Coming to the end but starting over: a new vision

The final summer school event started with a twenty four hour scramble: on Tuesday the extended team came together for the first time since the news of the latest competitor. … because Wednesday we had to pitch the new concept. Tuesday was a very long day. Long and, at times, disheartening.

After wrestling with ways that we could separate our concept from the latest competitor to emerge, we honed in on the Jisc mantra of ‘keep in simple’. How could we achieve what we wanted in the simplest way possible? Stripping away all our recent work was painful (soooo painful) but the solution is incredibly exciting. The difficulty we faced was capturing the newly formed (and fragile) concept effectively for the pitch, which was nerve-wracking. However, we were more than pleased with the result. A highlight of the event was most certainly the keynote of the day approaching our group to and discussing the project in very positive terms.

Overall thefinal event has been brilliant. There were some awkward bits for photos and video pitches, but the project has made it through another hurdle.

Focus… focus…

Focus focus…

We’ve consumed a lot of pizza but gained some valuable information (and probably a few pounds) with our pizza-lunch focus groups. A cheap way to get some very willing freshers involved in sharing their views!

In less happy news- less than a week away from our pitch we uncovered another major competitor. A ‘new kid on the block’ who- at first glance- has produced something that aligns very closely with our project. After thinking in detail around how we compare to a major player in the field (and finding ourselves reassuringly different) it is a real blow. Finding that your idea is already out there can be positive because it shows that the concept is sound. What is less positive being surprised by a the presence of a competitor at this point. We’ve been working in this area for four years, with a particular push over the summer (and guided by Jisc outputs) so this new find has been a shock.

It is good when the team comes together to address a problem. Communicating by email- we are often spread out geographically- is a basic way to go, but it is useful that it slows you down, and forces you to make considered points rather than just reacting. Unpicking the competition systematically in this way has uncovered both the strengths and weaknesses of our own work. We now seem to be facing yet another hurdle, but the way forward will be well informed.

Other technologies we’ve used this summer include the free shared drive space that comes with a Google account and the Todoist task sharing app. Back to basics- one of us is hopelessly addicted to Exel (no names, please) and this works to. Even more basic have been some of the drawings that we’ve each done both individually and together to help us flesh out what we want.

Looking forward to the last event.

Re-evaluation

The last summer school event has encouraged us to revisit our goals and starting point.

For the past several years we have used a modified off-the-shelf product. And, at our last summer school event… we were encouraged to revisit pre-packaged open source software rather than creating something from scratch. This was in some ways frustrating- our starting point was that pre-existing technologies were not giving us what we wanted. However, technologies have moved forward since we first examined them, so this is certainly worth doing. Moreover, we will be looking at off-the-shelf from a new perspective, having refined our ideas considerably: another benefit of the summer school event was that it made us think clearly about how we could be seen as different from the competition.

We are looking forward to next week, when we will have the opportunity to run our ideas past our first focus group. While we are pushing up against the September deadline, the focus group will provide an essential part of our project.

So, back to the start but still moving…

Our development approach: think big, start small, look forward, work backwards…?

As mentioned in an earlier post, the development approach is to consider the big picture of what we’d like to achieve with the project, but not try to bite off too much and risk a high number of ‘incompletes’. We’d like to be in a good position in September, and have decided to structure our time around the list of outputs provided by JISC alongside a small number of our own. We are trying to imagine ourselves at the stand in September. What do we want to have achieved? How will we capture what has been achieved in a way that is clear? Any stand has to be visual- to this end we are starting to keep photographic evidence of our work and we are also considering how we can ‘show’ progress in a way that is text-free. In the absence of a technical prototype we still want to have something substantial.

Frustratingly, the technical side of development has stalled. This is not unexpected, and we have plenty to keep us busy. We are still hoping that we have someone, but lack a firm commitment. To achieve something at a technical level, we could move forward with another option that was shown to us at the first summer school event: advertising on People per Hour. However, we are going to defer making a decision on this until next week. Using sub-contracted technical development would likely lock us into future work with the same person (nobody will want to take on someone else’s code at a later point). We also have another student who is keen to work with us- Courtney the Coder- and we’d like to have someone local who is happy to work on the project with a student.

On the positive side, it is pleasing how much of our existing work can feed usefully into the Jisc outputs. Our existing experiences of running online social networking environments for students coming in to HE have given us a lot of material work with. We are busy applying that knowledge to an app scenario, which is significantly different from a web interface. Also, we’ve decided to run some focus groups- this will be a lot of fun- but as our target market is on their summer break we will do the planning for these now but roll them out in September.

An introduction to the team and the first Summer School event

A short introduction to the team (‘duo’ was briefly considered here but was dismissed as being inappropriately linked to song):
Rebecca Rochon: Professional Doctorate student (Education)
John Knight: Professional Doctorate student (Education)
And yes, while we are students, we also belong to the ‘dark side’: we are currently academics, too. We have been involved in supporting students coming into higher education with a range of programmes for a number of years (and you’ll hear more about these experiences in the coming weeks).
However, with five previous degrees between us already, we are also seasoned students, and as current students we are delighted with the opportunity to be involved with the Summer of Innovation.
The first Summer School in Bristol was brilliant. Although we were undoubtedly the most –ahem- mature participants, it was heartening to be among other project teams and seeing that we are all facing the same challenges in spite of the different backgrounds we bring. We found that our mentor was both enthusiastic and helpful in giving us guidance, and we are looking forward to working with Peter over the months to come.
While all the sessions were useful, we really got a lot out of the Design workshop. This highlighted that although there is no ‘right’ way to move forward it is certainly possible to get distracted by issues that may be less important.
After three days of networking and workshops (and excellent cake) we have been left in some ways with more questions than answers. This highlights the wealth of experience that JIS brings to the table: while we may have a good idea of how to proceed, they are able to identify the range of issues that beginners are likely to overlook, as we ourselves have done. For example, we hadn’t fully considered the compliance issues that are associated with handling large amounts of student data. While we certainly would have stumbled into this issue at some point, keeping it central to our considerations when moving forward has helped us prioritise and think about where to go from here.

And we’re off…

As the 2013-2014 academic year concludes, a summer to focus on the project’s development is extremely appealing. Of course [cough] there will be on-going reading commensurate with postgraduate study over the summer months alongside this….
It is exciting to be in the position of having it all to come but there are several areas that are already proving challenging. The biggest challenge for our team is having to outsource, to some extent, the technical side of development. We are committed to involving other students as much as possible, but in our position the most expedient way to guarantee an output is to bring in someone else who has already developed an app. It’s hard to be both chomping at the bit to move forward while staying effectively still until the tech team is fully in place.
In the meantime, there is plenty to be getting on with. We decided to host a competition in order to draw out graphical talent for the development of an app icon. The icon will form the basis of our brand identity and is essential to moving us forward in this first phase of the project. We hope that the successful icon will visually capture what we are about and give us a focal point when talking about a product that is still under development.
We have also come up with a ‘Version 1’ specification that represents a (hopefully) achievable, pared down version of the app prototype ready for trial at the end of the summer. We are trying to keep the big picture of what we want to achieve in mind, but aim as small and manageable as possible in the short term.
Onwards and upwards. And, in the meantime, let’s hope the sun continues to shine…

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