At Jisc, we strongly believe that students should have a prime role in developing novel uses of technology to improve their experience. In 2013 we ran a competition designed with RLUK, RUGIT, SCONUL and UCISA as part of a new co-design approach to innovation within UK education.
Students from universities and colleges were invited to produce a video pitch to market their idea to their peers and a panel of professionals in the field. 21 projects were successfully funded and supported to develop their ideas.
"The Summer of Student Innovation is an opportunity to incubate ideas – but the side benefit is an amazing amount of intelligence about what students want."
Andrew McGregor, deputy chief innovation officer at Jisc
Encouraging student entrepreneurship is happening across UK education especially through the incubation centres that have sprung up in universities nationwide including ideaScotland in Dundee, The Hatchery at London Metropolitan University and Basecamp at the University of Bristol. There are also other technology-specific projects supported through Innovate UK funding, Google’s summer of code and universities themselves, such as Oxford Brookes’ mobile apps competition; and the University of Manchester’s student library competition.
The student view is vital and so, alongside the existing market intelligence and data analysis carried out by universities and colleges, we plan that what we’ve learned from the Summer of Student Innovation will usefully share new insights into what students are looking for.
While not all the project teams have yet produced a marketable outcome, it is their approaches and concerns that we’re most interested in capturing here.
Students’ interest areas submitted for competition can be divided into four areas: teaching and learning; research; student life; improving the organisational infrastructure.
"Students wanted a magic bullet; they are looking at the little things that aid and support them. They want things that helps them learn but they’ll often look ahead to technologies that are still emerging to help them create that, like gamification, or the notion of virtual assistants that track someone’s personal data as they move, eat and sleep. Those technologies are probably on the four to five year horizon."
Paul Bailey, Jisc programme manager
Although there were a variety of approaches to the solutions, there was remarkable overlap in students’ concerns.
Their key requirements were:
- How can I network with like-minded individuals to enhance my learning experience? (7 projects)
- How can I keep track of my progress? (6 projects)
- How can I revise effectively? (4 projects)
- How can students engage more effectively with their lecturers during lectures? (4 projects)
- How can I find funding for my research? (3 projects)
Other questions which interested project teams include: How can I personalise my learning experience? How can I avoid multiple sign-ins? How can I maintain my privacy safely? How can I find out about everything going on campus?
Personalised learning: by far the majority of the student proposals were aimed at improving their learning experience. There was considerable interest in personalising the lecture experience (especially attracting the lecturer’s attention during a lecture and interacting directly with them), tracking and visualising progress online and revising effectively. Both NoteDump and LectureHub (not funded) addressed the problem of missed lectures, while ManageMe incorporated a tutorial recorder space.
Networking: networking between students in different year groups, and with those studying the same subject at other universities, came up as the most commonly addressed concern across the original proposals. Even projects that did not explicitly address this issue, such as ShareSci, built a social networking aspect into their platform.
Knowing how to give and respond positively to feedback from our peers is a key skill for learning and working in a connected world.
Student voter on Jisc Elevator
Tracking progress: keeping track of your own progress was of interest to six projects, with Profectus being the only one to explicitly address the needs of students with learning difficulties or disabilities. Progress addressed the challenge of predicting grades based on current performance, while ManageMe helped students dedicate the right amount of time to studying.
Peer learning: voters on Jisc Elevator responding to the student-led virtual learning environment the StudentVLE.com commented most often on its “networking on a national scale” and peer learning. 60% of the 333 votes for this popular project came from people outside the project team’s own university.
Improved communication: the only proposal from further education was in this category; Classnet sought to improve communication between students studying related subject areas.
"I’ve been studying at colleges since I was 16. I’ve always thought that resource information should be improved dramatically. Sometimes it can be hard to find relevant information […] I’ve always wanted to be logged on and have all my classmates already logged in."
Kieran Wright, Barking and Dagenham College, Classnet
Analytics: a data driven approach to learning is still a few years away for most universities, but many of the students’ solutions were already making use of analytics. For example, Progress allows students to forecast their grades and track progress online; Mimir uses error analysis to help students learn maths subjects; and Crasto the digital study buddy learns from your working patterns to help suggest breaks and routines.
The NMC Horizon report for 2013 (p5) suggests that learning analytics is still on the mid-term horizon; the Educause report found students were still only moderately interested. So it’s an area where institutions can work to build their learner’s confidence and the projects suggest that many students will be receptive.
By students, for students: students like the idea of having student-run versions of existing university services like VLEs; this was the selling point of theStudentVLE.com, for example.
Integrated solutions: students did not see their college or university experience in silos like ‘learning’ and ‘personal life’ but frequently suggested solutions that stretched across different areas of their life. UniSocs, for example, allows students to track their work progress alongside their extra-curricular activities:
"We want UniSocs to improve the student experience as a whole, from enhancing the learning environment to building relationships between peers."
Joseph Chamberlain, undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, UniSocs
Communication methods: Uni-Board, an online student noticeboard, gained more votes than any other project on the Elevator. Currently there is some use of noticeboards in institutions but perhaps they could be better or differently communicated to students:
"I appreciate there are national sites available for anything anybody wants to buy, but they are not student-specific. Uni-Board will give students the option to select their university and then refine their search to the item they are seeking."
Matt Beveridge, University of Birmingham, Uni-Board
A related issue was identified by PitchPatch:
"We noticed that a lot of students wanted to put together material for student societies, or were putting on events, and they needed other students to help them out. It was difficult for them to make contact with the right people."
Caroline Nguyen, University of Edinburgh student, PitchPatch
Information deluge: there was also frequent mention of the information overload that students feel, and the difficulty of managing that information:
"I’ve been asking students and members of staff what the biggest issue they think there is at the university and the most common answer is email. Some people are receiving upwards of 60 emails a day."
Edmund Gentle, undergraduate at Plymouth University, Later
Games: students utilised elements of gamification that the 2014 NMC report (p42) predicts are still a year or more away from general adoption.
"I very much like the idea [of Manage Me]. Not just the time management dimension but also the incentive of reward points that can be traded in for food, stationery and event tickets. A good tool that will help students - with 'prizes' ".
Staff voter commenting on ManageMe
Privacy care: the Educause study (pdf, p32) indicates that students are extremely sensitive to their own privacy and may resist the integration of technology that they regard as being for personal use eg Facebook. They also prefer to keep their social lives separate (p34). This suggests we may need to be cautious about extrapolating from what students develop for themselves (perhaps because they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they have more control over their privacy) and what they may accept from the institution.
Funding: the most common issue identified by the research-oriented projects was how to find funding for research.
Interdisciplinary approach: projects addressing niche areas were not as common as projects that looked across the range of research disciplines. However, GoNCode and BioAcorn had specific researchers in mind:
"I've been working as a developer for 5 years, mentoring people with no previous experience in programming or development. Having a tool like this which makes it easy to learn programming sounds like a great idea!"
Voter commenting on GoNCode proposal
Improving networks: reflecting the preoccupation with effective networking which emerged from all of the projects, there were some very successful initiatives that looked at more efficiently joining up different groups of interested parties such as Call for Participants, which brings together researchers and volunteers, and FundFind, which helps researchers find funding. ShareSci allows public engagement specialists and researchers to work together on events and initiatives:
"One of very few ideas capable of improving dialogue between academia and the public.
We need to strengthen the links between the research done at Universities and the people outside research institutions."
Voters commenting on the ShareSci proposal
Raising 'the big issues': The greatest number of votes received on the Elevator for a research project were for BioAcorn. One of the most niche of the funded projects, it is a tool for collecting and store biological and geographical data effectively. But like the other research projects, voters perceived it had a wider agenda:
"Likely to produce a wealth of ecologically relevant data while engaging the public and raising awareness of environmental quality in human well-being."
Voter commenting on BioAcorn
Infrastructure (2 proposals)
The competition received two proposals around this complex area. Both focused on authentication but neither were funded.
Students were encouraged to be transparent in their approaches and many of them shared insights such as code fixes on their blogs, as NoteDump did on theirs. They also made use of open source coding platforms like Github, and drew on open data – for example FundFind, which uses a combination of automated data scraping and crowdsourcing to feed funding information into a central space.
The students’ blogs and comments suggested that they were sympathetic to open research:
"I want Profectus to be open source and be used in as many settings as possible through as many providers as possible"
Chris Medwell, college lecturer and University Centre Doncaster postgraduate, Profectus
Some of the most successful students had ideas that were not unique, but well-articulated. Their strength was in their ability to market and sell ideas so that they had traction. Uni-Board, for example, developed a wireframe that attracted such great interest from various institutions that we’ve now funded them to develop a pilot. Call for Participants now has 1000+ users and nearing 20 institutions making use of it both in the UK and internationally, including research intensive institutions like Harvard, Oxford and King’s College London.
Among the technologies deployed, gamification, analytics and data visualisation emerged as a key. For example, voters saw wider potential in WikiNets’ visualisation of networks:
"The concept is certainly something which would be interesting to explore, and can be useful in virtually any discipline at any university around the world. The potential for research efficiency and collaboration is particularly exciting."
Voter commenting on WikiNets
Of the 6, 319 unique votes, 70% of them came from people using non-education email addresses, but the top five university/college email stems were the universities of Essex, Greenwich, Nottingham, Imperial College London and Exeter.
People across universities and colleges, from directors to students, voted on the platform, before the most successful projects were showcased to IT directors at a UCISA conference. Their feedback for the projects was overwhelmingly positive, as these tweets show:
Good stuff from the students at #studentideas. Better than some of the vendors we've dealt with...— John Greenaway (@JohnGreenaway) November 12, 2013
Of the 21 projects, three have developed a usable product, and one did not finish.
Of the continuing projects, over half (10 projects) are being continued as a hobby or are self-sustaining, while here at Jisc we are working with six projects to develop them and explore the possibility of offering them as a shared service for the whole sector.
Following the success of the 2013 competition, we have just announced a new competition for this year.
Successful student engagement – lessons we’d like to share
Some of the factors that we believe were instrumental in these results were:
- Finding a balance between supporting students and intentionally leading them, which could crush their innovation. Finding ways to mix students with different skill sets is important for robust ideas.
- Non-technical project leads can be matched up with staff or students with those skills. For example, the social anthropology undergraduate who created PitchPatch teamed up with a group of more technical students.
- Supporting students to investigate their ideas before activating them. For example, there may be existing commercial alternatives that students may not be aware of. A staff mentor can help with this.
- Showcasing the benefits of student innovation – they’ll gain coding, project management experience and other skills that are highly relevant to their future employability, a big driver for student engagement.
- Students often need help with appreciation of timescales and process. What they might not realise is that by the time they’ve finished creating their solution, the students themselves may have finished their course.
- Students can be critical of the status quo. Often, engaging students in the process of finding solutions helps them understand the complexity and issues especially when they get down to implementation.
- Promote this year’s competition to your students
- Look through the final project videos for the 2013 projects - you can contact the student project leads directly to express your interest or find out more
- Set up a local version of our competition
- Explore the 2013 student ideas that we’re funding and keep an eye on their transition to service
Read our guides on developing business intelligence, which incorporates student survey data and developing your students’ employability through technology supported assessment and feedback.