The data driving universities into the future

Jamie Pitchforth, head of education practice at Juniper Networks, examines the emerging technologies that are coming to the fore on campus

Some of the UK’s universities have impressive history that dates back almost a thousand years. The University of Oxford was founded around 1096 and is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, for example.

Institutions such as this have a constant balance to maintain. How do they continue to pay homage to the rich heritage of the institution while being seen as a university at the cutting-edge of innovation? Data is helping universities be flag bearers of invention and learning in the 21st century. Here are some of examples of how the technology can change the paradigm of education, without losing sight of the history and gravitas.

Making spaces smarter

Whether the institution is hundreds of years old or is a newer campus, one thing that any university wants to do is make sure it’s using its buildings as productively as possible; for example, by capturing the right kind of data, it’s possible to guide students to the closest available desk or computer in an area that is already being used. That way, students are not scattered around a large library that has to be lit and heated, allowing for more energy efficiency.

The wireless technology that has been used in recent years to help universities become more intelligent with their assets has still not been sufficiently accurate. Usually, they are only able to get location details down to around ten metres, which doesn’t actually tell you if a student is in a lecture theatre or in the café across the hall. It’s hard to plan accurately enough using that sort of vague data.

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The alternative now used throughout the industry is Bluetooth beacons, which can provide accuracy down to within one to three metres. Thanks to recent innovation, the Bluetooth array can be virtualised within a wireless network to become even more effective and efficient by acting like eight Bluetooth beacons in one access point. Now, it’s even easier to plan building use and reduce cases where a university will heat and light an entire building for only 30% occupation. What’s more, the universities will be able to quantify the value that future investments will generate. By monitoring current utilisation and using the data to predict future utilisation, the universities will be able to create a more robust business case for future planning.

Enhancing wellbeing with location trends

Student wellbeing is an increasingly important area for universities to get right. Last year, the government told universities to do more to offer all-round support to students throughout their studies. Wellbeing issues such as mental health are key aspects of this much needed support, but it’s often difficult for universities to interact with students on wellbeing issues because many of those who are struggling stay silent until they eventually drop out. Universities need a way to spot the patterns before it’s too late.

Location services can help in these instances too. Universities can monitor the way students move around the campus and build metadata patterns that constitute an average ‘normal’ for the students. If students reduce their movement around campus or stop attending classes, it could be the sign of a trend that the university should take notice of. The aggregate anonymised data that universities can generate can be the useful insight that they need to indicate whether they need to put an additional spotlight on pastoral care.

By providing help at the earliest opportunity, institutions can carry out the role they are being expected to: caring about individuals and ensuring they have a positive, healthy and safe experience.

Re-imagining open days

Universities want to attract the best minds to study at their campus, so it’s important to make a great first impression on prospective students during open days. This is a competitive environment – and with prospective students typically visiting more than one option before selecting their top choice, universities want to be front of mind when the final decision is made.

With numerous institutions recently pivoting toward virtual open days due to the global pandemic, many are taking the chance to reset and think about what open days can and should look like when physical tours resume.

As an example, for a person looking to study engineering, each university knows their strengths and facilities related to the engineering curriculum and will want to give a tour tailored to engineering students. In an environment where location services are enabled, universities can build an app that provides a personalised tour based on what each person wants to study. By highlighting the parts of the campus that best relate to their needs, and they give a realistic view of what university life would look like for them. Additionally, the university can see how many people took a particular tour and how they interacted with it. This intelligence can help to further improve tours for the future.

Transforming data into insights

The world is changing. The track-and-trace model being widely used to monitor the location and proximity of infections/infected people could form the basis of how we track movement in public spaces beyond the pandemic at hand. This means organisations will have to become more proficient at dealing with data and using it responsibly – compliant with the GDPR.

Indeed, data is worthless until it has meaningful purpose. Universities should consider investing in not just the infrastructure to collect the data but also the tools to interpret and understand it. Having access to the algorithms and graphical representation of the information being displayed provides a new level of detail that was not previously accessible, while also being easy to understand and therefore put to good use. This insight will be the basis of change in the future, not just for universities but for societal understanding.

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