The bring your own revolution

Nicola Yeeles explores the pros and cons of BYOD, from cyber security concerns to potential digital divide issues

Jisc’s annual survey of more than 37,000 students found that an impressive 96% of higher education students feel supported to ‘bring their own devices’, using their own phones and computers to access university services such as wifi and apps. It’s clear that higher education is still a front-runner in bring your own device support, or BYOD.

But there are challenges, not least in finding the balance between supporting access and keeping students safe, and this means that many universities are erring on the side of caution. As a result, according to Sarah Knight of Jisc, access to university services is not yet ubiquitous: “Most students now bring their own devices for learning, but many can’t use them to access subject-specialist software and online content.”

Bucking the trend

But some providers are bucking the trend – take the University of Surrey, where since 2012 students have been able to download a range of applications completely free of charge for the duration of their time there. James Pickett, principal end user computing engineer at the University, explains, “For the last five years, Surrey Software has replaced long queues for CDs and USB sticks at IT Services with a self-service store, where students can easily download applications to their own computers from anywhere. To-date, over 150,000 copies have been downloaded, which is the equivalent of a 180-metre tall stack of CDs!”

The applications include the entire Microsoft Office suite and popular Windows Apps, such as the calculation package MATLAB and the statistical software SPSS.

To begin with, of course, institutions need a robust computer infrastructure to enable them to support BYOD. James Breakell, UK managing director of the library security systems supplier D-Tech International, says, “The main challenges are the network being overloaded with more devices connecting to wifi and so on; internet security; and IT support being bombarded with access problems and forgotten passwords.”

Westminster Kingsway College

Virus protection

Universities need to consider security protection against malware or virus attacks coming through or affecting students’ devices, as well as data protection, with the new Data Protection Act 2018 imposing huge fines for loss of sensitive data. Another consideration is adequate connectivity at all hours of the day. Continued investment in these areas remains crucial.

Once the technical considerations can be managed, Knight points out that organisations also need to ensure students have the right digital skills to make use of the apps on offer. She says, “As our report recommends, clear signposting to digital training and helpdesks could be a great start. It’s also important to ensure students know what support is available to them when they start their course and this is reiterated throughout their study.”

At Surrey, IT Services have their own YouTube channel full of help videos, and they also provide students and staff with access to the Microsoft Imagine Academy, which offers online training on the Microsoft suite. Debbie Exley of LapSafe adds that all staff also need to be trained in how to use the devices to deliver learning effectively and to provide best practice models to students.

University of Sussex

Keeping it secure

If students bring high-value computing equipment on to campus, hardware security is another issue. By providing a safe environment for students to store and charge their mobile tech, provider LapSafe argues that universities can encourage students to use their own equipment while removing the concern of items being left randomly in public areas on the assumption that it is the university’s responsibility. Many universities are choosing high-traffic areas such as libraries but also social areas like cafés in which to provide such storage. Universities such as Heriot-Watt have installed 72 of these bays, while the University of Galway went for 36 bays in their main library.

Another option is to provide devices for students to borrow rather than enabling BYOD as such. The argument here is that students, particularly those travelling from outside campus, don’t want to carry their own heavy devices around, preferring the space-saving and more flexible option of laptops to desktops. LapSafe estimates that about half of UK universities have now automated their manual laptop loans service and this is increasing dramatically. Over 50% of universities in the capital are now giving students individual access to securely stored and charged laptops or tablets using the company’s intelligent access control system. Each loaned laptop can link directly into the University’s existing library management system or work standalone. Behind the scenes, the lockers enable staff to track and monitor equipment use and save resources. You can find this system at universities such as Kings College London, UCL and Imperial College.

Breakell of Supplier D-Tech International agrees that BYOD provision “has dropped off in terms of providing a laptop self-service solution,” with most universities opting instead for a system “that dispenses devices supplied by the university where they can manage the devices more securely and ensure that applications that cause a higher security threat are disabled”.

Minimising the digital divide

Nevertheless, in the Jisc survey, only 7.9% of students surveyed used smartphones provided by institutions to support their work, so it could be beneficial for universities to look into providing not just laptops but also smartphones or tablets for students who can’t afford their own. Debbie Exley at LapSafe warns: “BYOD can increase the digital divide, frustrating students who aren’t fortunate enough to have their own laptop or tablet.”

As a result, Knight says, “It is essential that universities are aware of where possible digital divides exist so that all students have equitable access to the technology they need to support their learning.” However, there is a caveat: 88% of students rated their organisation’s digital provision as above average, so students are clearly increasingly satisfied with what’s on offer.

The most forward-thinking universities will use students’ access via their own devices to drive better student services. Canterbury Christ Church University is taking the blended learning agenda forward in a way that works for their students. Knight explains how they have used the results of the Jisc survey to make improvements: firstly, by redesigning virtual learning environment templates to make navigation via mobile devices easier and more consistent. Secondly, the university is fast-tracking the introduction of a new lecture capture recording system. Knight says, “The approach taken by Canterbury Christ Church University is ensuring the democratic student voice is heard in full – all students on all campuses have the opportunity to let the university know about their needs and expectations and how well these are being met.”

It’s clear that universities are going in the right direction towards providing the best technology to support their students. But Jisc’s insights survey shows that only 41% of students in higher education agree that their course prepares them for the digital workplace and, what’s more, only about a third of students agree they were told which digital skills they would need before starting their course. Universities could perhaps make more of the opportunity to push training and digital support to their students through whatever devices they are using. By doing so, they could play an even more significant role in enabling students to work independently in the professional digital environments they will be encountering in the future.

Edinburgh Napier University

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