The Mobile Playground: Can Databases and iPads Play Nice?

Kelly Meadow, University of Oregon Libraries

Ngoc-Yen Tran, University of Oregon Libraries

Slide 1: No notes

Slide 2: Imagine being able to take library instruction anywhere with a wireless internet connection, regardless of space constraints or technology capabilities, giving students hands-on experience with library resources.

There is a teaching space at the Knight Library at the University of Oregon that no librarian wants to reserve for instruction. Kelly Meadow was completing an internship in the Reference and Research Services Department at the University of Oregon Libraries as Yen Tran and Barbara Jenkins were exploring options to break free from spaces such as the one at Knight Library. Kelly and Yen collaborated on this study that takes the first practical step in understanding how tablets can be used to create a kind of mobile classroom or mobile playground.

Slide 3: Tablets offer us the opportunity to take library instruction to any classroom, regardless of layout or computer options.

Looking at library literature, we saw that the use of tablets for formal library instruction was very sparse. Most of the literature address the topics of reference services (think: roving librarians), tablet lending programs, use in clinical settings, and use for self-guided tours.

Examples of library instruction with tablets included:

  • Using QR codes (or Quick Response codes) to conduct library sessions (think: scavenger hunt)
  • At the University of Wyoming, the librarians adapted a concept mapping activity usually done on paper into tablet format with a first year composition course
  • Boston College Law School, librarians piloted iPads in a semester-long upper-level credit legal course

Effectiveness varied: of the studies mentioned above, some found students to be more engaged using a tablet while others found it distracting for students and not effective. Even so, the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report Higher Education Edition has included tablet computing on their list of influential technologies for teaching and learning since 2010. Their 2013 report indicated that tablets were “proving to be powerful tools for learning inside and outside of the classroom.” Additionally, tablet ownership is on the rise. According to a Pew study, tablet ownership amongst U.S. adults 18+ has doubled to 34% in 2013. With this, it has become more important for us to look at how library resources (specifically databases) functioned on tablets.

Prior to our research, we did not have a good idea of how well our primary playground (that is: library databases), functioned on a tablet. So we designed a study to determine the feasibility of using iPads for library instruction.

Slide 4: Before we begin, we want you to try accessing your favorite database (or maybe your go-to database) from a tablet and imagine that you are demoing it to a class. Focus on what worked and what did not work.

  • What worked and what did not work?
  • Have you used iPads for library instruction?
  • Have you used your library databases on an iPad and what was the experience like?

Slide 5: We decided to visit each of the library’s databases listed on the A-Z list with an iPad and compare the experience with a desktop computer. In order to measure what we tested, we looked at five basic functions used during an instruction session:

  • Presentation of the page: We looked at whether or not the page presented itself as it should on the iPad. We were not measuring the actual design of the page.
  • Access to multimedia content: The iPad does not play nicely with Flash and Java, so we looked at how multimedia displayed in each database.
  • Database specific tools: This category is somewhat ambiguous. If a database offered special tools that were important to that database, such as citation mapping, or exporting citations, we looked at how well these things worked. Most of the tools measured were citation export tools, which might be less essential to many lower level students.
  • Email full-text: The personal nature of the iPad requires that an individual email account be associated with the device in order to email one’s self a PDF. It is preferable in an instruction session if the students have the ability to email a PDF or HTML full text within the database itself. We evaluated each database for this feature. Databases offering citation indexes, abstracting, or audio and video streaming were coded as “not applicable.”  Databases featuring full text articles, digital collections, data, tables, or visual material were considered to be full text.
  • Separate app required: If a database required a separate app in order to function on an iPad, it would create a barrier to an instruction session. Thus, we looked to see if an app was required.

Slide 6: After identifying what functions we wanted to measure, we created a coding system that divided each task into four areas of functionality:

  • Fully functional: This meant that the task was completed as expected. Or, in other words, the task functioned exactly as it would if it was being accessed from a laptop or desktop.
  • Requires workaround: Sometimes there is a workaround. For example, if the in-database PDF is not functioning, there is the option to save and view the PDF in iBooks. If functionality is compromised in some way, it was also coded a this.
  • Not functional: When all is lost and functionality cannot be resolved or the task is not possible within the database, it was coded as not functional.
  • Not applicable: Not all the functions tested was available in every databased. Therefore, this code was used when the task did not apply to that particular database. For example, databases without multimedia materials. 

Slide 7: Responsive web design is an approach that takes the user into account, which also includes looking at screen size. In other words, how can the user’s experience with the website be optimized so that resizing, zooming, and panning is not required - especially on a smaller screen. That’s why we decided to look at the presentation of the content and design of the page.

Overall, the databases had very little issue displaying content on an iPad versus a desktop or laptop computer. 380 (91.1%) were fully functional, 23 (5.5%) required a work-around, 9 (32.2%) were simply not functional, and 5 (1.2%) were not applicable. The not applicable results were due to databases whose servers were down or the database could not be evaluated in some way.

The reasons varied for the databases that were not functional, but a lot had do with Java and Flash issues, the need to download additional software before use, or the page would not load.

Databases that had workarounds included the usual suspects when you think about viewing webpages on a smaller screen: incorrect display of features, menu, options, and content. The other issues were responsive web design issues including the inability to see the entire screen without having to scroll left and right, text being so small you had to zoom in, and content-dense pages. There were even one or two incidences where the entire left or right side of the page was cut off entirely.

Slide 8: If we look at the top 7 vendors, the results also look good. There is one vendor that stands out because as the 3rd largest vendor with 43 databases, many of the databases required a workaround or were not functional.

Slide 9: Out of the 418 databases listed, only 126 (30.1%) of the total databases offered multimedia content. A major concern while beginning the study was the iPad's inability to use Adobe Flash or Java, however there were only five databases that exclusively required some sort of software that was not installed on the iPad. The majority of the partially functional databases were coded as such because the multimedia content was in a variety of formats and functionality depended upon the format of the content.

Slide 10: If we focus on the darker gray areas of this figure, we can see that ProQuest, Gale, and Alexander Street Press pose some problems. However, the majority (77%) of applicable databases with multimedia content were fully or partially functional. For instruction, this means that a tablet classroom and the use of tablets to demonstrate multimedia materials is not a large hurdle.

Slide 11: Some databases have specific or specialized tools available to researchers, such as citation export options, visualization tools, table or graph creation, and data exportation.

Although this category of evaluation is somewhat ambiguous due to the variety of tools available within databases of various subjects,  the majority of the non-functioning and partially functioning tools were those involving the exportation of citations. Many citation export tools within databases require that a .txt or .ris file be downloaded, and this is not possible on an iPad. In cases where the citation could be automatically loaded into software by logging into an online account on the web, the citation software could be more useful to students. The use of citation export tools is likely limited to upper level or graduate students, whereas data visualization or data exportation tools may have more significance to a broader student population. 

Overall, the tools available within a database were functional.

Slide 12: When considering the top 7 most common vendors, it is clear that tools do not pose a problem for library instruction, especially since these activities may not be widely used among introductory courses and undergraduates.

Slide 13: Often, library sessions allocate time at the end of class for students to explore the databases themselves and to begin looking for sources for the assignment. Emailing full-text to themselves is an essential function in this process. This area, we found, was the most problematic of our results. Of the 418 databases tested, 92 (22.1%) were fully functional, 5 (1.2%) databases required some sort of work-around, 176 (42.2%) were simply not functional, and 144 (34.5%) of the databases were coded as not applicable. In other words, excluding the non-applicable databases, almost 2 out of 3 databases do not allow students to email full text articles to themselves.

But the overall picture is not completely lost because there could be workarounds for this issue. An idea we thought of was to create a generic account on each iPad and sending the PDF from there via “iBooks”. This option would require extra maintenance and IT staff time as well as privacy concerns for students, which is why even if this was a workaround, we still coded the database as not functional.

Slide 14: Depending on the vendor, the ability of email full-text is slightly better. For example, all of EBSCOhost’s applicable databases (30 out of 54) were fully functional. The reason for this is that the email option is a pop-up window within the database where the email can be sent from; Gale and ProQuest require the email to be sent from the email account set up on the tablet.

Slide 15: As the results indicate, a separate app or specific software is not required for a database to operate on an iPad. Even so, thinking about responsive web design, many of the vendors have created separate apps for their resources. According to recent studies (ComScore White Paper referenced in Library Technology Reports) we know that users overwhelmingly prefer native apps to web apps, so that should be taken into consideration when considering the apps available from vendors.

These are just some examples. We did not explore separate apps because we wanted to look more at accessing the database via a pre-installed app on every device: the web browser. There is endless potential for developing library instruction sessions based solely on vendor apps. Whether or not vendors have native apps that offer the same capabilities and results as the desktop version would require further research.  

Slide 16: If we are simply considering our results, there are some barriers, such as emailing full text, that would require some sort of work-around resulting in extra IT staff time and maintenance. It is also important to know the specific limitations of the databases requiring Flash and Java.

The set-up and maintenance of the mobile classroom would require a significant investment of time from staff. Ultimately, students’ comfort or discomfort with this technology could require extra time during a 50 minute instruction session. It is worth considering whether or not the benefits of flexibility and mobility outweigh the costs of staff time and class time. As use of tablets increases over time, and practices such as responsive web design become more prolific, hopefully these barriers will dissipate.

Slide 17: We now know that databases function relatively well on an iPad, and this will likely improve as tablets become more prolific. Overall, the presentation of the page was comparable to that of a desktop or laptop computer. Tools that are specific to the databases worked relatively well. Access to multimedia content was less of an issue than expected. And when we look at common vendors, the results get better. Emailing full-text of articles is less than ideal but it is also dependent on vendors.

With these kinds of results, are we given the go ahead to invest in the Mobile Playground?

Slide 18: Please contact us with questions or further information.

Slide 19: No notes