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What did we learn from the research?...


about usage…

Our research shows that given the opportunity children in the UK will log on to access on-line communities at anytime. Rarely would children simply log on to read personal mail alone. Almost all (90%) of the children also checked the discussions within the active communities they were a member of.

The recorded times of the latest logins are just before midnight, but where a synchronous element exists somewhere around 23.00 would be the latest for most pupils, secondary or primary. Obviously home ownership of a computer - or home access to one - is currently a necessary prerequisite for regular out-of-school usage, but this is changing.

Within the school situation duration on-line varies - any spare minute is liable to be grabbed if access is open. Most popular login times - and the longest - are just after school or lunchtime, pupils often using the whole lunch break. Predictably logins from school are for a significantly longer time period than from home reflecting the significant worry which exists concerning costs of telephone calls. Even the youngest children who connected from home were aware that long calls were expensive. In projects where attachments were significant it was noticeable that almost nobody saved attachments after school. Primary age children rarely used attachments both at school and at home. Even in software where downloading attachments was a simple as clicking an icon primary pupils often commented that the waiting time was boring.

Weekend logins were typically for relatively short periods - just keeping up to date rather than originating.

Where they were available, children accessed resumés frequently, They were interested in any information concerning others in their communities. They reread resumés of active users on a regular basis to look for additions and/or changes. Although the history of a document was available from the software it was rarely accessed ; there was a confidence that once a message had gone it would be read, whereas the details of who a person was and what they said about themselves were far more interesting. For the originator of work these accesses to resumés or to personal "about me" pages gave a strong sense of audience and were highly motivating.

Whatever the system / client / application, if children had an individual identity in any on-line community they generally went first to their "mailbox / in-tray" to look for direct communications to themselves. Also almost without exception children originated messages as well as reading them - for them the Internet is always a participative environment.

All this is significant for a GridClub. A key feature of this behaviour is that children are accessing where and whenever they can, from a multiplicity of computers. This effectively rules out local storage of files other than as a very short term expedient. It also means that any assumptions made about client end applications will be limiting and damaging for access and indeed equity.

about engagement…

Our research shows that children do respond to messages in an on-line community. However the communication when children are the main members of a community is characterised by short and direct responses, an average discussion involving mainly children consists of a number of quick fired one liners and/or questions interspersed with longer comments.

In our questionnaire we asked children what they most liked doing in the communities in which they belonged ("What things did you like doing best on the Internet project?") Their answers provided interesting reading, with comments like "chatting", "looking things up", "making web pages", "movies" demonstrating that they liked creating, or as they commented, 'doing things!". Teachers in their questionnaire responses were more specific in their comments concerning their pupils engagement in the system ("What do you think that your pupils enjoy doing most when participating in an OLC project") but the majority mentioned some aspect involving communicating and creating, for example " feedback and seeing their ideas take shape", "sharing joint project and communicating..", "taking part".

The questionnaire also asked pupils what they least liked doing ("What were the most boring things?") and teachers what their pupils least enjoyed ("What do you think that your pupils like least when participating in an OLC project") and unsurprisingly the usual comments for both groups involved interruptions in the flow of their work, children stressing bandwidth problems whilst staff included hardware and software problems too. Pupils mentioned "sitting around waiting to work", "when we were downloading on the computers", "All the hours we had to put in to download", "not being able to download my pictures..", whilst teachers' comments included, "unreliable hardware/software", "slow responses", "when things don't work for no apparent reason".

This age group were not unique in being attracted by an interface offering more than plain text. With their limited reading skills the interface was especially important to their engagement (see interface below)

For a GridClub if engagement is a parameter for success, and we believe it should be, then designing for it is a substantial task and, together with the mediation necessary to sustain it, will represent a substantial part of a GridClub budget.

about mediation…

Put bluntly, there is solid agreement that if learning is to occur mediation is essential.

It cannot be provided casually and is a real (and significant) cost to any project. A key problem often reported seems to be that for mediators "face to face" activity is prioritised over "asynchronous on-line" activity; too often a class full of students is an immediate priority where an on-line group is not. Time allocated for mediation needs to be protected if the regularity of mediation is to be vouchsafed. Mediation can also be through cross age mentoring and peer support in some circumstances. It is possible to over mediate:
"Oddly enough, too much intervention can be a turn-off to participants too - the online coordinator needs to allow participants to find their own space."

Project support for mediation can either be through direct appointment (some projects employed mediators, usually part time), or through templates and support materials on the website for other mediators (for example existing teachers in schools, or existing field officers for a project).

Mediation can also have a central role managing the dialogue with users; it i important that users' input progressesthe site design and that they are honestly critical about what works and what doesn't. For users there is a confidence in knowing that the site is being mediated too:

"Don't be negative - evaluate what works and focus on it, and create a climate where all involved have confidence that if anything needs to change, it can and it will. "

For a GridClub the key design point is that this needs to be enabled and supported through the project design, not bolted on as an afterthought. Even a passive "publish and disseminate only" site will need to support the mediation that must inevitably happen for a school or home associated with the site.

about hardware and software…

It would be wrong to either presume a consistency of software or hardware in the 7-11 year old population. It would be downright foolish to expect that this will become more consistent in the future, indeed the diversity will widen considerably.

Our research shows that children log on where (and when) there is opportunity: from school, home, public access points, friends, anywhere. They use whatever equipment is available: ubiquitous desktop machines, portables but also anything else that they have access to, even temporarily. They use whatever browser is available and whatever operating system. Interestingly, whilst with games they have a straightforward model of what gives good performance (fast chips + graphics capability), with Internet access they are much less aware. When a site is slow to access, children blame the site or the school's access speed primarily. A well designed web site supports retrospectively the legacy equipment (often quite slow, probably without Java) that runs, and will continue to run, in many schools and homes. In many instances the home computer is a superseded computer inherited from a parent's workplace. Sites that are sumptuously designed with rich images and animations work poorly in the school environment and in homes with basic modem connections because of often poor hardware and software platforms (but this does not imply that texty systems are desirable - see "Interface"). Delays equal disillusionment, but so does a lack of ambition in the features a site offers:
Questionnaire student question "What were the most boring things..."
"All the hours we had to put in downloading..."
"Trying to get on with what you wanted to do..."
"Waiting for the computer..."
"When things don't work for no apparent reason"

We have spoken to a wide range of companies engaged in this market and compile the list below without wild speculation or extrapolation. This is what will happen and indeed is happening now. It is clear that this diversity and complexity will further increase rather than decrease in the longer term. We researched hardware and software futures through literature and direct interview only in as much as they impact on this age group (7-11) and offer the following with some certainty:

  • children in the 7-11 age group will increasingly access the Internet from a widening variety of devices including: TV set top boxes, games consoles, street telephone boxes, pocketable devices, cellular phones, toys, portable computers and desktop computers. This amounts to a flight from the traditional desktop computer towards a "thinner client" device. In may cases the device will have no local applications at all and minimal local storage (for example web enabled telephone boxes).
  • prices will fall rapidly with considerable benefits for the information have-nots. The caveat is that the lowest prices will be linked to a service agreement (as with mobile phones for example) which may exclude many in this group. Cheaper prices may quickly reduce the school stock of elderly computers however making IP capability reasonably ubiquitous.
  • wireless technologies will cease to be the bandwidth bottleneck that they have been for personal internet devices.
  • many companies in hardware, software, broadcasting, publishing, telecommunications and elsewhere, faced with the uncertainty of this explosion of complexity, will try to vouchsafe their market share with young children in a number of ways but certainly including unique functionality, long term agreements, LEA service provision agreements, etc. There is a potential clash between the unique provision at LEA or school level of services and children's access in many other places (with many other devices) and a national GridClub service. This may become a policy problem.
  • It is likely that virtual operating systems will become interchangeable across devices further increasing diversity.

    For a GridClub this increasing diversity means that it would be both a wasted opportunity and socially divisive to try to impose any standards other than the existing and evolving protocols of the Internet. GridClub must adhere to the least subset of Internet Protocols and must only embrace open systems.

    It means that whatever service is adopted / delivered will need to be demonstrated across the widest possible range of current and legacy equipment, including set top boxes and small portables on a wide variety of screen resolutions and sizes. It means that the service can only be browser based - the existence of a local client application cannot be assumed wherever children log on - with functionality exclusively at the server end

    The relationship between a GridClub and local service provision will need thinking through - worst case scenario would see GridClub not accessible by children whilst at school, or only accessible there.

about interface for 7-11 year olds…

We have considerable experience ourselves (Schools OnLine, Tesco SchoolNet 2000, iKnow, Learning in the New Millennium, etc) of on-line project interface design but in addition we adopted a combination of direct interview and exploration of the published guidelines from the many many reliable sources around the world (see Projects database for label "user interface"). Encouragingly a clear consensus emerges for activity based web project design.

GridClub, like other projects and activities targetted at this age group, will stand or fall by the quality of the interface it presents to users. There is a difference between children being attracted to content and them being drawn to participation (see also "what does "success" look like?" below). One may be about signposting and metaphor, the other is about seduction and engagement, much more challenging to get right.

The most clear consensus however is that any interface for this age group needs to be fun / delightful without being either banal or patronising.
"Make it fun, if it isn't fun it isn't worth doing"

There are a number of other guiding wisdoms:

Children don't like to read instructions on screen. If it is not obvious what to do, they won't do it the way that was anticipated, or intended.

Questionnaire student question "What were the most boring things...?"
"Reading text..."

Redundancy. As a general principle, offering different ways to signify the same thing allows the user to decide which cues are used and which are redundant. This will vary for different users at different times - just as subtitles on a foreign language film will be more or less useful depending on your grasp of the foreign language, your eyesight, how tired you are, etc. This principle of redundancy underpins all good web design, especially for children in this age group; their textual capabilities, and cultures, vary substantially. For example: whenever text is used, graphical reinforcers are needed to identify and categorise its use. This is particularly important for children that are poor readers: dyslexic, early learners, low esteem readers, etc.

Children are both conservative and adventurous! They enjoy the familiarity of a constant interface BUT they like the excitement of change. In site design we need to distinguish between the structural architecture and the decoration.

Questionnaire student question "What did you like doing best..."
"I enjoyed the freedom to customise and add ideas to the project..."

Colours matter: Children are comfortable with the conventions that, for example, differentiate a visited link with an unvisited one. Many schools set their browsers to override site font colours to maintain this consistency. Designers should be aware of this. Similarly we found no schools where children habitually print the colour backgrounds from web pages. In many cases it was forbidden (too slow and wasteful of printer ink / toner). Thus dark web pages with light fonts are confusing to print (in the worst case white text on any dark background prints as white text on white paper. This caused constant failure and frustration.

Frames will fail: It is worth taking a moment to reject frames (bookmarking doesn't then work properly, printing is confusing, etc), white text on a dark background (printing is confusing), all our respondents hated them.

Gratuitous animations only impress at the launch party: too often a project launches with sumptuous animations and rich palettes of colour which look impressive run locally but are frustratingly slow on a phone modem or a shared school ISDN line.

Screens come in many sizes and resolutions: design must be cogniscent of that. Too often only large screen formats are properly supported and this ranges from frustrating to prohibitive for users on other screen sizes, especially the smallest.

For a GridClub this means that there is a long cycle of development and iteration to be budgeted for and a considerable amount of testing on different platforms in different social settings. This testing will need to be on-going as new equipment is adopted by schools and students.

Although there are many on-line projects in education there are relatively few that achieve the engagement of many children. Those that do adhere faithfully to a set of characteristics including the interface guidelines above. This is very much an all or nothing (and expensive) model of development; subsets fail.

about media

Projects reported, unsurprisingly, that 7 - 11 year olds are not all strong readers; many have relatively weak reading skills and all exist in an information world of graphics, video, sound and images in addition to text. If GridClub is to be for all 7-11 year olds, rather than for a literate elite, it must be from the outset designed as a multiple media site and designed in a way that does not make it slow and bandwidth hungry. This is a major design task.

In addition, not all children function fully on all media channels. Some are visually impaired, some hear poorly, many have English as a second language. This means designing for media redundancy - a button being depressed accompanied by a button-pressing-sound offers two alternate significations. This may seem obvious but with so many reluctant readers additions to text will always be desirable. The RNIB find that many websites aimed a children fail to implement image ALTs for example, rendering the audio browser used by visually impaired ineffective.

However, with an imperfect technology we will need to compromise on this, it may be for example (indeed it is) the case that playing the sound delays the visual feedback too much (and we know that children hate to wait - see "About Engagement" above); thus the short term task may instead be to embed tags in visual objects that can be picked up later and used to trigger aural cues and clues.

One thing that must be done right away though is to formalise the use of ALTs with images, when we post them, when children contribute them, we/they should be prompted for a description so that profoundly visually impaireds can use audio their browsers with some hope of success. Few projects had properly implemeted these ALT tags, but many regretted having not done so.

For a GridClub this means designing with multiple media and designing for media redundancy whilst recognising that different devices and bandwidths will support multiple media in different ways. Doing this well is expensive but it is so poorly handled at present that it presents an unmissable opportunity to show how it should be done.
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