Monday, July 20, 2009

Using Mobile Devices and Microblogging

Using Mobile Devices and Microblogging

Alan Cann, Jo Badge, Stuart Johnson and Alex Moseley / School of Biological Sciences, University of Leicester

JISC TechDis Service Report

The project team was awarded ten 8GB iPod Touch devices, chosen because they are easy to use, have wifi capability and a high quality screen. This project aimed to utilize mobile technology to ascertain the study spaces used by students at University of Leicester.

Free wifi access is readily available on the University of Leicester campus, and students were required to use the
Twitter microblogging system regularly to record short messages describing where and what they are studying using an iPod touch (or on a personal mobile phone via SMS if they chose). Student messages were tracked by RSS and data aggregated centrally for analysis. The current interest in the student experience (for example, see the Universities UK Student Experience website) has included those looking at the learning environment and in particular the physical space and tools used by students when studying.

The iPod touch devices were used by two different cohorts of students.

The first group of participants were campus-based first year undergraduate science students, all 18-19 years old. The second group were campus-based postgraduate masters-level arts students who ranged in age from 21-41.

The use of a microblogging service enabled us to assess the flexibility of a short text based system on these devices. Participating students were required to post messages ("tweet") at least four times per day, e.g. "I am in the library writing an essay for module x". [snip]

Significant developments

Students were recruited with the incentive of keeping some of the iPod Touch devices at the end of the project. Initially, despite this incentive, very few students volunteered to participate in the project. However, once the project had been advertised to students already using twitter and running for a few weeks, there were further requests for students to be involved. At the launch of the project in November 2008, twitter was still unfamiliar to the students and was unheard of in the general media.


Cohort sizes were determined by the number of devices available (maximum of 10). However, due to the low numbers of volunteers involved we decided to change the original project plan and allow the each cohort of students to keep the iPod Touches for 4 weeks. The students that were recruited were very enthusiastic about using the devices. The students readily added a given hashtag ( to label their tweets (#uolh3 for Museum Studies and #uolheat3 for Biological Sciences) and were rigorous about the using it in all their messages. [snip].

Participants were provided with online training materials: but the devices proved to be very intuitive and very little instruction was needed beyond the initial set up.

Results for undergraduates:

The first year undergraduate students were very open in their twitter postings and a strong community soon grew between those using the devices. Peer support became a key feature of the undergraduate student network, with activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or during revision for exams. There was clear evidence of personal learning networks emerging.

Tweets were sent from across the University of Leicester campus, student halls, cafes, bars and any other locations students were working or networking. Some example tweets:

- doing metabolism questions over msn, testing each other is a fab way to learn! If only I knew any answers.

- has the words 'russian bride' written on his hand, and can't remember much of last night.... Now for chemistry revision.

- is rather worried about the assessment tomorrow and is preparing herself for failure.

Leicester Postgraduates results:

The postgraduate group was drawn from a Digital Culture module in Museum Studies, and eight of the ten students on the module agreed to participate. All eight students actively used the devices and twitter. In addition to the location statuses, they utilised the technology to co-ordinate face-to-face meetings, comment on sessions and teaching, share online resources and findings, and to report on independent project work.

Some example tweets:

- Got up at 7 and look the black sky out of my window. Just browsing the website of National Sports Museum

- Enjoyed reading the theory and coming up with realistic ideas. Group worked quickly, good to see what could be achieved in few hours

- Reading about kandinsky and art and music. How apt on an iPod

- Was thinking about watching the Games & Museums lecture together on Wednesday the 4th of Feb. If you want to join text/facebook me.

- never knew museums tweet too. Apparently even the whale on the ceiling of the nat hist museum in NY!

Benefits of this approach for inclusion

Even with the provision of the iPod touch, the students did use a range of different platforms and devices which demonstrated their affiliation with the service over the iPod touch device.

The other surprise was in the students' natural take-up of peer discussion and support, the use of which turned the project to their own natural advantage. This suggests that successful peer support networks could be established without the need for specialized technology, though this was undoubtedly a stimulus to their formation in this project. [snip]

All participants were asked to comment on their experiences of using the iPod touch and their use of twitter at the end of their test period. The postgraduate students suggested that twitter provided a source of help and support which was quick to respond and easily accessed. They used twitter for arranging meetings and sharing resources. Some suggested that twitter provided them with motivation e.g. ‘I felt more focussed and thought of things I could do for my study more often than usual. I came to approach my study in a more creative way. Looking at sites and information other people had posted. I felt connected with my peers in a new (very nice) way.’

Undergraduates also commented on the positive motivating effects of a peer network by using twitter ‘It probably improved my study activity. I felt inclined to write about the work I was doing on Twitter, which then meant that i actually had to do the work’.

How this approach was developed

The approach developed in the following ways:

  1. The students' broadening of the affordances the technology offered them.
  2. The range of technology utilised to facilitate these affordances.
  3. Other related benefits - for example, in the postgraduate group, a tutor used twitter to communicate their availability to the group, offer additional links, etc.
  4. Peer support emerged as a feature of the student generated network, with students using the service not just to report on their status but to arrange meetings, share resources, revise.

As a result, the potential for a wider rollout of the approach is high: we can already provide evidence for real benefits to student groups and tutors sharing a common subject/location.

The barriers that may prevent a successful wider roll-out of this system of peer support would be the lack of technological catalyst (the iPod Touches, in this project), and probable scepticism from a section of staff and students. The perception and awareness of twitter has changed considerably since the launch of this project. [snip]

Disadvantages and drawbacks

No disadvantages have been identified apart from the failure to recruit the anticipated number of participants to what was seen by students as a non-core activity.

The possible adverse effects of students commenting on academic staff in a public forum did not occur; with minimal instruction students demonstrated an awareness of their own public digital identity and a sophisticated level of self-censorship. Comments were made about defects in university systems and services (e.g. temporary failure of internet access in halls) and also of non-named staffing (e.g. a missing lecturer, timetabling problems) but this did not tip over into inappropriate commentary. [snip].

Summary and Reflection

A great deal of data were collected from this project on the student experience, student peer interactions and other unexpected ways in the student experience can be improved (student concerns about cost of text books, lack of wifi or internet connectivity in some areas of campus).

The approach began as an exercise to examine the potential uses of a mobile wifi enabled device, but due to the affordances of the microblogging service that was chosen as the medium for the project, the creation of student-led peer support developed as the unexpected outcome of the project.

Microblogging is a powerful tool which can link real and virtual networks and provide considerable social and academic benefit to students. [snip]


Full analysis of these data will enable the team to give a clearer picture of the student experience to inform institutional and departmental strategy in the future. The data collected will be subjected to detailed analysis and will be presented in a peer reviewed paper. The outcomes of this work will also be presented at multiple conferences later in 2009.



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