Students walking across campus

Technology-enhanced learning

From mobile timetabling to ubiquitous Wi-Fi, how are universities embracing technology to improve learning and teaching?

The student experience is changing. Most students have high expectations of the way that technology is used at their university, about their course of study and about the digital environment around them.

According to the recent Digital Student research project carried out by Jisc, the charity providing digital solutions for UK education and research, those expectations seem to centre around the desire for a robust and ubiquitous Wi-Fi across campus locations, connectivity between student devices and the university network, plus access to personal/social web services, together with continued access to institutional devices.

And for their part, how are the universities themselves navigating this brave new world in order to deliver on their students’ expectations whilst at the same time leveraging their own requirements for efficiency and responsiveness from the technology?

Seamless connectivity

For the University of Nottingham, Wi-Fi connectivity was a top priority in offering a consistent and secure experience for its students. The university now has a complete wireless learning environment where students use their own devices to help them study.

Replacing an old Wi-Fi system which was slow and patchy, the BT-installed system allows users to connect securely using their own devices, at every part of the university, including halls of residence, cafés and lecture halls, boosting access points from 800 to 2,600 with capacity for more. The system seeks out hotspots and manages traffic through nearby access points to prevent overload and also identifies which devices are connecting so they can help support those devices.

Connecting devices are checked for the required security credentials as well to prevent the access of malware or viruses before they are given access to the network. Students now upload notes, share resources, record lectures, timetables and links to their online learning tool and upload online evaluations of lectures. In addition, the Wi-Fi solution can follow a device around campus ensuring the connection is as strong as possible. Commenting on the results of the system’s implementation, Alison Clarke, deputy CIO and director of IT services at the university, said: “We want students to study wherever they are, academics and visitors on campus to work in the cafés, not just in offices.”

Innovative teaching

Students tend to have a lasting affection for the lecture; indeed, Jisc’s Digital Student project found that students don't want technology to be a substitute for ‘the real people, in the same place, learning together’. However, there is a persistent call for them to be more interactive.

One university to take this on board is Glasgow Caledonian University, which has taken the approach of using TurningPoint clicker technologies to support lectures, resulting in innovative ‘flipped teaching’ approaches. The university had devised a plan of action to introduce the clicker technology to its School of Health and Life Sciences, involving liaison with IT to install TurningPoint software on all lectern computers throughout the whole university, immediately removing the barrier of having to bring along a laptop in order to use the clickers.

The software was then made available to download via learning platform GCU Learn, enabling all staff to download the software to their work or home computer. iSpring Converter was used to convert a narrated presentation to HTML5, in order to give a web-based browser solution and make the presentation more accessible. It created a slide menu enabling students to start and stop at any slide. Finally, a managed service was introduced allowing staff to book and collect the clickers.

Students were given materials in advance, then on the day of the lecture interactive slides and clickers were used to gauge the students’ knowledge of the topic. This provided instant feedback both to the students and to the lecturer, enabling the lecturer to focus teaching time on those areas highlighted by the instant feedback as requiring further explanation.

Administration wow

Now ‘administration’ might not be a student buzzword, or have connotations of breathtaking excitement and mind-blowing tech, but (give me a minute here), it can and does involve some really interesting innovation. Plus, its potential to enhance the student experience of the learning environment is immense. Take timetabling, if you will.

As one of the UK’s leading universities, ranked sixth in the Guardian’s 2015 University Guide, the University of Surrey places great emphasis on its students’ experience of the institution. Back in February this year, the university opened a £35 million research centre for the development of the first worldwide 5G network, and, keen to demonstrate how it is embracing mobile technology to improve its own internal systems and communication as well, it rolled out CMISGo, a mobile timetabling and resource management solution from technology company Advanced Learning.

CMISGo has been integrated into the university’s existing CMIS management information system, also from Advanced Learning, which already produces and publishes timetables for approximately 400 course programmes to 15,000 students and academic staff members. The system also manages the booking of spaces within the university such as lecture theatres, laboratories and campus accommodation. It has greatly improved the planning and coordination of its academic timetables, replacing the manual processes in place at the time.

“As one of the UK’s leading universities, our strategy is committed to improving students’ experiences and, by integrating with mobile technologies, CMISGo is integral to this. The system gives students all the information they need at their fingertips in keeping with young people’s expectations today,” says Harri ap Rees, deputy registrar and director of student administration at the University of Surrey.

Specifically developed for use with mobile technologies, Advanced Learning’s CMISGo is a cloud-based solution, enabling students and academic staff to view personalised course and exam timetables via smartphone, tablet and desktop devices using Web and SMS technology at any time, wherever they are; there really are no excuses for missed attendance or late arrivals.

Hug a tree, go paperless

The advantages of mobile timetabling highlight its value to the universities in terms of student engagement, but there are also huge benefits that directly affect the bottom line. At Surrey, the solution has reduced administrative costs and boosted the university’s environmental sustainability goals by eliminating the need to produce paper-based timetable packs, cutting the circulation of approximately 260,000 documents each year. In addition, staff no longer need to print student timetables to hand out and they no longer need to print door timetables for the 500 teaching spaces across the campus.

This efficiency outcome is echoed by the University of Westminster (UoW), another university to embrace the smartphone revolution with CMISGo software, with timetables made available to its 27,000 students and over 4,000 staff via their smartphones. The technology also allows students and academic staff to share diaries and course information, enhancing their ability to collaborate.

“As a direct consequence of using CMIS and CMISGo, the timetabling team have been able to prepare the timetable for the entire academic year in advance and in a fraction of the time it is has previously taken,” says Martin Stevens, UoW timetabling project manager.

Game-changers

These examples have provided the smallest of snapshots of the technology-enhanced learning experiences that are delivering real enhancements and efficiencies. Many of the systems and solutions currently operating or being implemented in universities up and down the country are game-changers in the life of the university, enhancing the lives of the students who use them and improving the day-to-day management of the institutions within which they operate.

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