Game changers: bringing your own devices to UK higher ed

From digital exams to overseas access to virtual campuses, Kim Renfrew looks at the current and future landscape for BYOD in higher education

The phrase BYOD (bring your own device) started gaining currency in 2009. In the intervening decade, higher education has increasingly deployed remote access for students and staff.

Recent research by global BYOD player Citrix reveals that 80% of students and 79% of staff at UK universities already use their own devices. Other big BYOD hitters are IBM, AirWatch and Software2, the latter whose AppsAnywhere store is used by two million students at 200 institutions globally, including Durham, StAndrews, Imperial, Derby and Coventry.

Digital natives demand flexibility

BYOD is unstoppable, as Software2’s CMO Peter Cooke observes: “Year-on-year, we’ve seen the demand for BYOD only go one way: up!” With current students fully digitally native, this is logical. “The 21st-century student has different expectations when it comes to technology than any other generation before,” says Cooke. They’re used to accessing everything, from information to entertainment to socialising via digital devices, so universities need to centralise students’ user-experience.

Draconian control of what can and can’t be accessed, and when, doesn’t work for students used to accessing everything everywhere and who demand returns on investment in tuition fees. Being physically bound by location and opening hours doesn’t work anymore: for millennials and Gen Z, flexibility is key, improving overall learning experience. Indeed, 92% of Software2’s UK clients identify BYOD as important to improving student experience.

Case study: Brunel University

Brunel is at the vanguard of BYOD examinations, which began in 2015 with a proof-of-concept pilot involving 115 students sitting one exam. The initiative, in collaboration with Danish firm UNIwise and its WISEflow assessment platform, expanded across departments and colleges, with numbers doubling between 2017–2018 and 2019–2020, and expected to double again for 2020–2021.

Phased introduction is a deliberate tactic, so staff and students are adequately trained. “As expertise increases, we’re able to grow our roll-out more quickly,” says Dr Simon Kent, director of learning and teaching in the Department of Computer Science. By the end of this academic year, all three colleges will hold BYOD exams.

Changing attitudes

Despite initial reservations, Dr Kent notes people focused on what potentially could go wrong – attitudes changed once the project began. Students absorbed changes quickly and post-exam feedback was concerned more with exam content than delivery method. Now, students “do not like to go back to paper once they have used digital exams”.

For admin staff, benefits are far-reaching, removing the need to print and distribute papers, then collect and collate them. For academic staff, significant benefits can be reaped: scripts are easier to read, multiple people can mark simultaneously, and ‘beyond-paper’ exams that were not possible under a manual system, can be set, moving from digital replications of paper exams into assessment that innovates at the interface of pedagogy and IT. Large datasets or videos can be provided for analyses during exams. “Assessments can be more authentic, relating much more to the kind of tasks students might undertake upon graduation,” says Dr Kent.

Eighteen academic and professional staff oversaw the project, which involved wide-ranging issues from wifi, training, support and regulations. The initiative was recognised in August with an Advance HE Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence.

Universities without walls

The overwhelming trend is anytime, anywhere access, not only to reflect student demand for flexibility, but also to accommodate changes in higher education. With 458,490 overseas students at UK universities, access to resources from different locations and time zones is vital. Add in increasing numbers of online courses, plus UK universities overseas – currently there are 39, educating 26,000 students – and traditional ideas of campuses of physical libraries, labs and lecture halls begin to look old-fashioned.

“Over recent years, we’ve seen many universities move away from physical PC labs towards the concept of ‘virtual labs’ and repurposing old computer silos into open access study areas, where all students can work together,” says Cooke. Indeed, Software2 maintains that effective BYOD deployment creates “a university without walls” something Durham is aiming for with its new mobile campus, which has just launched (see case study), offering “a user-centric solution”, according to Michael Coxon, Durham’s technical lead.

Access to resources from different locations and time zones is vital

Proliferation of digital devices

Moving away from machine-centred IT models means apps are accessed via multiplying types of devices across all platforms. Students use Macs, Windows-based devices, Chromebooks, all manner of tablets, iPhones, Androids, smartwatches, even games consoles for university resources and IT teams can be certain that, as digital devices proliferate, students will use whatever’s on the market.

One challenge posed by accessing learning via familiar devices is distraction: all social media and entertainment apps are already loaded on their own devices and university software can even be accessed via PlayStations. At Durham, however, this is seen as a fail-safe strategy against problems: “You’re not expecting them to turn up with their game consoles but the idea is if they do have a problem with their laptop or it suddenly goes down, they’ve got a console to fall back on,” says Coxon.

Heterogeneity of platforms also causes potential headaches for IT teams, not least through the biggest challenge in this arena: BYOD security and risks of malware, viruses and data theft. Measures against this include obvious solutions like protecting devices with strong passwords to configuring devices so they can be wiped remotely if lost. Such procedures are vital, especially given that the 2019 Cyber Security Breaches Survey reveals that 32% of businesses reported cybersecurity breaches last year, and should be incorporated into robust infosec policies.

The end of data centres

As the learning experience uncouples from physical location, IT provision itself is increasingly moving from physical storage in expensive, maintenance-heavy data centres – according to the Cyber Security Breaches Survey, 74% of businesses in the education sector use the cloud. Driven by uptake of BYOD, as students use more connected devices meaning increased need for scalable storage, cloud is one of the most significant trends in higher education, as it’s secure, cost-effective and less resource-intensive, with data managed out of house.

Costs will also fall with the increased firepower of devices available to consumers. Says Cooke: “From a higher ed perspective, BYOD represents a real opportunity to cut back on physical hardware spend and deliver IT services to where the students want them: on their own devices.”

In the future, this will be boosted by the rise of 5G networks, slowly being rolled out across the UK, whose speed (5–10 times faster than 4G) and response times will improve app performance and drive further innovation.

For millennials and Gen Z, flexibility is key, improving overall learning experience

Flexibility in data provision is also going to be key, with universities adapting capacity to the ebb and flow of usage, with less capacity provision during quieter periods such as vacations, meaning greater cost-efficiency. BYOD providers such as Software2 help IT teams get to grips with how technology is used at their universities: Apps Anywhere includes an analytics suite that allows IT teams to understand the usage of student software and devices, demand for BYOD, and the device landscape on and off campus.

Case study: Durham University

Durham University’s new mobile campus means 18,700 students and 4,300 staff across three faculties, 25 departments and 16 colleges access software anywhere, on any device. “We needed to address an out-of-date situation whereby students had to physically go to one location during opening hours to access the applications needed to do their work,” says technical lead Michael Coxon. It was important that students use their own equipment, since all now possess multiple connected devices, from laptops to PS4s. “Our vision was that they can turn up and use their own devices – the position we’ve now achieved,” says Coxon, meaning the need to book machines and use open access areas is consigned to the past, with software now following users, not vice versa.

Building integration

Durham already allowed remote access, initially in a limited staff service. “We only really offered Microsoft Office, which staff could use to work from home,” says Coxon. Then Durham approached Software2 to build integration between AppsAnywhere, which they already used, and Parallels Remote Application Server, which allows native gesture interaction with virtual apps and enables IT teams to manage applications and data from a central interface. Together, they developed the current solution, where 600 apps are available, including licensed software students wouldn’t normally be able to access without purchasing – a huge leap from when Durham was “just a glorified internet provider”.

One challenge was delivering applications to Windows and non-Windows devices alike, from the Macs (used by 50% of their students) to phones, a pioneering solution Software2 now takes to universities globally.

For Coxon, challenges were actually few. “In terms of implementing the product… it was a no-brainer: every application we add to the system now is just a tick-box to make it available to any device, to anyone, anywhere.”

Coxon’s future vision for the mobile campus is to become a “one-stop shop for everything in the university”. Feedback so far is good. In fact, “they’re just clicking on application ‘X’ and [they] accept that this software is magically appearing on their machines”. They barely register the complex technology driving what they’re doing – exactly what he’s aiming for.

Digital exams

BYOD examinations will also come to dominate in higher education and early adopter Brunel University is a pioneer in this (see case study). Nine other universities have followed its lead and are testing BYOD exams, and 11 education institutions have been to observe them in action. Brunel has also hosted conferences and workshops on the subject, attended by more than 30 universities, meaning that the exam landscape will be changing – and soon.

The main message is that BYOD will be the norm: research by Gartner expects that, by 2020, 85% of businesses will have BYOD programmes; 10 billion personal mobile devices will be in use, estimates Techjury; and the market will be worth $366.95bn by 2022, predicts Global Market Insights.

Software2 maintains that effective BYOD deployment creates ‘a university without walls’

“Learning itself becomes more flexible and remote BYOD becomes the go-to way of delivering IT and technology,” says Cooke, 45% of whose clients are already actively delivering BYOD strategies, with another 36% planning to increase support for this in 12–18 months. For universities and students, benefits are clear, including increases in efficiency and controlled costs, meaning increasing ROI in technology and ROE (return on education).

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