iwonder: interactive learning from the BBC

The BBC has launched a series of interactive guides about World War One using its new digital learning platform, iwonder.

The BBC has launched a series of interactive guides about World War One using its new digital learning platform, iwonder.

iwonder is a responsive platform that combines archive footage and original content to create immersive online learning resources. Eight guides were launched yesterday to coincide with the start of the BBC’s World War One programming season, another 17 will be released this month and 100 by the end of this year. The platform will also be used to provide guides covering art, food, science, history and religion.

At bbc.co.uk/ww1, users can explore subjects such as poetry’s impact on our understanding of the war, censorship of the press during conflict and how World War One affected women’s rights.

Each guide is a separate web page divided into seven or eight key points and includes original editorial, video and audio content as well as imagery sourced from various archives including the Mary Evans Picture Library, infographics and a ‘where next’ section linking to external sites for further reading.

The BBC says the guides are designed to provide audiences with a deeper understanding of the war and challenge common misconceptions about the conflict. Each features commentary from a different broadcaster or expert, from composer Gareth Malone to journalist Katie Adie and historians Dan Snow and Neil Oliver.

The mix of content is fascinating and includes a timeline plotting the daily routine of soldiers in the trenches, excerpts from a BBC 4 documentary on wartime plastic surgery techniques and journalist Stephen Gibbs reading extracts from his great grandfather’s account of working as a war correspondent at the British Army Headquarters. There are also interactive quizzes and multiple choice questions.

Andy Pipes, executive product manager of knowledge and learning at the BBC, says the iwonder service will provide a new way of presenting content compared to publishing traditional editorial or broadcasting TV shows and podcasts online.

“More and more of our audiences are accessing our content via mobile and tablet devices…for the first time this past Christmas, the proportion of people visiting the BBC Food website from a tablet or smartphone was larger than those visiting from a PC. This trend is set to continue. With the look and feel of native mobile applications getting ever more immersive, our audience’s expectations of accessing content on their phones and tablets is high. Expecting our users to struggle to navigate a full “desktop” website on a tiny screen isn’t acceptable any longer,” he says.

When designing the service, Pipes says staff were inspired by immersive editorial offerings such as the New York Times’ Snowfall story – but needed a more responsive platform that could be easily updated and adapted.

“We noticed that most [engaging web experiences] seemed to be one-offs and didn’t work well on mobile devices. We were adamant we wanted our new format to have all the qualities of this class of highly immersive story – but tailored for every device – whilst being straightforward for editorial teams to reproduce quickly and repeatedly,” he explains.

To meet these requirements, production staff created a system that’s designed to work seamlessly on tablets, smartphones and computers. Rather than creating bespoke code for each guide, the iwonder platform uses a single framework that editorial staff can update to provide new guides in just a few hours or days.

To make sure pages load quickly on any device, Pipes says the team have developed a system “that loads just the essential components of the page at the right times. Mobile-sized images download first, then when the page’s Javascript detects the browser’s capabilities, higher resolution images get ‘loaded in dynamically’,” he says.

“For pictures with a dense amount of information on them, such as infographics, it’s important not just to resize a smaller version of a big image, but to load in a completely different image that’s best for that screen,” he adds.

The system is also programmed to load the correct media player on any device – so Apple users won’t be offered Flash player – and Pipes says it’s designed to work with older web browswers or those that don’t use Javascript.

This attention to detail is also evident in the guide’s design: icons, headers and linear layouts make pages easy to navigate and browse in small chunks. “It was important for the whole effect to feel manageable, digestible in a single sitting,” a spokesperson told CR.

“The use of circular icons to denote progress also had a subtle effect of moving from dark tones to lighter ones – illuminating new steps of the journey. In terms of response times, especially on mobile devices, care has been taken to eliminate any large graphics that don’t serve the content’s purpose.”

In designing iwonder, the BBC has produced a compelling online platform that’s both a valuable learning resource and a great marketing tool, showcasing the broadcaster’s breadth of content and promoting programmes past and present. Its intuitive design means even those who rarely browse the web should feel comfortable using the service, and the flexible coding framework provides a simpler, more cost effective alternative to bespoke, one-off experiences.

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