Category Archives: Development

Looking back (and forward)

Danielle Lloyd, has been with the Oxplore team on a five-month Ambitious Futures placement. As she leaves for her next challenge, she reflects on working with Oxplore and across Widening Access & Participation at Oxford.

My placement with the Oxplore team is (sadly) coming to an end. It’s been an exciting time to be involved in such an innovative and fast moving project, and I’ve had the opportunity to learn lots about widening access and participation along the way. I’ve collected together a few examples of practices I think are important in outreach work…

Tracking and evaluation

Within the Widening Access and Participation team and across the collegiate university, there is an abundance of excellent outreach work taking place. Evaluating these activities has a range of benefits, including informing future outreach practice, providing evidence for continual investment in outreach, ensuring that activities are engaging and meeting the needs of their target audience, and sharing best practice (both within and outside of the institution).

The breadth and variety of practice at Oxford provides opportunity to track and evaluate many types of outreach, but this can also present challenges. How do we evaluate consistently across the university in a way that is effective and time-efficient? A new evaluation framework seeks to address some of these challenges by offering a flexible framework (including suggested survey questions and evaluation format) that can be used by all outreach practitioners. This will also integrate with HEAT (the Higher Education Access Tracker) which is a great tool for a joined up evaluation technique, not just within the university but across all partner institutions.

My experience so far is that whilst evaluation can be challenging and time-consuming, its benefits for effective outreach outweigh the costs.

Collaborative working

Following on from the idea of sharing best practice through evaluation, I have also experienced the importance of sharing resources, knowledge and experience in outreach work. For example, the Oxplore team has been creating (learning) materials (e.g. engaging workshop plans, colourful flyers and lots of branded goodies) to share with college and departmental outreach officers. Working with the wider outreach community in this way gives us an avenue to share Oxplore with a wide range of young people, but also gives outreach officers a new way to share academic research through an engaging Big Questions workshop.

Within Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, a recent move to a bigger office where the majority of teams are now sitting together increases the potential for collaborative working between outreach, recruitment and communications teams. It can be small things, like sharing a list of annual awareness days for social media marketing, but also bigger things like sending 1000s of flyers to schools and UCAS fairs across the country!

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Student involvement

During my time at Oxford, every outreach project I have worked on has included some kind of involvement from student ambassadors, which has a hugely important impact. Students can offer a perspective on Oxford that many staff can’t, and are much more likely to be someone that young people can relate to. At the UNIQ Summer Schools, the Lauriston Lights camp and our own launch day, I saw the ambassadors build a rapport with the participants which engaged and welcomed them in a situation that had the potential to be very intimidating.

launch students
The Oxplore team with student ambassadors Amy, Alastair, Serena and Rebecca

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve learnt with Oxplore, and across Widening Access and Participation. I intend to take this all with me to my next role in a FE college (and beyond!).

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Reflecting on Oxplore Live

One aspect of the Oxplore launch that was new for the University and for Oxplore was an interactive live stream for schools that we ran on Monday 18th September. We saw this as a way to reach schools across the country and involve them in our launch activities – and also as a way to trial a digital engagement model for working with schools on a more regular basis.

As with the Oxplore website, the content was key, and we chose to discuss our launch Big Question ‘Would you want to live forever’ with a panel of experts from different disciplines. We needed to ensure when our academic specialists signed up they knew what they were agreeing to… We wanted to be open to questions from young people watching which meant they had to up for tackling whatever came their way! Thankfully Professor Alison Woollard, Dr Jonathan Jong and Dr Cressida Ryan were up for the challenge.

We were keen to ensure we had a ‘chair’ who was as comfortable with academics as they were with a camera. Former Oxford student and science YouTuber Simon Clark  was willing to take a bit of time away from the last weeks of his PhD at the University of Exeter to help us out with this. We were very grateful since even with the heat of the studio lights and a live broadcast he was unflappable!

Broadcasting live from Oxford to schools was always a risk since we know from our school visits that the technology in schools varies greatly… They don’t all necessarily have the most up-to-date browsers, they might block certain websites and social media, and how exactly their networks and hardware are set up seems different in every school. To give us the best chance of success in reaching their classrooms we worked with Educational Media Services at the University’s IT Services to broadcast through livestream.com (avoiding blocked social media domains) from their basement studio (to ensure connectivity was as good as it could be from our end). Of course, there was still a risk out of our control that the school might not have the right plugin or a patchy wifi – which we could only really mitigate by giving a link to test connection with our joining instructions.

While we were briefing our panel members and running through the technical requirements and a dress rehearsal, we invited teachers to register through Eventbrite. This was helpful to us to get an idea of interest, but also so we could send teachers extra resources in advance – some materials for the students to complete while the stream was live, and other ideas of extension activities for teachers to extend the session or run a follow up activity another day.

Since this was our first event like this, we did have some enquiries about how it would work and how best to deliver it. Some schools were able to have students log on individually or in pairs in PC rooms, while others broadcast through a projector with everyone watching the screen. From our point of view, it does make this kind of activity hard to measure because it isn’t clear how many people we are reaching, but for schools it is good to know it can work both ways.

As with every event, we did have a little bit of anxiety about how it will be received, and the technical requirements did add another layer of complexity. We did need two members of the Oxplore team to monitor comments on the stream and social media – not only to choose questions to put to the panel, but to watch out for any abusive comments too. And, once we’d gone live it was over in a flash!

Our analysis shows that we had viewers in over 50 different towns and cities in the UK. We also had around 200 comments and questions from our viewers, as well as 478 viewers tuned in live. We’re pleased with these statistics for our first go at using a live broadcast to reach schools in this way! The whole process was a learning experience for our team and we hope to build on this success and run more streams like this in the coming months.

You can watch our broadcast again here.

Oxplore live stream team
Danielle and Alex from the Oxplore team with Simon, Alison, Jonathan and Cressida off air.

Oxplore is officially launched!

Oxplore has officially launched for all to see, use and share. Phew.

At one level, this launch marks the end of technical development which has pulled together a robust site which meets our vision for the Home of Big Questions and responds to user feedback. It also marks a point where we have delivered a substantial enough amount of content that we are sure our users can get lost on the site and dig deep into resources.

However, any good website is an organic thing. We’re already working on more content and our communications going forwards. Now that users can register we can’t wait to engage more with them.

A hard date, though, is a good time to reflect on a few facts and figures from our past 18-months!

Over the coming weeks the team are taking some down-time as well as reflecting on the success of the launch activities. (More on those another time).

Some bells and whistles

Throughout the summer, our technical development team have been working hard on the Oxplore site to add new features. These haven’t been released to the main site yet – we’re waiting until our national launch. We have been adding some new Big Questions to the live site over the past two months though – including Can money buy happiness? and Should under 18s be allowed to vote?

The first feature the developers worked on was a reworking of our homepage. In the current site the format was in block panels of 1 question, 6 questions, 1 question, 6 questions etc. Our focus groups showed that young people liked the principle of this design, but they wanted different ways to navigate too. They’ll soon be able to see new, trending or topical questions first as we have a way to pin questions to the top. They’ll also be able to navigate questions through themes (since as we’re nearing 35 questions, it can get a bit overwhelming). You can preview it in the short video below!

Under the hood, we’ve also developed user registration and a whole host of related features including commenting on Big Questions after voting, bookmarking resources you liked for later, controlling your contact and privacy options and navigating the homepage as a logged in user. We also needed to do a little set up for the live stream element of our national launch.

Plus, to allow us to make the Big Questions themselves more dynamic we’ve developed some new resource types like scrolling image galleries, pros and cons lists, and (better) ways to display images in existing resources like articles and lists.

And, finally, we’ve also been addressing bugs with how the site performs on different devices and enhancing the analytics we can gather to help us monitor the effectiveness of the portal.

It has certainly been a packed summer for the developers… It is exciting to see the site growing in this way, and to know that we have been building functionality that has been rated highly by the users we spoke to in our pilot (particularly our May/June pilot which fed into what we prioritised and how they work).

The last development sprint ends tomorrow – on schedule! Phew.

Focus group design for teens

In the first half of 2017, our work has been largely defined by the two pilot phases in which we’ve been sharing Oxplore with specific groups and regions. When we haven’t been travelling to schools to meet with young people, we’ve been planning these visits and working out what feedback we most need to shape the development.

Gathering this feedback has been incredibly helpful – and taking the time to pilot Oxplore has been very worthwhile. We have run 12 focus groups with 162 young people, and each one of them has surprised us with their ability to grasp not only what we are trying to achieve, but how we can use the digital tools to achieve our aims. Their digital upbringing was particularly noticeable in our recent visits to the East Midlands where we were discussing UX, interface and technical features. They were clear on what they expected from a website – and many even bandied about terms like ‘OAuth’, ‘CAPTCHA’ and ‘hamburger menu’ like developers!

A challenging aspect of these visits has been coming up with activities that help us to gauge their true feelings in an engaging way while still getting the data we needed. We were clear that the traditional focus group format of sitting around talking was not going to work for our groups – we needed something to keep their attention. We merged our need for qualitative feedback with sessions designed to be both reflective and interactive.  To gauge their preferred other websites, they voted in ‘Web Awards’ which not only asked them to reflect on the features of the sites they most like to frequent, but gave us evidence of user interfaces we might seek to emulate. To help us prioritise the development of new features, they spent ‘cash’ (ahem, stickers) on the features stuck up around the room. To help us refine the scope of those features, they looked at site designs and answered prompts about the process of registration, commenting and more.

While collating the outcome of these activities and more, we’ve also been reflecting in the team and with our developers how simply letting the young people loose with a tablet or PC in a computer room is in itself an excellent barometer of how well the site achieves its aims. In many cases we struggled to get the young people off of the site and onto the tasks. In a few schools they even used the Inspect Element function to view the CSS and temporarily edit the site to what they thought it should look like… (more Big Questions about footballers, apparently).

inspect element editor

With technical development now back underway, our next task is to ensure that we make the very best of all this input.

Reaching ‘Generation Zzz’

The aspect of the Oxplore project that I am asked about most often is how we are using social media to reach our target audience of 11-18 year olds. This group are naturally social media savvy – indeed in some of the schools we’ve been in thus far, pupils have described social media as one of their main ‘hobbies’! However, this group are also notoriously hard to market to – often referred to as  ‘Generation Zzzz’. So, we’ve been using the past months and our pilot periods to test what works to ensure we divert our efforts to the most effective tasks when we launch nationally.

Our starting point is by ensuring we are everywhere our users are – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Snapchat. If another network pops up and grows in popularity – we will move there too. This is a necessary flexibility in the social world. We’re already slightly victim to the more private networks like WhatsApp that our audience are moving towards.

social-media-2173511_640We have a fairly busy programme of scheduled ‘organic’ or free content. Throughout both our pilots, I’ve been scheduling educational but easy to digest content around the theme of ‘Big Question of the Week’. This is a content-led approach which helps us build up our reputation for interesting and provocative approaches.

In this organic content, each network has its own challenges and opportunities. For example, on Instagram it obviously has to be a visual post and the current scheduling option from Hootsuite is not ideal, but hashtagging makes the content very discoverable. On Facebook, it is tough to break out from those who have already decided to follow your page but the content delivery types are very varied.

We are advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Thus far, my general opinion is that the targeting options on Facebook and Instagram are more useful for reaching our audience because we can segment by age into the 13-18 age group.

Twitter does reach a large audience and the clickthroughs are actually slightly higher over the period, but the segmentation options do not give me enough reassurance that we are reaching young people. Twitter does not gather date of birth or more detailed information about the users, it segments by interests and some characteristics as well as location. The trends seem to suggest 11-18 year olds are less active on Twitter, and their number (11.7% of all users) is dwarfed by the 18+ demographic.

Facebook and Instagram both offer much more tailoring because of the information they hold on the users. It is very easy to build up a profile by age and location (down to the km) and include potential interests from an unlimited support. While the anecdotal wisdom I’ve heard always suggested that younger people were less interested in Facebook, statistics suggest 84% of the demographic have a Facebook account.

I’m using the pilot period to trial different advert types and target different segments. The main purpose here is to see how broad or narrow to set the audience for the best return. For example, in one test I ran a split test across three groups: one for every young person in the region, one for young people with some specifics (like maybe they liked science or reading) and their current level of education, and another targeting down to specific groups they might be in or the pages they might follow. There is something a little Goldilocks here, and the evidence so far suggests that Mother Bear’s porridge is getting the most bites!

The social network advert managers do tell me how the ads are performing, the cost per interaction and some of the demographic details (like, for example, all our advertising is currently hitting 2/3 girls and 1/3 boys). However, in creating the advert I’ve taken the time to use the simple campaign URL builder so that I can track the source of the visits through into our Google Analytics. This shows me that in general most of our mobile referrals spend a shorter time on the site than users coming from our sources (like Googling us). So, getting them there through social media is only one part of the challenge when dealing with Generation Zzzz….

 

Oxplore is now on limited release

We’re very pleased to announce that www.oxplore.org is now on limited release. The portal we have built at this stage features 15 Big Questions, including around 225 individual articles, quizzes, lists and videos. Questions already live include ‘Is a robot a person?’ and ‘Does a god exist?’.

We’re currently using this limited release portal for pilot activities in the North East of England. Last week we visited 10 schools to introduce the concept through interactive workshops looking at answering and creating complex questions. We travelled through Chester-le-Street, Hartlepool, Durham and Newcastle-upon-Tyne and met 220 pupils from years 7 through 12.

We’re keen that users in our target demographics use the site in this pilot state so we can gather data on their usage, and gather more feedback through surveys and focus groups. The focus of this particular pilot is on content and concept. We want to understand if our content is interesting and appropriate for 11-18 year olds, and if they are as keen on the big question idea as our initial consultative group were.

The project team are keen to reiterate that this isn’t by any means a ‘finished’ Oxplore. We have a list of technical features in our backlog which we will begin to tackle again soon to have them included before our national launch. We also need to fill the site with even more big questions – from ‘Is falling in love bad for you?’ to ‘Do you make your own luck?’.

So, stay tuned right here if you want to continue to hear our occasional project updates. If you’re more interested in the main site you can follow us on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram).