Our universities are bursting with innovative ideas that involve exploiting digital technologies to their fullest extent, and the annual Times Higher Education (THE) Awards Outstanding Digital Innovation category provides a great opportunity to celebrate them.
As a panellist for the 2014 and 2015 awards, I continue to be astonished by the inventiveness of the projects submitted, and the impact they have had on their institutions and in many cases wider society too. There is also potential transferability to other institutions, which I believe Jisc may be able to facilitate - something that I am exploring with several of the previous years’ winners.
But without further ado, let’s turn our attention on to the shortlisted projects.
University of Cambridge
Taking its inspiration from a 2011 study that noted 49% of maintained co-educational schools sent NO girls on to take A-Level physics, the Isaac Physics project at The University of Cambridge aims to change this by supporting self-paced learning of key physics topics.
It provides a distilled experience of what studying physics at university might be like, and tries to build learners’ confidence by using hints - which research has shown can be particularly helpful in engaging female students. The platform itself has been built open sourced, and the team are now exploring its use in other subject areas, such as biology. It has nearly 5,000 users, with some 500 teachers registered to use the site.
What can we learn about the materials used in historical manuscripts, and can they tell us anything about history and societal change? In an exciting inter-disciplinary collaboration, Durham University has developed a miniaturised and portable Raman spectroscopy and hyperspectral imaging system, which staff have used on the priceless manuscripts of the Durham Gospels.
The system allows them to establish the chemical composition of pigments on the page, which are proven to be potent indicators of cultural exchange and societal change – examples of this include tracking the introduction of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and the oldest recorded sighting of Egyptian Blue. The team has also successfully applied this technique with ancient manuscripts at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Aberdeen.
Edinburgh Napier University
The Low-Latency (LoLa) team at Edinburgh Napier University worked with Jisc technical staff to leverage the Janet network to enable real-time simultaneous musical performances across long distances, along with other media and data streaming applications.
With local IT teams at several institutions, the team has carried out a number of high impact demonstrations of LoLa, such as a duet between a pianist in London and a clarinettist in Edinburgh, and musicians in three European cities. Lessons learned are highly transferrable to routine video conferencing applications, and to research and teaching areas where latency is an issue, such as remote visualisation.
Importantly, the project highlighted the critical need for a joined-up, end-to-end approach in managing connectivity, as institutional firewalls proved to be a major contributor to latency and quality problems. This has influenced a future line of work by Jisc through our end-to-end performance initiative.
University of Manchester
For the ManUniCast project, the University of Manchester has built a web portal onto an open source weather and air chemistry modelling system (developed by the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the United States) to support teaching in the school of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Science.
This makes it possible for the school to deliver a daily weather forecast that includes downloadable modelling data, all available via a website and mobile app. As well as helping students to understand how weather and climate change is modelled, the ManUniCast model has proven to be a powerful driver for the university’s programme of STEM engagement with the public.
The Open University
Finding it increasingly difficult to curate teaching and learning materials in multiple formats for delivery to learners’ devices, the Open University set about finding a solution. Through its Structured Content project, the university created an XML-driven tool, integrated with the university’s content management system and Moodle-based virtual learning environment, which produces consistent outputs in a wide range of formats, including HTML, EPUB, MOBI, Word, PDF, DAISY talking books and print-on-demand.
Instead of having to edit and produce multiple versions of a core text, academics now need only publish their canonical version of a document once. Naturally, the system has been widely adopted, with over 200 academics using it to publish their course materials.
And the winner is...
Jisc’s recent accessible by design competition has shown me the huge role digital technology can play in delivering an inclusive learning experience. I was therefore delighted to read about technology developed by the Sculpture for Health-care: Interaction and Virtual Art in 3D (SHIVA) project at Bournemouth University, which gives disabled learners the ability to bring their ideas to life using digital technology.
Working with disabled children at the Victoria Education Centre in Poole, the team at Bournemouth University has developed software that lets students with a wide range of physical impairments participate in arts activities that would previously have been inaccessible to them. Perhaps most notably, they have pioneered an innovative eye tracking software that allows profoundly disabled students to create 3D printed sculptures simply by looking at the computer screen.
There was hardly a dry eye amongst the judging panel when we discussed this entry, and that the outstanding success of Bournemouth’s work would leave a lasting impact on everyone that it touched. Understandably, this project was singled out by the panel for being genuinely ground-breaking, and potentially life changing for the students involved, and was felt by all to be the clear winner.