Telematics application

 

 

Extending a software support system to increase user empowerment community.

 

Aim

 

The Computing Education Research Group at Monash University has developed a basic software tool for organizing and accessing data that takes seriously the way users deal with data. This project aims to take this tool and extend its capacities into community-based activities. The primary consequence of this will be that community groups will be empowered in their use of information beyond the capacity of current software tools.

 

Project Outline

Introduction

 

Software tools are often characterized by long and steep learning curves if users are to make effective use of a tool. The relevant example here is the various data base programs that are available for storing data. They require sophisticated skills if the data is to be effectively organized for use on various tasks and at various levels of computer expertise. For example, data entry can require subject matter knowledge in order to be able classify documents that are to be entered into the data base. A consequence of the inherent nature of software tools is that many potential users are disempowered within the computing domain.

This project will provide a software tool that overcomes many of the problems faced by the more conventional array of tools. It provides:

The basic premise upon which this is founded is that people are good at discerning useful information, while computers are good at storing and distributing it.  What is needed is the means to allow quick and ready entry of information through human sources, but delegate the classification, distribution and sorting of information to a computer.

The core tool is called ivee (intelligent virtual educational environment). It has been developed with education in mind but, because of the underlying software philosophy used, it can be readily adapted to meet a wide set of needs. It is based on a simple model of data:  

Word documents, pdf files, spreadsheets, even plain text etc .  

All of this is done from within a web-based browser where the data can be viewed and organised in various ways through user-driven methods. A great deal of flexibility is built into the system to allow the user to explore different ways of organising data.

Activities such a the University of the 3rd Age and community interest groups are attended by people with widely varying levels of computer skills yet the computer is an important tool in most of these activities. The system we are describing here can be easily used to develop teaching materials for the U3A programs while the basic skills in storing, accessing and researching can be easily taught to those with minimal computer skills.  To facilitate this we are exploring a natural language search and browse interface to the system.

 

Tasks

The current version of the software is capable of doing the basic tasks outline in the previous section. To make it applicable to community needs its formal structure needs to be extended to allow for a simple distributed system. That is a system where any user can access ivee from anywhere at any time. Over and above this, the software has to be tested with individual users to produce the most easily accessible interface. This, or any tool will be useless unless it takes into account the wide range of abilities of potential users.

As a tentative task, the project will explore the ways in which ivee might be extended for disabled users.

The software will also be tested against minimalist computing environments. What we mean by this is the project will explore the maximization of ivee’s functionality on the new cheap laptops or netbook machines. It is obvious that these computers, costing as little as $300, will revolutionise access in areas where funds are at a minimum.

The project will also develop communication between community software tools such as discussions group software. Currently, that type of software is oriented towards ‘chatter’ although most have some search facilities that allow for low level exploration. This project will attach the functionality of ivee to discussion tools so that they will be able to readily store commentary, documents and links and to then provide sophisticated access to that content.

 

 

Stages

The following stages define a formal structure for the project although the project team will take a constructive view of the evaluation activities that are carried out so that effective outcomes will outweigh rigid adherence to the structure.

Stage 1

The first stage will focus upon consultation with community groups. The aim here will be to establish specific needs and to define the core elements of a user interface that will meet the widest range of user needs.

1 month   0.5 research assistant ($3k)

Stage 2

This stage will begin the development of the interface and will create the system structure that will allow for a fully distributed functionality.

During this stage, groups will be identified to provide user-testing in later stages.

3 months  full time programmer ($12k)

2 x netbooks  ($1k)

Stage 3

The interface will be tested on the groups identified in the previous stage. Implicit in this is also testing of the functionality of the distributed system.

The development of a user manual will be begun in this stage.

1.5 months   0.5 programmer 0.5 RA ($6k)  

Community payment ($500)

Stage 4

 

 

Evaluation

The project will be evaluated through a systematic set of tasks and through a process that s sometimes called Trailing Evaluation.

At each stage a set of milestones have been defined and the research team will check what has been attained against these milestones and report on them.

In those stages where software evaluation is being carried out (eg Stage 3) the evaluation will be, effectively, formative in nature.