Should students be in charge of tech?

Now that HE income is tied so closely to fees, and fee income to student satisfaction, Nicola Yeeles asks: should students be in charge of tech?

It’s that time again. Across the country, students are adding their voices to the National Student Survey. While certainly not the only questionnaire they’ll complete this academic year, it is without doubt one of the most influential. The scores they give their university or college are available online for prospective students to scrutinise, and will form part of each institution’s key information sets. 

Technology is explicitly mentioned just once in the survey – students comment on how happy they were that they’ve been “able to access general IT resources when needed”. In 2013, 87% of them were satisfied. But there’s clearly far more to a learner’s satisfaction with technology than their ability to access a computer. 

Changing the language: from customers to creators

In the UK, universities have long been consulting their students on strategies for improving their IT offer through surveys and focus groups. But across education, there’s been a change in recent years. Terms like ‘co-creator,’ ‘designer’ and ‘partner’ have replaced the old language of ‘customer’. Institutions have moved from seeing the student as a user to be listened to, to a partner in technology and organisational design.

For the second year running, UK education’s technology charity, Jisc, is organising a competition inviting students to come up with innovative solutions to their everyday challenges, then mentoring them through the process from design to roll-out. Universities like Manchester and Oxford Brookes now run app-creating contests, while entrants for open competitions like Google’s summer of code are often students or new start-ups.

Today’s students, tomorrow’s managers

Andy McGregor, deputy chief innovation officer at Jisc, said: “When you ask students what technology they want to see in their institutions, its rarely what you expect.” 

During the 2013 competition, many teams came up with ‘magic bullets’ to improve their learning experiences, such as a web app to help visualise progress through the academic year. But some also voiced surprising concerns, including how to virtualise noticeboards, and improve in-classroom lecture technology – things that the sector might have thought they’d already got right. Jisc programme manager Paul Bailey explained: “Students are anticipating future concerns. They’re already four or five years ahead – using models like gamification, or the concept of the virtual assistant. 

At the University of Greenwich a team of students have been developing their own virtual learning environment. is a social and academic hub encouraging peer-to-peer learning via a PC, mobile or tablet. Some of the ventures like Call for Participants, a crowd-sourced platform to help researchers find volunteers, are already successfully operating independently.

The University of Exeter’s student vice president for academic affairs, Alex Louch, believes that young people are more successful at identifying what they need because they are digital natives. He explained: “Current students have grown up alongside web-based technology; they live with it on a daily basis, and they know what is required from higher education providers.” 

A strategic approach to collaboration

In many universities, the concept of a student as a co-creator links activities across various different fields. Joss Winn is a senior lecturer in the use and role of technology in higher education at the University of Lincoln. He said: “At Lincoln we seek to involve students and graduate interns in most aspects of the running of the University, including the research, development and support of new technologies.”

The institution brings staff and learners together in a strategic group, one of whose aims is to “engender critical, digitally literate staff and students”.

The University has described this disruptive approach to the relationship between the two groups as a form of hacking. That philosophy is framed within a wider higher education academy project called ‘Student as Producer’ which Winn explained: “Emphasises the role of students as collaborators in the production of knowledge.”

For example, the University has a history of employing students to work with staff on key aspects of the teaching and learning process – from open educational resources, to a University-wide WordPress platform. Employing learners as ‘critical friends’ of the ICT department has seen numerous benefits including more open and transparent online services.

Meanwhile, at the University of Exeter, students are working in partnership with staff in order to address the challenges of using technology with large and diverse cohorts. Alex Louch said: “I firmly believe that students should be part of the co-creation of technology solutions across universities. This partnership philosophy in Exeter is working very well in the implementation of online coursework management, massively open online courses, or MOOCs, and innovative technological solutions on campus, such as the publicity of available study spaces.” 

Getting it right

But there’s a reason, too, why students sometimes aren’t consulted. There are often reasons not to change services that learners won’t see. Behind the scenes lurk inertia, status quoism and politics. Undergraduates in particular may lack the market knowledge to weigh up potential solutions or come up with anything really innovative – but where there are calls for a piece of technology that the university already offers, that can also be a sign that there’s a real market for it and it may simply need to be communicated differently to make it more appealing to the student body.

James Clay, from the University of Gloucestershire, said at the Future of Technology in Education event, “Students don’t necessarily know what they need or what they want. It’s not just about listening to learners but also giving them an opportunity to answer this question: what do you want to do, not what do you want?”

A win-win situation?

Nevertheless, the benefits of putting students at the heart of tech decision-making are obvious: switched-on, engaged students; a university that knows what its users want, and up-to-date technology. People who see services from the bottom-up are often quicker than staff at identifying problems, and by applying themselves to solving them, those learners gain skills valued by future employers.Louch added: “Students in Exeter are at the heart of university technological development, and this provides the users with solutions they really want, along with a sense of ownership.”

Sometimes, it seems, students are the best people to answer their own questions.


How are universities getting students involved? 

At Oxford Brookes University, e-pioneers share their digital skills, practices, ideas and expectations with staff and are supported in working towards professional recognition or academic credit. Student ambassadors for learning and teaching at the University of Sheffield are paid for between 50–80 hours of work during the academic year.

✥ Identify the specific incentives

McGregor says, “Students’ primary motivator is not money. Peer recognition, career development and focusing on incentives are all really important.”

At the University of Winchester, outgoing student fellows have claimed they were attracted to training others in technology because of the leadership and networking opportunities and a chance to have a positive impact on their course.

✥ Keep it simple

McGregor recommends that students need a free rein to be creative. He says, “Wherever possible, keep out of the way of students. They don’t need fully robust proposals; those can be honed later on.”

✥ Encourage involvement from A diverse range of students

Participants in a computer science course will approach things quite differently from others. A student with a non-technical background could help challenge assumptions about what’s ‘intuitive’, or which challenges are better solved offline.

✥ Offer a set ‘problem’

Consider presenting students with a fixed real-life problem to solve. At Kingston, after a previous staff-led attempt failed, the University turned to students to design and deliver a pre-induction social network site for new business students.

✥ Make use of staff

To help upskill students and ensure they retain a balanced view, setting up an embedded team may be more appropriate than asking undergraduates to work independently. For example, at the University of Leeds staff partner with interns and undergraduate dissertation students. Together they create and evaluate interactive learning materials for a laboratory training module in
biomedical sciences.