As part of the on-going development of SCARLET, beyond the pilot course, “The Book and Its Body”, a group of Dr. Guyda Armstrong’s first-year students in ITAL10300, “Contemporary Italian Culture” were asked to participate in a focus group on 26 April 2012. As with the pilot course, Matt Ramirez demonstrated the app to the students with the use of the iPads, made available from the John Rylands Library at Deansgate. The app was designed to allow students to gain additional information on 10 of the 15 editions of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, which are housed in the Library. Although the students were not in the Library, they were interested and intellectually engaged with the use of Augmented Reality and its implications with using it in Special Collections. In the session, hand-outs were supplied, which, when scanned with the iPads, meant that the information about the editions became immediately available.
The initial benefit to us with this session was that these students were brand new to this section of the course content and to the app; in that way, we ran an actual focus group, where the participants were able to react “fresh” to the ideas and the technology. The value of a focus group, as opposed to user testing, is precisely in being able to gain that qualitative information from a “newbie” and see what users expect, what they like, and what they find frustrating.
As a population of users, these first year students were again largely aware of AR, but only one student had had any direct experience with it, particularly in Sport. Another student, who initially said that her own engagement with mobile technology was using her phone “as a phone, and nothing more” was the most keen in experimenting with the download of the app and then its use on her own Android Smartphone. When another student voiced some concern that “downloading the app will take a lot of extra time”, that other student was able to reply (much to our delight): “I just did it and it took 2 minutes.”
The majority of the students said that they would recommend a course which uses AR to their friends and colleagues, and, as before, recognised that its use has a great deal of potential in learning more about a subject, a text, or a discipline. These first years also recognised that it could be useful in a range of different kinds of disciplines, including art history and medicine; two students said they could see benefit and value in chemical engineering and maths, where it might not seem directly applicable, particularly with chemical compounds which cannot be handled easily (or at all by first-year undergraduates) and with reference to mathematical principles and their historical contexts. The students were all aware that the app does not replace more traditional-stye research or the experience with the thing itself, such as the text, and a few pointed out that the session would have been better if it had been in Special Collections, where they could see the Dante editions, as well as use the app. Other comments included:
- We can use this as a way of learning how to evaluate key resources
- I like how it has so much of the stuff we need to look at immediately available!
- Generally, I like to get some ideas and then begin my own research; this pushes me to do that more directly because there’s something right here.
- This is really relevant to this course, because the app gives you more information AND you have access to the physical object.
One interesting suggestion to come from the session was the idea of adding something like a “favourites” button, along with the available “share” and “email”, which would allow users to return to items or information that they thought were particularly useful, much as one does with Amazon.
Although a small session, the conversation was interesting, critical and evaluative and fed directly into how the SCARLET Team is developing its toolkit, which will help others in creating other AR-based projects. We’ll also be running additional focus groups with students from Dr. Roberta Mazza’s courses, based on an app for the second-century fragment of the Gospel of St. John.