Thursday, 17 April 2014

Open School in a Box – a first look at our technology

Fig. 1: Parts for two more prototypes

This week’s blog is written by Dick Moore and will be talking about the technology involved in our Open School in a Box project, funded by the Nominet Trust.

If you are not sure what the Open School in a Box (OSB) project is all about then our last month’s blog post here explains it all. The project has now started in earnest and we are just in the middle of our alpha trial of the technology.

Before telling you what the alpha trial is intended to look at, I thought we might take a look at why the project selected wifi rather than another networking medium to distribute its content. We have heard much about 3G and 4G broadband connections, and for those lucky enough to live in a 3G or 4G zone and able to afford a 3G or 4G contract there is no doubt of its convenience while on the move. For the rest of us, wifi is our preferred connection of choice for the following reasons:

  • smartphones, tablets and most laptops can access wifi with no additional hardware
  • connectivity is not limited to a particular supplier’s infrastructure
  • wifi is provided free or at low cost with plenty of hotspots in every town and business
  • it’s low cost for organisations to deploy and maintain, even in old or listed buildings
  • connecting to wifi is now such a familiar process, it is thought to be easy
  • modern wifi (802.11n) can deliver five times the speed of the previous standard 802.11g by using multi input output streaming with a wider range and higher throughput.

Wifi connectivity is likely to be the connectivity solution of choice for the foreseeable future, and when we look at what is going on at grass-roots level it’s clear at least to me that wifi rather than 3G or 4G connectivity is powering the mobile revolution. People are selecting their hotel, coffee shop, and even their next house move on the basis that it has broadband and wifi.

The alpha trial

The first week of the alpha trial of the new prototype of the OSB has just ended and was designed to test if, once out of range of public wifi, people could connect, interact and download material. It will come as no surprise that not all our alpha trial users found it easy to connect or play videos, however for those that could (over 80%) the speed of rendering was rated good or very good, and the large majority managed to play video, view content and interact with our trial content.

The content rendered across a range of devices including iPhones, Android devices of various brands, tablets, laptops, PCs and Macs.  An additional complication was that each of these devices came with different browsers: in common use are Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in many versions, Safari on Apple devices, Firefox and Chrome. It is not a surprise then that the alpha trial threw up some issues!

The key issues identified in the alpha trial were:

  • some users found it difficult or impossible to connect to the service using the same device as other users who managed with ease
  • some users failed to play the video content, again this was not device specific
  • some devices such as BlackBerries and Kindles failed to connect at all
  • the content rendered differently on some devices and in a form that made it unusable.

We have yet to fully analyse the results but having this data will underwrite the final quality of service and enable us to address these issues early in the project. The alpha trial has confirmed that we have an architecture that works which enables us to build out a couple of additional prototypes.

Our next stage will focus on delivering our courses, IGCSE English and IGCSE Maths, in a way that can be rendered across the widest range of devices possible while providing a compelling experience for our students. This is a non-trivial task, but NEC has been innovating in the field of distance learning for over 50 years. The OSB project is the latest in a long line of NEC learning innovations and has the potential to give that critical second chance of getting a Level 2 qualification in English and Maths, the two qualifications that open the doors to so many occupations.

Thank-you to those that participated in the alpha trial!

For more information about NEC, visit our website to learn more about the work we do, or to browse our wide range of flexible distance learning courses. You can keep up to date with all the latest news and events by subscribing to our email newsletter or following our blog. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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