October 19, 2007

Open University Course Profiles Facebook App

After a month or so of teasing, the first major push of our skunkworks OU Course Profiles Facebook app went live yesterday. Since mid-September, we've been quietly running an application on Facebook that allows OU students to declare the OU courses they've taken, are taking or intend to take. Until yesterday, the app provided a course badge panel on a user's profile page...

... and announced courses added to their profile on their news feed...

Courses are added to a profile using a course code. One of the motivations for the app was the observation that many students self-declare courses they have been involved with in the signature to their online conference postings. OU students often take just one or two courses per year over 7 month period, studying at a distance and often on top of the pressure of work and family commitments. Under such a regime, the course code often becomes unforgettable!

The course title is pulled in from a database of course codes and titles. Whilst this data can be scraped from the OU courses and qualifications website (at least for currently presented courses), we managed to obtain a list of course codes from an internal OU database to drive the title auto-completion code from the start; more recently, an authoritative list of course codes and titles has been obtained.

Part of the philosophy of the development team (myself, Stuart Brown (comms) and Liam Green-Hughes (AACS; thanks for all your development effort, Liam :-), with Martin Weller riding shotgun and covering our backs) was that the application should not make use of privileged OU information; that is, we would only use information that is available on (scrapeable from!) the OU's public websites, or that is self-declared by application users.

However, for the sake of efficiency(!?;-), we decided we would exploit data such as course code and title tables if by doing so we could make an argument to the data holders that they really should publish a public API of the information, and that we could demonstrate a sensible use case for it.

That said, where data has been made available to us, we have reserved the right not use any data we are provided with until such a time as we can make use of it via a public API, even if this means we use lower quality data.

New Features

The new features released yesterday start to exploit various network related properties, as well as exploring integration with OU related services that are keyed using a course code.

The View Course Information panel currently links through to the 'external' OU courses and qualifications code for that course (where it exists). However, we are exploring ways in which we might link to the OU's XCRI web service (SOAP, rather than RESTful with a JSON output option, unfortunately...) as and when course level details are made available through it.

The OpenLearn Units panel links through to a page that lists any OpenLearn Units derived from that particular course and links through to the corresponding units on the OpenLearn site. (Although we are not using this service, the OpenLearn Units Derived from an OU Course Yahoo! Pipe could be used to source this data.)

As the OpenLearn Units in Facebook app demonstrates, a Grazr widget can be used to display any number of OpenLearn Units in Facebook by making use of the OpenLearn Unit RSS Feeds. Embedding of OpenLearn unit feeds in this panel is being explored.

The Friends on This Course link provides a list of friends who have declared their association with - or interest in - the same course, subject to appropriate privacy settings. Privacy has been one of our ongoing concerns, about which I'll write more in a later post (along with some notes on the development process behind the app).

The Course Comments feature started out as a Facebook comment wall, although we have since instituted a custom built wall. Whilst this means we host the comments and are in a sense responsible for them, it does mean we can remove a comment if it is flagged to us as offensive or abusive by application users.

The Find A Study Buddy feature starts to leverage the course code declaration network that we are beginning to map out. When a users tries to find a Study Buddy for a course, other users who have declared the same course, and whose privacy settings allow an introduction to be made to the user looking for a Study Buddy, are listed. A message can then be sent via the application to the potential Study Buddy.

A ranking algorithm is used by the Study Buddy finder tool, although you'll have to wait for a later post to find out more about it;-)

A further social tool is the ability to recommend a course to a friend. As well as promoting the application, there are obvious potential marketing benefits to the OU here (it would be handy if the OU offered an affiliate scheme, so we could get a percentage if anyone signed up to a course as a result a Couse Profiles app recommendation?;-).

However, our intention has not been to develop a marketing tool - as a skunkworks team, we have been more interested in exploring the potential for cross-unit, agile application development (working on the outside, inside!) and the possibility of leveraging both the Facebook social network, and our users' self-declared OU course codes network, as a way of building OU student communities.

At the time of writing, there are approximately 3,500 members of the Open University Network on Facebook, and about 800 in the Open University Group (which is the group I believe Facebook users who cannot join the OU Network (no *.open.ac.uk email address, I guess?) but who do want to participate in a general OU community, align themselves with).

The OU Course Profiles application has - as of 19/10/07 - almost 300 users, growing at several(?!) a day. It will be interesting to see how the app propagates through these two communities over the coming weeks, and whether anyone finds it OUseful ;-)

PS You'll notice that we called the application "Course Profiles" rather than "Open University Course Profiles". That's because it scales... if you want to know more, mail me...

PPS as well as adding OU course codes to the app, you can also add OpenLearn unit codes. So if you're interested in a particular OpenLearn unit, add the course unit code to your profile and see who else is interested :-)

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Posted by ajh59 at October 19, 2007 11:08 PM