- User expectations of services available to the academic community will change
as they increasingly experience the advantages (and sometimes the disadvantages)
of personalisation in commercial services and in the many applications of
Internet banking and finance. Personalisation has succeeded in commerce where
it fulfils a core function for the business and where the task is relatively
simple and well defined. Many businesses attempting a broad and poorly defined
application of personalisation have retrenched, abandoned it or even failed
altogether. The businesses that succeed with personalisation are, typically,
either "pure" web businesses, such as eBay, expedia, Amazon (notwithstanding
the latter's subsequent massive investment in physical order-fulfilment infrastructure),
or businesses which already have a very significant investment in ICT like
banks and airlines. The UK academic community is not like this, having a far
higher proportion of spending on people, a far lower proportion of spending
on ICT, and far fewer opportunities to get scale economies. This suggests
that the academic community is unlikely in the short term to succeed with
broad application of personalisation.
- Narrow applications of personalisation are far more likely to succeed, particularly
where a clear objective has been identified, a business case can be made and
control has been or will be established over the relevant, accurate data.
- Personalisation of institutional information services can offer significant
efficiency gains, for staff if they can quickly access institutional information
pertinent to their roles, and for students if they can access information
for which they would otherwise have to ask in person or in writing.
- Dalziel points out (quoted above) that generating the individual personal
metadata needed to enable learning to be adaptively personalised will be costly
and complex; and that manually generating meta data for learning resources
(level, content, quality etc) will be prohibitively expensive except perhaps
in the very highest volume learning programmes. Automating this metadata generation
is possible, but the technology is still at a research stage.
- Learning environments may use personalisation as one element in an interface
presenting a rich mixture of resources to their users. One can imagine something
rather like Google's sponsored links, where the sponsored resources are replaced
by resources selected by the institution or by subject experts at the RDN.
The search results might also feature the top 5 resources in this area as
used by others on your course or at your institution. One might draw the analogy
of a flexible restaurant menu, where people on course X always get the lecturer
chosen items (the dish of the day) but are also shown the results of their
own search or profile (the à la carte items).
- Educational Web sites and services should ensure that access to resources
is available to those who cannot use conventional interfaces. Blind users
might require audio interfaces or output in Braille, there are many other
examples. It is also likely that users will be accessing academic resources
with a wider range of devices including small wireless devices, phones, organisers
etc. Access for all should be designed by default for all interfaces, but
elements of personalisation may be useful in this context.
- Very little work has been done on user requirements gathering concerning
personalisation in general and this is as true in the UK academic community
as in other sectors. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, with features being
decided upon by developers and champions not as a result of user testing.
If, as Nielsen claims, you only need to test on five users to get useful results,
then it seems as if some user testing in this area would be cheap and rewarding.
- Personalising information supply can amount to spoon feeding. Learners who
are spoon fed do not develop the required information skills to be able to
find information when they are "away from the portal", nor do they develop
the critical judgement. The RDN VTS is widely praised for guiding users to
acquire essential skills without spoon feeding.
- Systems which allow "human" personalisation, such as a VLE which allows
tutors to configure the system to provide learners with a personalised learning
experience, are generally popular with motivated staff and students. However
such complex design requires more careful and complex testing than do simpler
designs. We should not underestimate the extra demands this puts on the staff
involved in customisation and design, which may include role playing a whole
suite of different types of students.
- The growing adoption of standards such WSRP and JSR 168 by suppliers of
components such as portal frameworks, will increase the ability to render
services as portlets inside a 'fat' portal. However, the fact that the technology
enables this does not mean that it will be appropriate for all service types.
In particular, it is those services which are designed to have a machine readable
interface which will fit best within this framework rather than those where
an interface is shoehorned into the framework using techniques such as screen-scraping.
- Within a portal framework, the benefits of allowing users to customise content
and appearance must be weighed against the costs. It makes sense for portal
providers to impose some limitations on what can be deleted (or added) and
to ensure that certain screen elements are always positioned for maximum visibility.
In terms of encouraging users to take advantage of these features, current
best practice appears be to offer an initial degree of APOD (based, for example,
on course, subject or even a simple 'staff'/ 'student' dichotomy) then allowing
users to customise within a restricted set of already targeted resources.
There is no compelling evidence to date for the benefits of APUA within the
portal contexts, but as open source toolkits offering collaborative filtering
and similar functions gain maturity, then the costs of implementing these
approaches will fall.
- The JISC IE provides a logical architecture which should be viewed as a
long term goal rather than something which can be achieved immediately. The
availability of shared infrastructure services such as user preference services,
institutional preference services and service registries would vastly enhance
the ability of both JISC services and institutions to offer personalised services.
However, such services will take time to be become mature and even then it
will take time for real world interoperability issues to be resolved. For
example, although, in theory, it has been possible to provide an LDAP directory
service to provide common user data to a range of institutional services for
many years, and many products claim to be 'LDAP-enabled', in reality even
such a simple 'shared service' has proved difficult to implement.
- Within the JISC IE there is a potential need for personalisation to flow
backwards into the content sources as well as across different services within
the presentation layer. Such sharing may require a trusted intermediary to
strip out personal information and possibly restore it as information comes
back from the content provider to the presentation service or to the end user.
- There are many issues raised by personalisation that require international
collaboration and standards to resolve. Naming people as creators and/or authors
of resources is one such element, possibly creating a unique ID (persistent
email address?), which would be useful across a range of services. Unique
and persistent resource identifiers are another. User profiles and preferences
will also be very relevant here, with candidate standards such as EduPerson
and IMS LIP emerging, but far from established. Where standards are yet to
be established we do not recommend establishing national services based on
ad hoc standards which may be superseded by international work. As Lynch points
out (quoted above) there are many and various pieces of work to be done in
this area and we believe it would be useful to fund smaller scale pilot projects
with discrete, well defined tasks at this stage.
- All projects and services are likely to create an interface (presentation
layer) in order to make themselves comprehensible and visible to funders and
intermediaries if not to end users. However this interface creation has a
tendency to become an end in itself. It is important to examine the real or
potential function of the project or service. With this in mind, we must also
always be aware that complex applications will increasingly be made invisible
to the end user by processes involving machines talking to machines. All services
should bear this in mind and strive to make their resources available as widely
as possible - this does not mean abandoning their valuable IPR - it means
expanding the potential market place for products which may use that IPR.
- Personalisation can either be treated as an extra service - an "add-on"
- or as a means of bringing about major innovation around which services should
be re-engineered. The latter approach is more likely to succeed and result
in major improvements in quality of service than the former.