My last two years of work

August 26th, 2008

My workload at the Open University (OU) stepped up a gear in 2006 and I was granted extra responsibility and increasing autonomy. I was enlisted to work on the graphical user interface for the OU ePortfolio, MyStuff. This was initially a very exciting task as I was brand new to the concept which seemed like a mix of web2.0 and social web apps I had been heavily using (Flickr, Delicious, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Docs etc) plus some learning stuff that I didn’t really understand properly.

I had recently attended the first Future of Web Apps conference in London and had been fired up by Tom Coates‘ talk about the future of data mashups (owning ones own data and reusing it in various contexts) and was looking forward to building on this philosophy. Of course my main problem was that a massive institution such as the Open University is was very wary about sharing data and integrating with third-party applications and the project seemed to want to recreate apps like Flickr and Delicious rather than use their API. Hitting this brick wall was a bit of a setback but I soldiered on regardless with the design, hoping that the aesthetic approach might rub off on the development side and push the boundaries of what was possible with an ePortfolio.

Rather than document my progress here, I started posting to my OU blog instead. We went through various iterations of the design, building on user feedback and testing. The biggest problem was that ‘user’ was defined as the course teams who would prescribe the software in their courses rather than the students who would use it. So the whole thing was designed and built by committee and I ended up a little dispirited by it all. I still have some conceptual design work that I hope might be used if the project is ever revisited in the future. For now, MyStuff is available to OU students and it will be interesting to see how they cope with it.

I was also involved with many other interesting projects at the Open University. I was asked to find out how the OU could support students using mobile phone channels such as SMS and the mobile web. I undertook some research and carried out a pilot SMS alert service with a small group of 450 students. The reaction was very positive and I’m now looking into the ways in which the OU can adapt to provide a similar service to all students given its rather complex business model.

I worked on the redeveloped OU online prospectus, Study at the OU, with my ex-colleague Stephen Turvey. We were asked by the Head of Online Services, Ian Roddis, to create a fresh, usable and accessible design that could be user tested to death in order to create an experience that would help recruit and retain students in a era where government funding for students doing a second or equivalent degree was being withdrawn. We came up with something minimal and easy to apply to the complex existing systems. The project is ongoing and we’ve yet to move into the second phase where rich media and interaction is applied to the course descriptions but we’re certainly moving in the right direction with this very rewarding project.

Stephen and I also worked on the OU Careers Advisory Service website redesign which earned the award for AGCAS HE website of the year. We put a lot of hard work into developing a subtle yet appealing design with intuitive information architecture.

My ongoing work at the OU is now to create a community of practice for online web standards. The OU is a huge community and there are many web designers and developers. Until early this year we were a rather fragmented bunch but Twitter has brought us together. Not only web designers and developers but librarians, academics and support staff across the main campus and the regional and national centres. I’m talking to people in departments I didn’t even know existed and hearing about many interesting and exciting projects. I honestly think that we now have a critical mass to do some truly innovative projects. Take SocialLearn and OU View on YouTube as two examples of where the OU has now finally moved away from wanting to control all aspects of data, design and production. Even the non-official OU Facebook apps are gathering steady momentum and are seen as being useful student support channels. It looks as though 2009 might even see the OU drop the in-house bespoke web Content Management System for the open source goodness of Drupal. There’s an interesting time ahead at the OU that I’m really looking forward to getting stuck into on my return from paternity leave next week.

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