What’s trending in tech?

If you’re really looking for a part of HE that is changing, literally on a daily basis, you will find it in technology

By Luke Dormehl

It’s not that long ago that universities were worrying about the costs involved with equipping halls of residence with internet access, before Wi-Fi ushered in a new age of connectivity. Today, in an era of big data, cloud computing and mobile learning, things are continuing to change at a rate that means that it is hardly hyperbole to suggest that this article will be (partially) outdated by the time you read it.

Even with this being the case, however, University Business is nothing if not intrepid, which is why we decided to bring you an overview of HE technology as it stands at the close of 2013 and start of 2014. Believe us when we say that things have come a long way since self-contained workstations and overhead projectors. 

The Cloud revolution

If you’re talking about fundamental technology-based transitions undertaken by universities in recent times, perhaps the biggest one – certainly in terms of the frequency you hear it thrown around – is cloud computing. A shorthand term for distributed computing over a network, cloud computing means having the ability to run a program or application on many connected computers at the same time, or to store files on virtual servers stored off-site.

When it comes to the cloud in higher education, perhaps the best provider out there is Jisc, which for the past several years has been on the cutting edge of cloud computing in the field of research. ‘Jisc acts as an enabler of universities in this area; offering research, guidance and insight,’ said Dr Phil Richards, director of IT at Loughborough University, and Jisc’s chief innovation officer.

He added: ‘Commercial framework agreements and technical expertise are also offered through Janet, a part of Jisc that manages the operation and development of the UK’s research and education network.’

Jisc has worked with a number of institutions including Richards’ own Loughborough, which uses a hybrid cloud approach to provide capacity for applications such as research, teaching and corporatesystems.

Workin Newcastle University’s computing science department, meanwhile, has sought to harness Jisc’s cloud capacity for computer-based research. It is this application of cloud-based computing – not simply providing storage, but engendering a whole new collaborative way of working – that Richards is keen to highlight: ‘In scientific research, collaboration is prevalent,’ Richards continued, pointing out that expensive projects such as the Large Hadron Collider could not exist without this kind of deep cooperation; a cooperation that HE is now moving towards. ‘We’re witnessing some excellent examples of collaboration amongst universities, not simply in terms of research and the exchange of big data but in terms of shared resources,’ he said, adding: ‘Cardiff University, for instance, has a cutting-edge piece medical simulator that enables an X-ray to be seen as a 3D image, which can be streamed to other universities on the Janet network so that other students can benefit from
the technology.’

Spreading the word

The cloud also needn’t be limited to a tool for existing students and members of staff, but can additionally be used as a powerful marketing tool for making potential students (particularly international ones) aware of what HE institutions are working on. One example of this is the work that Jisc has done in recent years with the Bloomsbury Media Cloud, which aims to draw together media content across the Bloomsbury Colleges and London International Development Centre, including podcasts, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Open Air radio station and automated lecture recording, and then label this up and export it to the cloud for external discovery.

It is this massive paradigm shift offered by cloud computing that makes it both exciting and potentially scary to some universities. While most HE institutions will therefore see the benefit of more storage and fewer required on-site servers, to view the cloud only in these terms means missing out on its potential ‘value added’ benefits. ‘I would say that for some commodity services such as student email and groupware cloud solutions are fast becoming the norm, not least because packages such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google Apps for Education are available at no cost,’ Richards continued.

‘This then gives traction to the remainder of the sector, which is typically more cautious in responding to trends such as these. One of the barriers to uptake is risk, or perception of risk. When something is relatively new, people can often be concerned about reliability and the ease of exit, should services prove unreliable or providers suddenly start charging. Loughborough University’s hybrid cloud model builds in agility and the ability to exit particular cloud suppliers which helps mitigate perceived risk and makes senior management feel more comfortable.’

The virtual classroom

One thing that cloud computing suggests, almost by its very nature, about learning is that education no longer needs to be contained within one physical environment. Indeed, if the internet risked invalidating the importance of journal-filled university libraries (and should you believe some commentators, even makes some educators think twice about whether forcing students to memorise facts is anything close to essential in the age of Wikipedia and web-enabled smartphones), then today’s cutting-edge digital technologies threaten to do the same to lecture halls and even the notion of fixed, self-contained campuses. Welcome to the world of the virtual classroom.

‘There are numerous advantages to virtual classrooms,’ said Jon Shepstone, manager of the CloudRooms division at Commelius Solutions, which provides an e-platform for classroom, support and administration services.

‘One of these benefits might be cost savings, in addition to environmental savings, since there is less travel involved. If you have to travel to attend a course, there are hotel costs to pay for example. It’s similarly less disruptive in a business setting, since people can attend training as part of a normal working day at a location convenient to them. It also means that you can modularise training, meaning that it can be broken into ‘chunks’ which can be delivered over a longer period, thereby supporting better knowledge retention and a shallower learning curve. In fact, we use this as the basis for all our virtual training, converting typically day- or week- long courses into a series of modules.’

While virtual classrooms are still the exception rather than the rule, more and more universities and HE institutions are embracing the technology as a way of doing for lectures what a technology like YouTube or Netflix does for television viewing: namely, allowing it to fit around the schedule of individual learners. And virtual classrooms have come a long way from simply being streamed videos of previous lectures too. The University of Leicester proudly boasts that its virtual classrooms allow staff and students to communicate in real time, with integrated chat features that allow participants to message one another, and even for the lecturer to use a virtual whiteboard with the ability to share websites and materials from the e-learning Blackboard course site. 

‘There are misconceptions around cost as people still compare the virtual classroom to traditional classroom learning,’ said Shepstone.

‘We are able to provide much more flexible ways of buying, such as subscriptions, single events, event bundles, and others much more aligned to the subscription economy type businesses.’

More to come from MOOCs

On top of virtual classrooms, of course, are MOOCS: the massive open online courses which started out in the US, but are now making headway in the UK, courtesy of innovative technologies like the Open University’s FutureLearn which provides a platform for free, web-based HE study. FutureLearn is one prominent example of MOOCs, and has so far gained the support of universities including Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, East Anglia, Exeter, King’s College London, Lancaster, Leeds, Southampton, St Andrews and Warwick, who have all signed up to the platform. Business management guru Clayton Christensen identifies two types of new technology: ‘sustaining’ and ‘disruptive’ technologies. A sustaining technology is one that supports or enhances the way a business or market already operates, while a disruptive technology fundamentally alters it.

The technologies described here can fall into both categories, either enabling universities to run the same way they currently do, only more efficiently, or else to change in new, maybe frightening, but potentially exciting ways. The question, of course, is partly down to funds, and what universities want to achieve. But it’s also about asking what technologies add to the learning experience, what they take away, and whether that trade-off is worth it.

Either way though, things are going to continue to change. And quickly.

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