The new world order

Adapting to change is key to inspiring and engaging a new generation of students, says Dr Rupert Ward

When many of us of a certain age think back to our time at university, we will often recall a poorly lit lecture theatre and the podium from which the professor would impart their knowledge of a particular subject. Note taking consisted of frantic attempts at shorthand. Research for papers involved umpteen trips to the library in a bid to be the first on the reserve queue for titles on a lecturer’s reading list. I think we can all agree that times have changed.

Today, we live in a world where technology dominates every aspect of our lives. Our smartphone, tablet and laptop enable us to access information on any subject from the location of our choice. Universities, including Huddersfield, have had to adapt and change. Staff can no longer reel off the same lecture year after year. We need to provide students with content that cannot be found on the world wide web. Continuing to inspire and engage students is a challenge for us all.

Please bring your own device

We have to consider that today’s generation of students have grown up immersed in technology. IT is developing at a rapid pace, while pedagogy has yet to fully adapt to the digital age. Moreover, as social media plays an important part in the daily lives of today’s students, they have come to expect instantaneous responses to their questions and immediate access to the information they need. Clearly this poses a series of challenges for the higher education sector. We need to balance the needs of our students against not only financial constraints, but also our professional judgement as academics.

Those institutions that do not embrace technology are less likely to succeed in meeting the expectations of students and sustaining their engagement in higher education. So, the modern campus has to facilitate the rise of the anytime, anywhere approach to information.

The University of Huddersfield was one of the first institutions in the UK to provide Wi-Fi across its campus. Providing students with the ability to learn in different ways continues to be a priority for us all.

Today, we fulfil this need by enabling high speed delivery of online content and also encouraging students to bring in their own devices. They welcome the opportunity to have access to the information they need from a single source. And as Wi-Fi is available across the building, papers can be submitted and content readily accessible from a familiar device.

Inspiring students to succeed

But how students learn has dramatically changed over the last decade. Today, unsupervised learning is far more commonplace with students encouraged to find information from a myriad of sources. This is combined with learning that takes place in a lecture theatre or seminar. This means that teaching staff need to think about
what will inspire and excite students. We need to continually find new ways of engaging them in the learning experience. I incorporate the flipped technique into my teaching, for example. It involves asking students to access content ahead of my lecture. I cover some of the content during a lecture, but more importantly, I facilitate a discussion of a particular topic to enrich their understanding. Our Human and Health Sciences department incorporates the use of tablets into their learning programme. It enables students to get a feel for undertaking a consultation in a hospital environment.

Learning from our mistakes

There was a time when teaching and learning took place in Second Life, a virtual learning environment. Considerable effort was made by institutions across the country to convert learning resources and adapt delivery methods. But as soon as the system owners began charging, it became a less viable model.

The lesson many in the higher education sector have learnt is that we need to move away from thinking how technology can help teaching and learning. Technology does not make someone a better teacher or student per se. Instead, we need to step back and consider just what we are trying to achieve. The quality of teaching must remain central to all we do – by 2018, all academic staff at the University of Huddersfield will be expected to have a doctorate, for example.

What we have learnt is that the modern university campus can adapt to the expectations of students. By balancing the need for anytime, anywhere access against the professional judgement of staff across all departments, we can continue to inspire generations of students to succeed.

Dr Rupert Ward is head of Informatics at the University of Huddersfield which uses the Gigabit Wi-Fi network delivered by Capita Managed IT Solutions