Goodbye computer room

With most universities now on board and supporting students and staff to bring their own devices, where is the best practice?

Bring your own: laptop, smartphone, tablet. Students and staff expect that they’ll be able to use their own tech on campus and there have been pedagogic changes which make the use of personal technology more attractive for learning. One example of successful use is at the University of Surrey. Since 2006 staff and students have been using an electronic voting system using clickers provided by the university library. A 2014 pilot of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) aimed to offer an alternative electronic voting system to staff. The Polleverywhere system was chosen, enabling students to respond to questions via text message, web browser or app using their own devices. There was an overwhelmingly positive response: 87% of the 150 students surveyed preferred using their own personal device to vote, over the clickers.

Following the pilot the University has now purchased a year’s site license for the software, which is available to all academics at Surrey – 80 of them have already signed up. The clicker system is still available to those who prefer this. Despite the obvious attraction, universities who support bring your own device policies need to be aware of the infrastructure needed to support them. Tris Simmons, networking expert at NETGEAR says: “BYOD can present a number of security risks. A whole host of devices will be coming through the university doors, so a robust security solution to regulate and to protect the university’s data against today’s application, web, email and network threats is essential. Attacks can be prevented by using next generation application firewalls, in addition to anti-virus, anti-spam, web and email content filters.”

Security access policies and other measures can help universities control what students have access to. For example, institutions can prevent access to certain sites, put a limit on the amount of hours of access students have, or restrict the types of devices used by a unique MAC address. They might also choose to ask students to log into a central collaboration tool such as the Kramer VIA Collage. This provides a common platform for all those laptops, smartphones and tablets in real time on one digital canvas. Anybody who’s logged in can help create and edit a common document through their individual devices and view what’s happening on the main display on their own device.

Helen Beetham, higher education consultant, together with David White, head of e-learning at University of the Arts London, led a Jisc-funded project to look at students’ experiences with digital technology, including how BYOD was working in universities. The work resulted in a series of use cases freely accessible at Beetham says: “I think the challenges are around ensuring an equitable experience and getting students to engage with apps/services beyond those they already find familiar and easy to use.”

One way to do this is to provide device-for-all schemes to make sure that less well-off students don’t miss out. At the University of South Wales, one course provides tablets to arriving students, which they keep throughout their studies and beyond. Another uses shared iPads to support groupwork and seminar presentations among undergraduates in nursing. Such schemes have been found to improve confidence, collaboration and presentation skills. Students are also better able to capture learning events for revision. The benefits for teaching and learning often drive the move towards BYOD in the first place. Simmons says: “Common reasons behind the decision are often the need to provide cutting-edge technology to help achieve high standards, or making the learning environment both fun and engaging for students. It’s also well recognised that students’ concentration and engagement levels are much higher in learning environments using technology.”

So what kinds of activities can people do using their own devices?

● creating apps and learning materials for other students
● students accessing institutional data, such as information about their own progression
● staff offering a borderless classroom, sharing resources via the cloud
● researchers building their own virtual collaborative environments in the cloud
● better engagement with business and community stakeholders via shared services.

Some specific groups of learners might especially benefit, such as those who will be using those skills with students later. Primary and secondary PGCE students at the University of Hull have been loaned iPads to support their learning and allow them to experiment in the classroom. How do we manage a classroom of students with their own devices? The skill of the lecturer is crucial. Beetham says: “Historically we’ve often failed to use students’ digital know-how and their resources. There’s been a sense that students will use them in class to find material that’s not relevant. The way to counteract that is to be really proactive and model exactly what you want them to do, and what the benefits will be for their learning.” She sees an example of a good use as taking an existing resource or tool such as Evernote or social bookmarking, and modelling the academic or professional use of this.

But there are alternatives to BYOD. At Leeds Beckett University, the institution has also explored giving out personal devices for learning rather than expecting students to use their own.
Early results suggest that staff, and to a slightly lesser extent students, prefer this kind of provision: students are reassured that they have the correct kit and that other students can keep up too, while staff feel confident that they are offering an equal learning experience.

A robust and reliable network is first on the ‘to-do list’ for any university thinking of promoting BYOD. Universities also have to grapple with correct sign-on and authentication procedures, and ensure that their security is top notch. Moreover, there’s support for digital literacy that needs to be fostered. At Manchester Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam Universities, ‘Bring Your Own Devices for Learning’ began life as a collaboration between developers who saw that students and staff needed more support in using their own technology to support learning and teaching. The initiative has evolved into an open online course, curated twice a year but also open to anyone to progress through at any time. One participant described it as “a truly memorable learning experience.”

Beetham goes on: “Rather than individual academics taking this up, the next step is for universities to do that at a course or curriculum level by sharing good classroom practice and having a positive induction for students and staff.”

So can we abandon fixed computing altogether? It’s unlikely. Beetham explains that students still need access to good printing facilities; subject specialist software and instruments such as data analysis and design tools will need to be provided by the university. “And students still seem to like meeting up and working together in places where they all have access to the same facilities, and where the institution is providing what they need – places like traditional computer labs.”

But what’s clear is that the blend of fixed and personal computing is here to stay. The question is more how we can continue to support students and staff adequately to reap the benefits of BYOD for learning.

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