Category Archives: Planning

Developing an Oxplore toolkit

This week we met with access/school liaison officers from Oxford’s colleges and faculties to discuss how Oxplore can underpin their face-to-face work in the next academic year. It was one of the starkest findings from our pilot study that areas with an element of face-to-face interaction with young people spent much longer on the site and had higher numbers of page views. Common sense always suggested this would be the case, but the difference was very noticeable. So, with thousands of contact hours across the University’s various access programmes each year, we feel that equipping the wider community with the tools to disseminate Oxplore could make a big difference!

The good news is that those who attended our workshop were keen to include Oxplore as part of their work. From our discussions, it is clear that we do need to think about how ‘Big Questions’ and the Oxplore approach can work within existing structures which often focus on introductions to university. Beyond the colleges, we need to consider how faculties with their specific subject knowledge can build on the ideas while retaining the subject specificity that is important to them. There were also suggestions as to how we can link our activities with wider concerns such as helping older students to not just have ideas, but to structure their arguments well.

We want to make resources available in a format that works ‘out of the box’, we also want to provide the tools without being too prescriptive or limiting. One of the colleges (Mansfield) has already been using some of the workshop tasks we devised for groups of 25-30 with groups of 60-90. As outreach practitioners, they are flexible and creative! If we can do a bit of groundwork, our colleagues working in outreach have the skills to make them work.

And, to draw on those skills, we challenged the group to come up with the start of workshop ideas we could build on – so we have 3-4 workable draft activities already!




So what makes a big question big?

Since the beginning of the project, the team has been keen to pinpoint what exactly makes a question big and truly engaging to our target audience. Discussions with our original user consultation group combined with findings from the most recent pilot and data analytics have contributed to our understanding of this. Likewise, entries to our Big Question competition have given us a flavour of the range of topics which appeal to young people. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of what we’ve found…

Topics which are not traditionally covered in the classroom generally tended to attract longer visits from students on the site (e.g. do guns hurt more people than they protect?). Interestingly, this supports Oxplore’s aim to go beyond what’s learnt in school and engage students with subjects and debates they might not have ever considered before.

The weird and the wonderful – which included time travel, aliens and ghosts-  cropped up time and time again in the competition entries, and in the top rated and viewed lists suggesting that teens are intrigued by some of the world’s big mysteries which test human understanding. No pressure for our academics and content developers then :)!



The morbidly curious topics such as ‘is the death penalty ok?’ seemed popular with the age group. Perhaps again because this is not likely to covered by their teachers. A couple of competition entries also indicated an interest in what happens after death with a particularly interesting entry being: ‘what happens after we die, do we wake up?’

Topics linked to power and truth fared well (e.g. can we live without laws? Should under 18’s be allowed to vote? Should you believe the history books?) Perhaps this relates to how young people are often presented with little choice but at the same time overwhelmed with vast amounts of information from those around them (teachers, parents, their peers, the Internet etc.). In light of this, it may be difficult for them to decipher what is true and what is useful. Maybe envisioning a world where there could be more freedom is an exciting prospect?

The future was a hot topic (e.g. ‘would you want to live forever?’) and a repeated theme in the competition entries (e.g. ‘Should we colonise other planets in the future?’). This was not altogether surprising considering the young age of the target audience and how at school they are likely asked to consider what they want to do post-exams and beyond. Also with all the unrest shown in local and global news, the world must seem like a pretty unpredictable place right now – to your average teenager- who can see a host of upcoming unknowns.


So there it is- what makes an Oxplore question big and thought-provoking to an 11-18 year old? One which covers a topic that moves away from what’s learnt at school, one that’s mysterious and slightly unusual in nature, one which challenges the information they’re already exposed to, and one that allows them to dig deeper into future unknowns.

We now look towards our next pilot study which’ll focus on the user journey and try to extrapolate what it is that keeps a student engaged as they navigate through a big question. This will be incredibly useful to us as we continually try to develop our materials to make them relevant, informative and interesting for young people to venture through.

Watch this space (because something is about to happen)

Oxplore will be on limited release from next week with our first portal pilot. To get the portal to this stage we’ve had many things to bring together in the past few weeks. It has been fairly intense…!

Before the pilot, we’ve had to finish off aspects of our work that have been central to our activity for the past 6 months. We had our last technical development sprint of this phase, and we’re delighted that our development team have ticked as much as was possible off the to do list. The site is functionally ready for our pilot – and is optimised for mobile and tablet.

oxplore-posterOur designers have put some finishing touches to the site designs. We’ve also had some posters produced which have some of the same visual impact as the main site. These have already been distributed to schools in the North East of England – and are hopefully going to be adorning the walls of corridors and classrooms there soon,

Our content writers have sent us over the last of our content, we’ve loaded it into the site CMS and a team of reviewers including early career researchers and educational specialists have been reviewing it and suggesting tweaks. Live next week, we’ll have 15 questions for our users to explore – with over 225 different content items including lists, quizzes, podcasts, videos and articles. Not too shabby.

While this point has marked the end of some of these aspects of our work, having a live portal ready for our users also marks the start of wholly new tasks and challenges for the Oxplore team. In the coming weeks we’ll be running school workshops, focus groups, presenting at a student conference and firing on our social media cylinders for the first time. In the background, we’ll also be planning more content and for what further technical development we need to undertake before the national launch.

While our development timescale has been incredibly swift, I feel like I’ve been telling everyone I meet to ‘watch this space’ for a long time. Finally, that space is about to be filled!

Happy Holidays from Oxplore

The close of the calendar year always prompts reflection. For the Oxplore team, 2016 has been an incredibly busy time.

For one thing, this time last year the project did not formally exist!  While it can feel like much remains protean it is fair to say that we have achieved much. We have a concept, plans aplenty, the start of a strong brand identity and an end-to-end user journey fully coded and waiting for polish in the New Year. To top all of that, our first batch of content is rolling off the production line in time for Christmas!

2017 holds much promise for us. The portal will be shared with the public and particularly our target audience for the first time. We’ll be coming to life properly on social media and through face-to-face activities. We’ll also be able to engage our University colleagues with the potential of Oxplore for their outreach activities.

Our developers, designers, content producers and the project team are all been working right up until the University closes. Our last development sprint of 2016 covered the site headers and static pages including all the legal statements.

And, most exciting for me, sitting under the tree from our design team is a preview site and a short video – ready to share in January 2017!

Where we’re going next


In early 2017 we’re going to be testing all our activities in the real world with a regional pilot trial. We’ll be trialling the marketing on social media, face-to-face activities with schools and the evaluation frameworks which will measure the impact of our interventions. We’ll also be generally seeking feedback on the site and performance through these face-to-face meetings and through our site analytics. The information we gather will help to inform our planning for the future, and allow us to make some tweaks to the user experience before the national launch later in 2017.

In the past week we’ve been doing some fact finding about our chosen pilot region, the North East of England, with the college access officers already working in the area. Each Oxford and Cambridge college has a link region (find yours!), and Zoë Triston from Trinity and Shona Quinn from St Annes have a wealth of experience (as well as up-to-date contacts lists).

We invited them along to a workshop and sought their input on the types of schools we could approach. It has been helpful to take a longer view on the school’s history of engagement with Oxford – both high and low. We also asked for their help in planning an engaging face-to-face activity and on the practicalities of working with such a geographically distant area from Oxford.

With technical development delivering slices of content each fortnight, the site is looking more and more real. The end to end user journey is almost done.I’m looking forward to realising some of our ideas in classrooms in the North East soon after Christmas. It’ll be the first time that our users will be able to use the portal in the real world.

Space shuttle Discovery in orbit

Reflecting on our journey of discovery

Last week, as we blogged, we undertook some intensive workshops with our technical developers One Ltd as part of their project ‘discovery’ phase. We were able to share our work and thinking so far on branding, content and what the portal might do. This will help One put together proposals for development throughout the Autumn and early Winter.

Beyond information sharing, though, we also took the time and space to tackle the thorny issues that need to be addressed. Sharpies, flipcharts, coffee and biscuits were all required to stimulate in depth consideration. The relative prioritisation of ‘perfection’ was weighed against ‘security’ and  ‘maintainability’ on the Fibonacci sequence. Educational websites from TED Ed to How Stuff Works were interrogated – how are we similar and how are we different? In response to this our brand vision was slightly elongated to better reflect our links to the University of Oxford. Potential user journeys snaked around the walls on flipcharts and personas were summoned into being. In order words – we were highly productive!

In Summertown (North Oxford) this week, One Ltd are converting our reams of ideas into proposals for us to consider. They described it as ‘going into a dark room’, but hopefully it will be full of bright ideas. In central Oxford we’re continuing to think on the issues raised – especially around content. What is it feasible to launch with? How much is enough? What is the balance between filling a site with content and making sure that content is the right stuff?

The Discovery Phase begins…

oneThis week we are very delighted to be starting work with our chosen technical developer One Ltd. Based in Oxford, we will be working closely with their team of technical and creative professionals on developing the portal in the coming months.

We will be taking part in intensive ‘discovery’ workshops throughout this week to help clarify our ambitions and goals to help One Ltd set about making them tangible. Within our small team (and from our colleagues) we’ve already got lots of ideas for what our portal should be able to do, but refining those into technical work packages and specifications is a substantial challenge. (For example, my vision of a digital learning ‘mind palace’ has some fairly advanced technical requirements!) With so many approaches floating in the ether, we need to focus on our outcomes and outputs from this early stage to ensure we can achieve them.

memory palace

Of course, we also need to work out how we work best with One Ltd, how we manage the risks inherent in our ambitious schedule, and how we deliver what we need to provide. This is without a doubt a significant milestone for us – but an incredibly exciting moment as we really start to shape the portal and make it a reality.