In between blind-faith and open-source, the advantages of an agile development model

Universities in the UK have been using Student Response Systems (SRS) for many years. The first iterations of this technology followed the usual model with early adopters championing this method of bringing interactivity and engagement into the usually passive lecture model. Innovation was at the level of an individual lecturer or departmental level, rarely was it done at faculty or institution level. But now many universities are implementing this technology for the whole institution and seeking to consolidate their choice of SRS and invest in a single system for the whole campus.

Student Response Systems, like most technology, are in constant development. The main theme is one handset or app per student with questions asked from the front and results displayed immediately. But around this theme manufacturers have woven many variations and innovations are constantly being made. This makes the choice of an SRS university about more than what a particular system can do right now; it is all about how the system will develop and expand in the future.

There are two models for product development. The first is the proprietary model in which the manufacturer takes sole responsibility for developing the product (prohibiting by law modifications by third parties), and the second is the open source model in which the product can be modified and enhanced by anyone as long as the results are shared with the other users of the product. Both models are extremely viable developmental methodologies; the proprietary model has given us the iPhone and the Dyson vacuum cleaner while Open Source has given us free-to-install operating systems such as Linux and Android, and alternatives to proprietary software like Open Office which is a serious competitor to the Microsoft suite of products. But both models also have their drawbacks. With the proprietary model the users have to have a form of blind faith in the manufacturer, trusting them completely to deliver the kinds of changes to the product they want. If the changes are not forthcoming, then there is little the customer can do other than wait to see if they are added in a subsequent update. Open Source offers the ultimate in flexibility, but it requires specialist skills and expertise to fully harness the power of open source development and this is beyond many universities, particularly when new funding regimes are putting a squeeze on costs. Open Source could give you exactly the system you want, customised completely to your needs, but you need money to fund this and time to wait for it to happen.

Ombea is using agile development for its SRS system. This means that new features can be added to the software in weeks rather than months or years. After all, if the user has asked for a particular feature, surely the best thing is to let them have access to it as quickly as possible. Agile development allows rapid innovations to our software, but this needs to be coupled with a secure focus on what the user wants. There is little point adding lots of features which won't be used. To ensure that we develop the system in ways which give maximum benefit to the user community, we spend a great deal of time listening to feedback from users and, crucially, acting on this feedback as quickly as possible. This is the reason why the feedback button within the Ombea software allows you to attach usage logs when necessary, so we can see in detail exactly what you mean when you get in touch.

One example of our agility is the new 2014 design of our PowerPoint toolbar. Our original toolbar worked well but feedback from some of our top customers, as well as that from people we didn't get to partner up with, has led us to revamp the toolbar from the ground up. We had effortless user training in mind for those of you that are in charge of making sure everybody is skilled up, and we think the new design makes it possible to train Ombea users across your campus in mere seconds. And how quickly were we able to revamp our design? The new toolbar started life as a series of sketches in late November 2013 and will be available in the new release of Ombea from January 2014.

So this agile development model, coupled with a constant dialogue with users, gives Ombea a competitive edge when it comes to innovation in Student Response Systems and offers a model where you don't have to put blind faith in the manufacturer or roll your sleeves up and do-it-all-yourself.

Our development team will be at BETT this year and if you want to book an appointment to meet us to discuss your ideas then we're all ears.

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