As part of the evaluation process for the SCARLET Project, I ran a focus group on 16 November 2011 for the students in Dr. Guyda Armstrong’s “Beyond the Text: The Book and Its Body”. During the hour-long session, I asked some fairly open-ended questions about their own individual use of mobile technology, feeding into their experiences of using the SCARLET app with the iPads provided at the John Rylands Library in Deansgate. Most students stated unequivocally that they found the technology to be quite easy to use. Even among the most critical of the students, she reported that she could see the ability to collate and create links among the different texts, as well as other areas of research, which is something we wanted to underscore with the application. As is often the case, students have restricted access to such valuable editions, and the app allows for “direct” but virtual access to ten of the fifteen extant Dante editions housed in the library. Moreover, they stated that the use of Augmented Reality, or AR, gives them the opportunity to see and to anticipate some additional connections as they conduct research. In any enterprise where students are working with a text, the ability to see how it relates to other texts, other voices, and other contexts is vitally important. The SCARLET project was designed to give students this unique opportunity with a technology that is cutting edge, important, and most significantly, useful, predominantly because it was designed via a collaboration among academics, librarians, and others involved in pedagogical practices. These evaluations are designed to include the student voice as a means of continuing its design and development.
Many of the students had some interesting initial worries about how a technology like the SCARLET app and AR might work in a class where the primary text is meant to be the focus and purpose of their work throughout the term. They warned that it is often the case that we invite various nuances into the classroom, simply because they are novel and seemingly cutting-edge, whereas the reality is that they detract from the essential exercise of getting students engaged in the material. Despite this warning, these students simultaneously showed a critical awareness, not just of the course aims and objectives, but of the usefulness and reasons for the marriage between a traditional Special Collections-type experience with the technology.
The biggest suggestion for improvement came from the criticism that the app almost seemed superfluous because the information was available in quite a few different places, i.e., the videos of how to use the app were both available on the iPads, as well as in Blackboard. This criticism is certainly one that the SCARLET team have taken on board. Our job is to show, not just how integrative the app can be with university study, but that it has an inherent value of its own, which cannot be duplicated in other forms of distance learning. As a piece of software engineering, the app should not stand alone without the contexts of primary research; it is meant to work in conjunction with the texts in a specific context of research, not simply provide something that removes the student from the exercise and experience. One student systematically called attention to the fact that he never wanted a technology to replace his own unique experience with the physicality of the book and primary research, which is exactly what the project did not want to remove. The relationships within the physical spaces, and with the thing itself, in some form, remain integral to the purposes behind the development of the app in a Special Collections setting.
The eight students also indicated that they were satisfied with the project so far, and anticipated that it would have an additional future benefit, particularly when they turned to writing their essays (to date, they have only produced a case study, which meant they have not yet had to use the app for very long). They pointed that the experience was not the same as “being with the book”, but that it was satisfying in a different way. And finally, they also realised the importance and potential necessity in learning and conducting research with AR and the app, in part because they sensed that investment in AR and technology like the SCARLET app are part of the future direction in education and pedagogical practice. When asked if they would recommend this type of module to their friends, the answer was a qualified yes: as long as the technology was integrated well with the material and its use was understandable and relevant to the study, it would be a good idea.
Overall, the evaluation was largely positive, illustrating the recognition that one purpose of the SCARLET project was to help the students to, in Dante’s vision, “follow virtue and knowledge”, by highlighting the uniqueness of one type of textual study in a situation where the technology augments and improves on the possibilities of that experience.
The SCARLET team hope to use the valuable feedback gained to inform the next development phase: enhancing the existing content by instilling the technology to the physicality of the book and bringing the two closer together to form a more conjoined user experience. In changing the presentation mechanisms, the user should become less conscious of the technology and more engaged with the text, reducing the feeling of disassociation that was prevalent in the initial period of user testing.