Monday, 6 April 2009

Parallel Session: If they won’t turn them off, we might as well use them. Using mobile phones in information skills sessions.

Andrew Walsh - University of Huddersfield

Andrew’s session was the first mobile device orientated session I attended at LILAC and the only session that welcomed the annoying beep, chime or musical anthem of a message alert tone!!

From the outset I knew that Andrew’s session was going to be engaging…a late email from Jane Secker on Friday afternoon asking all delegates signed up for the session to register with moblog and also text a special number indicated this…but also Andrew’s ability to engage his audience with his passion for both information literacy and mobile technologies played a very big part.

Andrew gave a good overview as to why he thought it a good idea to ‘go mobile’ with regards to his information skills sessions:

Active learning
Large classes
Unresponsive students
Basic functionality versus high end technology.

All Information Professionals have been met with the first three issues on Andrew’s list I’m sure, but concocting new ways to overcome them is another story (which I suppose is where point 4 comes into play). Andrew was astounded by the amount of m-learning research that solely focuses on high-end iPhone/PDA/smartphone technologies; at this moment in time students do not own these types of devices. It is something that resonates with my m-learning research, small scale, fixed-term pilots that concentrate on the small scale distribution of devices to study participants is not a sustainable way to achieve m-learning cultures within our HEIs – making use of the technologies that our students use on a daily basis is. This is the premise that Andrew took when he decided to explore the opportunities offered up by SMS technology.

Andrew has attempted to engage his students through SMS technology, asking questions during information skills sessions which they can text a reply to. This encourages interaction which in turn stimulates engagement and ‘active learning.’ There always seems to be an issue of cost when we talk about mobile devices in teaching and learning but Andrew is a strong believer that many HE students have text ‘bundles’ or are on contract type free text allowances (and I also think that a 10p text is much more open to negotiation than the £££ it can cost to connect to the web).

The main issues that Andrew encountered were getting students to sign up to certain services prior to their information skills tutorial, lack of signal (it happens to the best of networks!) and student engagement (obviously if only a percentage of students have signed up to the service needed, then despite whether they have a mobile phone or not, engagement will still be a problem…)

Away from the Information Skills Sessions, what else can SMS technology be used for? Andrew answered this question by raising awareness of specific web-based services such as Moblog and Jaiku and then moved on to specific ideas currently on trial at Huddersfield including: text-a-librarian and scenario texts in subjects like Business – as students participate in scenario planning, text updates can be sent during the exercise to change the state of play, making students think on their feet and create a more ‘live’ and ‘real’ feeling to things.

Andrew then moved on to the wonder that is QR Codes. Now before I heard Andrews spin on QR Codes I must admit I was pretty dubious about their true usefulness within an academic library context…and after hearing Andrews take on QR tags I’m afraid I’m still not converted. Now in danger of being one of those people that said “ooo text message technology – it’ll never take off” or “why would I want an iPod - I’ve got a personal CD player…?” I’m afraid at this moment in time I am going to stick to my guns! But here is what Andrew had to say…

…the University of Huddersfield are currently looking to implement a QR tagging system which can be used as a sort of location checking system. So for example, a student could enter the library building, maybe browse the library catalogue and find a book that they feel would help them with a particular assignment, using the camera functionality of their phone, and having downloaded the QR reader previous, the student could scan the QR code which could then direct them to the exact location of the book they require…

…or QR codes could be applied to printed journals. If the student wished to discover if the particular printed journal before them was accessible electronically they could scan the QR code which would then retrieve the relevant information as to whether electronic access was available or not…

Andrew described this process of QR code tagging resources as “instruction at the point of need” which in theory I think is an absolutely brilliant idea. However my main concern lies with the ‘spoon-feeding’ nature of this kind of practice, my fear would be that we would actually hinder student progress rather than help it as student’s may never grasp the ‘basics’ (as it were) of library instruction. I am all for delivering help/information/access in as many ways as possible but I am also a strong believer in providing students with a good grounding that will see them not only through their time at university but also in well into their future, as lifelong learners. Another concern of mine is borne through asking students to download software onto their phone – does that make the institution liable if anything were to go wrong???

For those of you who were completely baffled by that last QR induced ramble…here is was a QR code actually is…

…this QR code contains the information relating to my blog posting, if you have a phone with a QR reader, or relevant software downloaded, by scanning this QR code you would be directed to my blog…

Some of the things that excited me the most about Andrew’s presentation was the advancements that the University of Huddersfield have made with regards to their library catalogue. The functionality of it amazed me, they had user ratings, useful links (such as, and even links to loan statistics for the particular item a student was looking at!) and a ‘user who like this also like…’ type element. The whole thing screamed Amazon at me but in a way that I think is absolutely genius with regards to a mundane library catalogue! These elements inspire students to make informed decisions and also help students to make decisions based on what their peers have said; just from a personal point of view, from my time as an undergraduate, I would have loved to have a catalogue as personal and user orientated as this.

Finally Andrew gave us some insights into a new ‘podcast : text message’ initiative that will hopefully be realised over the coming months. This would involve the production of podcasts and text messages, formed on the basis of library instruction but produced to compliment each other. So firstly (for example) a student could perhaps download a podcast which would tell them how to loan library books, then as the due date of the student’s books got nearer, they would be sent a text message telling them how to renew their library books. I was really excited by this idea and feel that the bite-sized nature of the content would really appeal to today’s 21st century learners.

Andrew was a truly engaging speaker – he didn’t admit defeat when some of the interactive elements of the session failed and throughout the session he used SMS technology – both to greet, involve and thank us. So I would just like to say a big thank you to Andrew who I feel really gave some good insights into the opportunities offered up by mobile devices in an academic library setting.


  1. hi
    read your lilac posts with interest

    just wanted to pass on a recent report on web 2.0
    thought you might find it useful

  2. I'm with Andrew on the QR Codes. I haven't come across them much until recently and have alkways wondered why I needed a barcode reader on my phone. But now I know and it works too. It gave me the URL of your blog. I love technology :)