The smart campus programming the future

What’s the next chapter for connected learning environments at UK universities? Charley Rogers speaks to the experts to find out…

“Smart buildings on campus are old news.” This pronouncement by Jisc’s James Clay in a blog post from last year acknowledges the fact that, in terms of the lightning-quick world of tech, smart campuses are nothing new and that there are already advancements in the area of campus connectivity that have overtaken this notion. 

Asking James about the development of the smart campus since its inception, he says: “The smart campus has existed for some time. We are at a cusp now where we can gather data from a much wider range of things, places and people, and we are able to analyse that data faster.” 

This makes sense because as with many tech developments, smart (or intelligent) campus efficacy is all about data. So what is data’s place in the smart campus? It might sound like an odd question, but the answer is multiple. Data is key to the next phase in the smart campus oeuvre; the intelligent campus. This, in itself, isn’t a brand-new idea, as we can see from the above-mentioned Jisc blog, which was published in July 2017. It is, though, somewhat of a development – or perhaps expansion – on the smart campus idea. It is this focus on data, and what it can tell us, that makes the intelligent campus so useful for both universities and their students. 

Data is key to the next phase in the smart campus oeuvre; the intelligent campus

The ins and outs of data analysis processes are a whole different article, but what are the practical implications of this kind of analysis for the intelligent campus? 

First of all, data is basically knowledge, if it’s applied in the right way. For example, if students have to swipe their cards to access facilities like the library, or if the gates have beam counters, data can be aggregated to shed light on the busiest times, and then fed back to an app or website that shows traffic patterns for the library to allow students to plan their visits. 

The counter, or swipe-card system, then, is part of the smart campus, but the analysis and implementation of data resulting from this tech is what makes the campus intelligent. The idea is that analysis of the data can make the campus better, says James Clay: “Universities can use the knowledge gained through the gathering of data to ensure that the campus is used effectively to enable an improved student experience, while also making efficiencies.” 

Personalised technology

So, what kind of improvements can the intelligent campus facilitate? A major one is in accessibility and autonomy for disabled students. I spoke to the policy and development manager at charity Disability Rights UK, Philip Connolly, who explained that technology can be a great tool in empowering users: “Something like a simple navigation app for a visually impaired person [that] speaks to them,” suggests Philip, could be incredibly useful. “It’s got to be very personalised technology,” he adds. 

Digital signage can also be useful to disabled students, despite not being personalised to each student. A survey from TrouDigital found that 95% of students and recent graduates thought that ‘digital displays are beneficial for student communication’. “In many respects, digital signage is a mouthpiece for smart campuses,” says TrouDigital’s marketing manager, Lee Gannon, “providing a unique physical platform that keeps the student body informed and feeling connected to their university.” In addition to the general communication pros of digital signage, there are specific advantages for disabled students, said Lee, such as “highlighting wheelchair-accessible routes around campus or warning users in real time when lifts are unavailable”.

We see education and smart campuses as a vital pillar for enhancing global economic growth and prosperity

The ability to project these messages also relies on having the data to know when lifts are unavailable or when certain routes are congested. For instance, if a certain popular class was letting out of a building at, let’s say, midday, and a disabled student needed to access the doors and walkways that these students would be occupying, data feedback from timetabling AIs and footfall sensors could inform this student that their usual route would likely be congested and suggest another accessible route. 

And what about students with mental health disabilities, I asked Lee. He replied: “Something as simple as seeing a helpline number on a screen when travelling between classes might be the difference between a student struggling with their mental health reaching out and getting help.” This is a huge difference for these students, so having connected digital signage around campus could potentially make a big impact. 

Even more than this, utilising emotion recognition software and video monitoring could positively impact those who are exhibiting signs of mental health problems. In the blog post from last July, James Clay says: “In lecture theatres and learning spaces, disengaged or struggling students could be identified and feedback provided to their tutor or lecturer.” 

A question of security and ethics

There are clear advantages, then, to students both with and without disabilities in having a smart or intelligent campus. But these innovations do open up a lot of questions around security and ethics. Should universities be able to use emotion recognition software on their students? What data will they hold, where, and for how long? These concerns should not be underestimated or dismissed, says James, and Jisc has created a code of practice for learning analytics, “which covers in some depth a number of topics and is a useful reference for those wanting to explore further”. 

The ‘sticky’ campus

There is also another development on the ideas of the smart campus: the ‘sticky’ campus.

The ‘sticky’ campus is one where students want to spend their time outside of scheduled classes and/or study periods. They are mini societies in their own right and may include anything from leisure and exercise facilities, to shopping centres and even hotels.

Dr Alastair Robertson, director of teaching and learning enhancement at Abertay University, explained some of the ways in which a sticky campus can improve a university’s provision. For example, improving the university’s campus is, of course, a huge factor in the student experience. “I was very conscious that actually to make the next step-change in terms of enhancing our student experience, it was really to invest in our estate and to capitalise on the advances in technology,” he says of the changes that Abertay has undertaken in the last few years. 

There are a lot of different iterations of the smart campus, including intelligent and sticky campuses but, as I heard from James Clay, Jisc’s definition of the intelligent campus is not yet in practice at any HE institution in the UK. So there is certainly some way to go. 

Alastair echoes this: “I would say [the intelligent campus] is our logical next step. We’ve been focusing on a smart campus and the whole notion of a sticky campus.” Abertay is also working with Jisc on learning analytics for student retention and attainment. “We’re getting a much better handle on the usage of the library, the usage of the VLE – all these things – but we haven’t fully integrated that vision [of the intelligent campus] you’re talking about,” Alastair says, “[but] it is of high interest, for sure.” 

The whole idea of the smart campus and its different offshoots, then, is to make the university a better place for students. It is a welcome idea; what with the recent flurry of stories about the mental health epidemic in UK universities, a focus on a good student experience is one which deserves credit. 

Alastair sums the whole view up well: “We’re just very interested in providing a flexible learning environment for our students and making the campus a very welcoming place.”

Industry comment

Khalifa Al Kubaisi of the Qatar Foundation discusses smart campus technology and how it aids medical education at Weill Cornell Medicine

“We see smart campuses as the key to success for modern-day learning across all subjects and a vehicle to empower students from across the world. Providing access to the latest technologies allows students to receive authentic, first-hand experience of the work and challenges they will face throughout their lives and careers. More than this, smart technologies can be used to foster a learning experience that will help equip today’s students with the tools necessary to become tomorrow’s leaders.

“In the current digital age, educational institutions will need to harness the power of digital advancements and interconnectivity, so that they can zero in on establishing future skills among students, enabling them to respond quicker to new challenges.

“The future physicians at Weill Cornell Medicine in Qatar, Education City, for instance, work on computerised medical mannequins, implementing theory into practice in a safe but realistic environment that prepares them for surgery. 

“Technologies like this engage students on a level that traditional teaching methods cannot parallel, providing them with a deeper understanding.

“For us, technology is more than a tool – it’s a way of academic life and we see education and smart campuses as a vital pillar for enhancing global economic growth and prosperity.”