that lightbulb moment

Students scoop big grants to develop education technology ideas

Summer of Student Innovation - a two-stage student ideas competition - invites technology pitches that could improve the higher education student experience. Fifteen winners were chosen to receive £44,000 of expert support and are now in the running to win an additional £44,000.

Now in its fourth year, the Summer of Student Innovation is managed by Jisc, a not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions within the higher education (HE), further education (FE) and skills sectors in conjunction with key partners such as Russell Universities’ Group of IT Directors, Colleges Information Systems Association and the Association for Learning Technology.

The competition invites students and apprentices registered on any course at a UK university, college or learning provider to submit ideas via Jisc’s Elevator website. Once a concept has been submitted to the site (usually via video) the public can vote for their favourite.

Jisc evaluates every idea that reaches the voting threshold of 250 and then invites the top teams to interviews where 15 Stage One winners are awarded £2,000 and are selected to attend a four-day residential planning course.  

The best four or five ideas from the event then go on to Stage Two, receiving additional funding of £3,000 per team to initially work with Jisc to create a specification, and then with a developer to create actual products that will be available to universities and colleges.

Of the 15 Stage One winners, whose ideas ranged from augmented reality to apps enabling students to test each other or locate study spaces across campus, we spoke to two about how they came up with their award-winning ideas.

Joe Perkins, Bangor University

Course Match – an app to help students with the nightmare process of selecting a university course which implements the ‘Tinder’ user interface.

Perkins recently graduated with a BSc in computer science and  came up idea while living with housemates, one of whom realised he hated his course and dropped out of university and two others who switched courses after their first year.

“I figured my friends couldn’t be alone in this issue, and that there had to be a solution,” says Perkins. “Namely that more support is needed for prospective university students to help them find a degree that they will enjoy and actually complete.”

In order for Course Match to become more than a concept, Perkins had to prove that his friends weren't the only ones having problems and that student drop-out rates were a real issue nationwide.

“Data provided by HESA for 2013/2014 showed that 8.3 per cent of students dropped out of their studies in their first year,” explains Perkins. “This may seem like a small percentile but when you dig a bit deeper it represents roughly 25,000 students. With each student paying around £9,000 annually in tuition fees alone, I realised that an astonishing £225m was effectively wasted by young people who were perhaps not given the support required to make an informed choice on their higher education selection.”

While aware that student drop-out rates can be for many reasons (and that roughly 7,000 of the students surveyed continued their studies with a new HE provider), Perkins was still convinced that careers advice and support needed improving.

Hitherto Perkins’ was developing his Course Match app alone (with some assistance from an ‘advisor’ friend). But since being awarded the £2,000 funding Perkins’ feels optimistic that his project will get off the ground.

“Aside from basic living and travel costs, the funding will allow me to outsource small portions of the development of the application, (web scraping, graphics design work) allowing me to focus on my strengths as a mobile software engineer,” he says.

“I’m extremely grateful for Jisc running such a fantastic competition and to all the people out there who voted for Course Match!”

Alice Brown and Callum Sykes, University of Nottingham (UoN)

acHack – a ‘satnav’ website for easier study resources

Brown is currently studying for master’s in entrepreneurship, innovation and management, and Sykes, armed with a degree in architecture, is now in full-time employment.

Coming from a digital generation that mainly uses the internet for research they realised that while an incredible resource it is very easy to get ‘lost in a sea of browser tabs’.

Brown is also not ashamed to admit her tendency for procrastination.

“I’d often leave essays until just a couple of days before the deadline – which proved incredibly stressful,” she says. “Most of the time I had was taken up just trying to find relevant material to reference – either by skimming, searching for keywords, or looking at bibliographies or contents pages – and most of that was fruitless and unproductive.”

Convinced they weren’t alone with this dilemma Brown and Sykes conducted a survey of 117 students at the UoN and discovered that 80 per cent of those surveyed admitted to procrastinating before beginning their research and over half were exasperated by the amount of irrelevant information they had to wade through.

Brown and Sykes had also joined Hacksoc, the computer programming society at UoN and took part in a ‘Hackathon’, an event at which coding enthusiasts get together in teams to spend weekends trying to develop something new, useful and fun using their skills.

“The drive, ambition and focus of the programmers really inspired me, so I stayed up all night trying to come up with a really innovative idea – it didn’t matter to me whether I could code it or not,” says Brown. “After a bit of late-night spit-balling, frantic drawing and scribbling, the idea for acHack came to fruition.”

The idea was to create a user-generated platform where students can view articles and textbooks according to how relevant and readable they are, connect with other students studying the same subject as them, interactively and visually explore the research around a subject area, and create and view a personalised subject library.
While Sykes has already developed the prototype, the partners still require a team of web designers up to scratch with databases and UX design to get the website up and functioning to spec. Among other issues they face is how they access the title information of academic material.

“We have two options here,” says Brown. “Either we create the database ourselves, and encourage the student community to add material, or we somehow access the databases that are already available. My preference would be the latter, because it would be much easier for students to use, and there’d be less of an incentive required to join, but this is likely to get expensive very quickly!”

The bulk of the acHack’s £2,000 funding will go towards developing the website itself, and finding people who can help with it.

“Depending on the cost of accessing the bibliographic databases of academic material we’d need, we could create a dummy version of the website using one or more of these databases, which would great,” Brown says. “We’d also like to get some IP protection on our name and to get some really professional promotional materials made.”

Great ideas keep coming

Developing concepts is not the only tough call. The competition organisers themselves had their work cut out when it came to choosing the Stage One winners given that ed-tech students are an invaluable source of on-the-ground knowledge and innovation – as Paul Bailey, senior co-design manager for Jisc can testify.

“Year on year, the brilliant ideas for our Summer of Student Innovation competition just keep on coming," he says. "Choosing the winners was not an easy task; they were selected as their ideas were innovative and exciting, while addressing new opportunities in educational technology. Their ideas also have the potential to be developed into products with Jisc, and really could have a genuine impact on learning, teaching or research. We’re excited to start working with the winning teams!”

Stage Two winners will be announced at the end of August. Look out for our follow-up feature later this year.

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