive:

  • “Looks nice, is very clear and useful”
  • “Useful and cool, hours and locations especially”
  • “I’m impressed with how fast it is”
  • “I like that it looks like IU Mobile”
  • “I would definitely use this”

We also found some areas for improvement:

Problem: On the Home page, the labels “Find”, “IUCat”, and “News” were often confusing.

What we did: We merged “Find” and “IUCat” into one item named “Search Library Resources”. This was also made easier by the decision to change the homepage from an icon-based layout to a list layout (more room for labels). We also changed “News” to “Library News”.

Home Page Before & After

Problem: Users did not see the “All IUB Libraries” list option at the top of the Hours & Locations page.

What we did: We added a black header to the top of the page with the text “Browse All Libraries”.

Problem: The map on the “Hours & Location” page often confused users. They would not see the yellow and green icons to the right of the labels and didn’t know what the blue icon on the map meant. We wrongly assumed users would know that the blue icon was their current location and had not provided a key for it.

What we did: We moved the existing two icons to the left of their labels and added a new header directly above the map indicating that the blue icon represents the current location of the user. We also added pop-up windows to each icon.

Hours and Locations Before & After

The improvements resulting from usability testing made the final site much more usable and useful. Our future work will focus on expanding access to research tools on mobile devices, broadening the “How Do I?” section of the site, and improving the clarity of the “Hours & Locations” page with regard to the locations of services within the Herman B Wells library.

Boston Globe Launches Responsive Design

This week the Boston Globe launched a new web site using what has become known as Responsive Design. Responsive Design was first proposed by Ethan Marcotte, one of the consultants on the Globe project, in the web magazine A List Apart. This design approach focuses on delivering the same content and basic design across multiple devices from desktops to tablets to mobile phones. Technically this is achieved by using fluid grids that adapt to the size of the screen, flexible images and media, and part of the CSS3 specification called Media Queries, which allow web designers and developers to specify certain layout rules based on certain conditions.

Responsive Design has been receiving a great deal of attention since it was first proposed by Ethan, so much so that he expanded his original essay this fall. Despite the increasing numbers of projects using these techniques, the applicability of such an approach to a large scale site has remained largely theoretical. That changed this week. The new site by the Boston Globe shows not only that Responsive Design can work for large sites, but that it can create a greatly improved user experience that is focused on the content and elegantly adapts to whatever device is being used to access that content. The Globe has posted a short video that shows the new site in action and provides some great context for their decision making process. The Filament Group and Upstatement, two partners for the project, have also posted an overview of their experiences with Responsive Design. For other examples using these methods, check out mediaqueri.es. The images below, taken from mediaqueri.es, provide snapshots of how the Boston Globe might look at different screen resolutions.

Context and the mobile web

You can’t miss the chatter about mobile these days, and the realization that we may need to provide content in different ways to serve users in a mobile context. As DUX begins to take a renewed good look at our strategy (and armed with our spiffy new mission statement), we are re-evaluating what it means to provide services “where the users are” – for example, it no longer makes sense to build one website for desktop workstations, a completely different one for mobile devices, and yet another separately maintained application to provide services within Oncourse. Instead, we need to have a mobile strategy to repurpose our content and create – as Lorcan Dempsey says in this blog postdistributed experiences for multiple connection points. And it makes more sense now to think about the contexts within which our users are working, rather than to focus on the specific device or technology they may be using.

Dempsey’s post linked above is worth a read, as he nicely summarizes a lot of the issues around the current state of mobile information environments. In particular, do take a few minutes to view the slideshare presentation on “Beyond the Mobile Web” that’s embedded within the post; it nicely describes how the context (important keyword there) in which we use the Web has changed because of new mobile technologies.

Has the context of information seeking changed for our users, and is that due at least in part to the proliferation of the mobile web? If you have one or more mobile devices, have you changed your information-seeking habits? (I know I have! Even at home, I often grab my smartphone first – if I’m just checking email, looking up a dictionary definition, tweeting, or even reading a newspaper article, the phone is faster, more convenient, and let’s face it, more fun than firing up my aging, creaky old laptop.) What do you think?

Smartphones: The Numbers Game

Hardly a day goes by when my social media feeds don’t bring me a story about how Android is taking over Apple’s mobile market share (or conversely how no other platform will ever overtake iOS), or how iPads are revolutionizing mobile technology, or how 82% of people who are 19 years and 3 months old and live in an apartment with three roommates and a dog are coming to school with fourteen mobile devices in each of their pockets. (Okay, I made up that last one.)

So what’s the truth here?  How can we find out what is really going on with mobile tech? You can find all kinds of numbers, but it’s not difficult to lie with statistics, so how can we find statistics that will be meaningful? (As a side note, my father – a psychology professor – gave me a copy of “How to Lie with Statistics” when I was in high school and it changed my life. For real.)

The Cloud Four Blog published an excellent post a couple of months ago that addresses exactly this issue: “A ‘Comprehensive’ Guide to Mobile Statistics.” It includes excellent information on available sources, types of statistics available, what each type is good for, and what to watch for with each. There is also a good discussion of which stats you should care about, depending on your role and what you are doing with mobile. There is some additional good information in the comments as well, so make sure to read those.

What do you think? Are any of the sources linked in the Cloud Four post interesting to you? Let us know in the comments!

EDUCAUSE goes mobile!

Thanks to Mary Popp and Courtney Greene for pointing out that current issues of both the EDUCAUSE Review and EDUCAUSE Quarterly focus on mobile technologies – including articles on mobile literacy, mobile teaching & learning, augmented reality, texting, and other good stuff.

There are a few articles not related to mobile here as well – I’d particularly like to draw your attention to a great article on why technology needs to be made accessible to visually-disabled students: “College is Hard Enough: Digital Technology Should Work for Everyone.”

Happy reading!

The Changing Mobile Landscape

The good people at Mobilefuture.org have published some interesting 2010 year end data on smartphones:

  • 5 Billion apps downloaded, up from 300 million in 2009
  • Twitter grew by 347 percent
  • 200 Million mobile Facebook users
  • 100 million YouTube videos are played on mobile devices DAILY

You can watch their 3 minute review on YouTube below:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mCkbrYKQyI

As staggering as these figures seem, the trend toward smartphone ubiquity shows no signs of slowing. Horace Dediu of Asymco.com published an analysis of Gartner’s market data that showed the smartphone market is growing at a rate of 96%. Mr. Dediu predicts that 2011 is poised to be the year that half the U.S. population will be using smartphones.

In fact, smartphones and tablets are on the verge of overtaking PC computing as the primary way people access the internet. In December of 2010, Steve Lohr of the New York Times cited a recent IDC study, writing:

Mainstream adoption, according to IDC, is when a technology moves well beyond 15 percent or so of the market. In 2011, IDC predicts half of the 2.1 billion people who regularly use the Internet will do so using non-PC devices.

The rapid expansion of highly capable mobile computing devices presents several questions for providers of online services. Do we develop for the mobile web or do we develop stand-alone apps? How do we develop a content strategy for mobile devices? How do we port existing services to mobile platforms? Answers to these questions are enigmatic. One thing seems certain, that mobile computing will be to this decade what the PC was to the 1990’s and the internet to the 2000’s. Users now have access to (relatively) inexpensive handheld computers that are orders of magnitude more powerful than the machines that started the internet revolution.

How do you see mobile services impacting Libraries? Have you noticed students or faculty using smartphones or tablets more frequently? How do you use mobile devices in your own life? Post a comment and let us know your thoughts!