Tech-savvy learning spaces

The new technology ready to welcome the 2016 intake

From life-saving apps to 3D cameras, Gemma Church finds out how higher education institutions are meeting students’ ever-demanding technical requirements both on- and off-campus at the start of 2016’s academic year.

This year’s student intake demands an exceptionally high technical standard. At the very least, robust Wi-Fi, institutional computers and printers and learning environments relevant to their chosen area of study are a must. 

Such solid on-campus infrastructures must also provide a coherent link between the classroom and consumer worlds, as John Bailey, director of sales and education at Dell UK, said: “What students want from universities in terms of technology is simple – they want the same seamless experience they enjoy at home and ideally, they want the same technology that they use at home too.” 

This requirement for cross-device compatibility is apparent, as Phil Clark, head of Projector Division at Casio UK, explained: “Instead of clambering for a specific new solution, modern students are looking for technology that works intuitively across the range of devices that they carry with them on a daily basis.”

It is also vital that all these disparate devices are brought together to bring a fully integrated digital experience, as Bailey added: “Students are asking for a personalised classroom environment that means all can access information, communicate with others and participate in learning activities. To do this, they need a connected ecosystem, with intensive virtualisation strategies to address the challenges of academic, administrative and research computing and to transform campus computing and drive efficiency and flexibility.”

Simply put, technology does not form part of the learning experience at the start of the 2016 academic year, it is the basis of every learning experience.

Inside the lecture halls

Chalkboards and projectors have been replaced with high-tech audio visual (AV) solutions. Screen casting, mirroring or airplay systems are becoming increasingly popular as they enable real-time information sharing and collaboration without the need for a complicated system. Clark said: “Students use their own choice of casting device, tapping into a connected Apple TV, Amazon Fire stick, Google Chromecast or similar streaming device. This is not a groundbreaking shift in technology, but a simple integration of the technology most common in our lives.” 

New facilities also present new technical opportunities inside the nation’s teaching spaces. For example, the University of Surrey’s new £45m Vet School implemented an integrated Crestron Audio Visual solution to cover 30 small group teaching rooms, a Clinical Skills Laboratory, Biochemical Lab, simulated Veterinary Surgery, various meeting rooms and communal areas, as well as additional lecture theatres and teaching areas. 

The technology on offer is cutting-edge. For example, both 3D and 2D displays are available in the Clinical Skills Laboratory to present streamed content from connected devices and 3D cameras can stream content out to the network/IPTV distribution. 

And the Biochemical lab features interactive displays with cameras and mics to capture and stream content. Marc Poffley, Business Development – Education at Crestron EMEA, said: “The classroom is becoming a more immersive, and multi-purpose, environment for students and the technology needs to reflect these changing requirements.”

Big data, big headache?

Increased technology adoption means institutions must come up with cost-effective solutions to best handle the resulting high volumes of data. This is where cloud computing could help institutions to evolve, and bring their research out of the lab and into the marketplace.

For example, the University of Cambridge runs a High Performance Computing (HPC) Solution Centre in collaboration with Dell to provide the powerful computing punch the institution’s intensive research demands. To help speed time to market and raise international competitiveness, the UK’s small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) need access to the centre’s infrastructure for simulation science and big data processing, but this can be costly. To overcome this financial restriction, the University of Cambridge worked with Dell to make the resources in its HPC Solution Centre available via the cloud to UK SMEs. 

Cloud computing is a common trend for the coming academic year due to its incremental nature, as Martin Hamilton, futurist at Jisc, said: “As cloud computing is becoming more and more established, it’s now possible for systems and services to continually evolve rather than have risky periodic ‘big bang’ changes. Staff and students at institutions that have taken up our cloud collaboration suite deals for Google Apps for Education and Microsoft Office 365 are growing increasingly used to products that develop organically, and delight the end user with new features and improvements on an almost daily basis.”

There are also huge opportunities from applying the techniques used by leading internet firms like Amazon and Google in a research and education setting to improve student retention through learning analytics, according to Hamilton, who added: “We are already starting to see lecturers adapting their courses in real time based on student feedback. Techniques such as learning analytics can help the lecturer to spot when a student is not fully engaged, and perhaps in danger of dropping out or failing to achieve their full potential.”

Learning analytics refers to the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about the progress of learners and the contexts in which learning takes place. Sarah Knight, senior co-design manager at Jisc, said: “Using the increased availability of big datasets around learner activity and digital footprints left by student activity in learning environments, learning analytics take us further than data currently available can. This data can help universities to identify students at risk and offer timely interventions to support their progress.”

Technology is also improving student safety in the form of a mobile app called GetFiredUP, which engages the student body with vital safety training through an augmented reality game. The app uses innovative reality technology with elements of gaming, crafted into a complete user experience to make the learning process memorable and fun – but with maximum impact. 

Discounts and vouchers are unlocked once students have successfully completed challenges to encourage them to use the app. Diane Dawson, director of Vigiles Group, said: “The experience aims to encourage safety behaviours by engaging in a fun way with what are very serious core fire prevention and lifesaving fire safety messages.” 

Wolverhampton’s Digital Campus

Apps form part of the University of Wolverhampton’s Digital Campus programme, which has more than £10m of funding to revolutionise the institution’s digital infrastructure and the learning experience for students.

The foundation phase of the programme is well underway and comprises of five distinct projects to enable the University’s strategic direction through to 2020. These are: a new virtual learning environment, a student portal to provide students with a single gateway to access data, information and systems, an ‘Applications Anywhere’ initiative to give students access to apps irrespective of their location, improved business intelligence and data management, and a digital platforms strategy to improve the flexibility and extensibility of the university infrastructure.

These have all been delivered in extremely short timescales for the education sector, with the student portal delivered in less than a year, closely followed by the Apps Anywhere project. Sharon Penfold, Digital Campus Programme manager at the University of Wolverhampton, said: “As an example of the speed and quality of the projects, the first phase of the student portal went live as an intended pilot in January 2016, and immediately went up to 95% usage and rave reviews. The issue was matching the IT and professional services resources to continue delivering to the quality benchmark provided.”

Students are asking for a personalised classroom environment that means all can access information, communicate with others and participate in learning activities

The project has brought many benefits to the University of Wolverhampton. These include major savings on software licensing, visibility of how effectively applications are being used across the university and delivering a significant level of agility and flexibility to the institution’s staff and students.

Penfold added: “The key challenge has been keeping up with the pace of change that students demand and that the University has a big vision to provide. Managing expectations and aligning resources in the form of prioritising delivery has therefore been critical and is an ongoing challenge. However, this is definitely best seen as a positive issue!”

Future opportunities

The technical space continues to evolve at a fast pace but this presents a unique opportunity for higher education institutions, as Hamilton explained: “We live in interesting times, with a constant stream of exciting new technologies making their way out of the R&D labs into commercial products and services – from robot campus security guards to 3D-printed food. Many of those labs are, of course, at UK institutions, and it’s particularly interesting to me to consider how we might be able to turn our universities and colleges into living testbeds for them.” 

He added: “The potential is huge – everything from new materials like graphene to white space networking, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence techniques. The opportunities and the rewards are potentially huge – just look at Imperial College spin out Hark Health Solutions, recently acquired by Google’s DeepMind Health division.”

The message is clear. Those institutions that embrace and keep abreast with technical innovation will benefit greatly from the resulting improvements in the learning experiences of students. Bailey concluded: “By trying to use yesterday’s technology and methods for today’s data opportunities, higher education institutions will struggle to take advantage of insights needed to make impactful decisions and push them ahead of their competitors. By using new tools and applying their subsequent learnings, universities and colleges can materially improve their business processes and attract the young talent that will set
them apart.”

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