Friday, 12 March 2010

Step 2: Solving the Browser-Consistency Dilemma

How do you provide a consistent browser experience?

Firefox Portable has solved one of the biggest dilemmas - not all browsers and machines are the same, and I need to ensure that all students have access to the required tools.

In the past, access to required learning tools was delivered to students on a CD-ROM. For example, Deakin University provided all off-campus students with the Deakin Learning Toolkit:
“Students receive a Deakin Learning Toolkit. This contains basic written material introducing the website, services and support available. They also receive a CD, which gives them the necessary software to become connected and lots of information about support services, how to connect to the web, library resources, faculties and courses. The CD is designed to set up the students with all the necessary resources and information for them to begin their studies.”
Higher bandwidth has overcome most of the distribution challenges of the past. But just try and organise a large group of students to access a particular add-on in a particular browser which must be at a particular version and on a machine with the correct plug-ins and apps installed. Not once has this ever been possible with a 100% success rate in more than a decade of computer lab teaching!

With Firefox Portable, I set up the browser with the add-ons I require students to use. For the media-sharing assignment, I have decided upon the AddThis add-on for Firefox. The choice was based on the ability to restrict the choices of sharing sites in the button to Blogger only. To see the set up, a zip-file containing the full portable browser (as delivered to students) is available here.

With a class of over 60, separated into two computer labs, the first shock was to see the entire class turn up to a workshop which is deemed quasi-compulsory. The next challenge was that every fifth computer did not have java installed, so registering for a Google account required access to a mobile phone to retrieve the SMS code. Surprisingly, most of the students simply entered their phone numbers, retrieved the code, and wetn on with their registration.

By the end of the one-hour workshop, every student had registered a Google account, logged into the blog (I had to mass email the students beforehand and add late enrolments during the class), and posted a comment. Some had even downloaded Firefox Portable and added it to their student desktop (on the roaming profile). Those who had installed Firefox Portable had all attempted the use of the AddThis add-on. In the next workshop, this process will be complete and we should be able to start with the blogging and media-sharing the week after.

Lessons for next time: Ensure everybody has a Google account before arriving and have full written or video-recorded instructions on how to download and install Firefox Portable. Also, check whether the roaming profile is big enough to handle the 35mb required by Firefox.

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