(watch the full session above)
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been following developments in the area increasingly being defined as the ‘smart campus’ with great interest. It’s a concept that means different things to different people, but to me, it’s largely about the convergence of several trends and emerging technologies across the whole physical campus. These trends include the ever growing field of interest in enhancing physical learning spaces, the spread of technologies such as cheap sensors, Internet-of-Things connected devices and Artificial Intelligence (AI), as well as a greater institutional focuses on areas such energy efficiency, sustainability and well being. The results of this convergence should ideally mean that practices such as teaching, learning, research and estate management are enhanced or made more efficient. Developing a smart campus also raises concerns too, with data security and privacy being two common factors of consideration.
As the smart campus idea is gaining traction, I took the opportunity of an invitation to speak at Bett this year as a chance to facilitate a conversation around the idea. I did this by bringing together expert speakers that are working in this field with an audience that are starting to work on these issues or who have a growing awareness of them The panel comprised of Jisc’s James Clay, Chris Pearce from the University of Glasgow, and in short notice replacement for another speaker, Stephen Heppell, who was also speaking in the Main Arena on the same day.
Despite being on a Friday afternoon, we nevertheless received a pretty good turnout. The session was held in the Post-16 Theatre, so I explained to the audience that although the focus was on HE, it should also be relevant for those working in FE or Sixth Form too. It was framed early as an interactive session, so we kicked things off with an audience poll. About a third of the attendees were already working in an area broadly defined as ‘smart campus’, while half of them had come to the session because they were curious about the topic. I talked about some of the work that City has been doing in the area of learning spaces, introduced the concept of the smart campus, and suggested that, in order to shape the direction of this concept, now was the best time to start having such conversations.
Prior to opening the floor up for discussion, each speaker had a five minute pitch to talk about the work that they are doing in this area. Up first, James Clay began by describing the distinction that Jisc makes between a ‘smart campus’ and an ‘intelligent campus’. He described what our mobile devices are, in many cases, already doing in terms of intelligence, and how some of that might translate into an institutional context. Themes currently being tackled by Jisc range from the ethical issues around tracking an individual across an institution to the structuring of data systems in such a way as to be able to provide ‘institutional analytics’, that helps HEIs not only to learn more about their spaces but also how people use them.
The University of Glasgow is clearly positioned as a pioneer in the smart campus space, and Chris Pearce – a Professor in Computational Mechanics – is leading the project. They are in the rare position of being able to expand an urban campus by 14 acres, and are investing vast sums in moving from being users of technology to becoming innovators of technology. This includes ideas such as ubiquitous wireless charging rather than having sockets everywhere, and using the campus as a test bed for 5G. Chris spoke of the importance of getting the digital environment right first, in order to better facilitate new initiatives in campus energy use or looking into staff/student well being. He also suggested that Glasgow are using this as an opportunity to ask questions – pervasive sensors are widely considered integral to such projects, but what are they capturing, and what should they not be capturing?
Last up and fresh from an inspiring talk in the Main Arena that also looked forward, Stephen Heppell described three projects he has been involved in that are pertinent to the smart campus. First up was the Learnometer, a small device placed in learning spaces that measures environmental conditions such as temperature and light levels, for their impact on learning. Learnology was the second project, being worked on with Pearson, which looks at the question of what people want from their experience of higher education. He described Learnology as a smart, online, virtual campus, built around like-minded communities of people involved in their own individual research projects. Lastly, he described working on a strategy document for a proposed National Learning Service, were one to be introduced by a potential future Corbyn government, though understandably, there was little detail here!
The session moved in to audience questions next, covering the idea of education as entertainment, the role of AI in making existing online services smarter, making public spaces into learning spaces, and incorporating sustainable energy solutions into smart campus approaches. On the first point, our speakers suggested that there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeing entertaining learning as good learning, and that moving away from traditional lecture theatres is an important factor in creating the conditions for effective learning. An audience member from Bolton College shared his experiences with facilitating student interactions with a chatbot as part of their regular VLE, while Heppell commented that most students’ experience of AI in their online learning experiences is via ‘plagiarism detection engines’, and suggested that preventing ‘cheating’ was not the best use of AI.
Proceedings were brought to a close with a closing takeaway idea from each speaker. Clay raised the important maxim that ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should’ – an arguably vital consideration for any innovation. Pearce mentioned how critical it is to get the digital environment right for any of these initiatives. Heppell ended with the observation that in a world where everything else is smart, having a university that isn’t smart doesn’t seem smart. Seemed a solid way to draw the curtain on this session!
I introduced this session as a conversation around the concept of the smart campus, looking at both benefits and concerns with the idea. What are yours?
See here for Part One of this year’s Bett review