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Newcastle University won first prize for best 'student experience' at last night's Guardian University Awards. The university was recognised for its mental health project, which provides students with anxiety or depression with quick-to-access treatment as an alternative to NHS care.

Jisc sponsored the student experience category of the Guardian University Awards this year. The student experience category awards an innovative project that has positive impact on the academic or personal experience of students. Newcastle University received the award from Bex Whitehead, our director of group communications, in front of hundreds of university delegates.

Bex Whitehead comments:

"Congratulations to Newcastle University who has established a psychological therapy training and research clinic to provide students suffering from anxiety or depression with easy access mental health care.

The university's entry is an example of making a meaningful and impactful change in supporting student mental health when demand for services is so high and sees them successfully win this year's award."

Top marks

Champion of the night was Nottingham Trent University. They have been crowned university of the year in the Guardian's annual awards for their inclusive curriculum and focus on social mobility.

The University of Westminster and York St John University came highly commended in the 'student experience' category. 

The University of Westminster was recognised for their Democratic Education Network (DEN). This hub links students with local community groups and international universities by working on projects together.

York St John University was commended for their 'All About Respect' project. The student-run campaign promotes zero tolerance of sexual violence, harassment and abuse at university and in the wider community.

Technology is changing quickly and there is pressure in many organisations, including further education colleges, to respond to that challenge. 

So what can colleges do to keep pace with evolving edtech and use it effectively to benefit students and their organisations? These questions will be in the spotlight at a summit this summer.

Jointly arranged by Jisc and the AoC, the FE technology summit will discuss the kind of technological innovation that the sector needs to survive and thrive.

Aimed at FE leaders and taking place on 17 June at Google's base in central London, the summit aims to prove how comprehensive digital strategy can help to improve teaching and learning experiences; equip staff and students with digital skills for the future; drive efficiencies; and make colleges more competitive.

Delegates will have the opportunity to:

  • Talk to Jisc's edtech experts
  • Hear about best practice from peers
  • Network with colleagues
  • Review their college's current technology strategy
  • Understand different approaches to cross-college working
  • Discuss the future skills' development of learners

Jisc's head of FE and skills, Paul McKean said:

"This event will provide delegates with the opportunity to hear from key experts, to hear about the latest tech products and services, to learn from colleagues who have already been through a technological transformation, to network with peers and gather the insight and inspiration they need to make strategic plans for their own organisations.

"We know that, while some colleges are using existing and emerging technology brilliantly to enhance the student experience – everything from chatbots to VR and AR – the picture across the sector is patchy. We work with our members to help them thrive in our ever-more connected world, and this event will support that work."

Registration for the summit is now open.

From research in volcanic regions of Iceland to education in remote corners of the English Peak District, networking can be challenging. This developing area of work for Jisc is being explored and discussed at Networkshop47, 9-11 April 2019.

Not many academics require hostile environment awareness training. But then, not many academic workplaces are like the British Geological Survey (BGS).

Peter Lyons-Lewis, head of IT at BGS, says matter-of-factly:

"You'll be learning how to crawl through a minefield, then you get attacked, kidnapped, tied up and blindfolded, and interrogated." 

Unreliable power sources

Peter is understated about these unorthodox connectivity situations. He says:

"You're there to do a job that requires networking, but that can get challenging when you're working in remote locations. Very often, there's no internet connection, and you often need to take advantage solar power or wind power. Wind power can sometimes be overcome by the wind itself, which has been known to destroy the equipment."

Founded as the world's first national geological survey in 1835, the BGS carries out systematic surveying, monitoring and research. It has seismometers and seismographs to record earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and explosions, and geomagnetic observatories, providing scientists, IT staff and infrastructure for ship-based marine drilling and coring operations across the world.

Next time you hear about ash from an Icelandic volcano causing mayhem in airspace, spare a thought for the network engineers. According to Peter, not only did Grímsvötn's 2011 eruptions cause issues but Icelandic volcanoes, in general, can be tricky beasts. He explains,

"BGS has a number of observatories on volcanoes. Periodically, teams go to check on the equipment. We've had a situation where an observatory has just vanished, fallen down a crevasse."

Connecting students and educators

Creative Commons attribution information
Screenshot of networking AR

Jisc is similarly aware of the problems remote and wild locations can pose to connectivity.

Back in 2013, for example, senior innovation developer Matt Ramirez worked collaboratively with the University of Manchester to create virtual field trips for MSc geology students to use in the Peak District. Matt explains:

"The problems that we were trying to solve with technology couldn't be addressed with traditional means. A lot of international students were often only in the UK for a semester, which meant they missed the opportunity to go on important field trips."

Immersive technology enabled these students to visit locations in their own time, examining the environment 'guided by' qualified academics, and with academic content.

"Connectivity wasn't too much of an issue on the top of the Peaks, but in areas that didn't have network coverage, we came up with solutions to tether the devices to mobile hotspots."

A current service that is being developed focuses on immersive technology and its benefit to education. The hope is that by using technologies such as VR, remote and isolated areas will see improvements in collaborative research and learning, allowing colleagues thousands of miles away to work together more effectively. Additionally, Jisc has worked on bespoke projects with individual institutions.  

Matt added:

"We're looking to solve problems and connect people. This links to Jisc's vision of the future with Education 4.0".

Anything is possible

Back at BGS, ships are a major preoccupation for computer infrastructure manager, Alan Douglas. He says:

"One of our projects collects scientific research from around the world – but every time, it's a different country, a different ship, a different ship supplier, and a totally different set of objectives. You may get satellite cover, but it isn't guaranteed - and you don't know if it's going to work with your equipment until you get there.

"One of the things we're looking at in the Arctic is how to achieve high-speed communications between three ships that are moving at the same time and not necessarily in line with each other. That was a big head-scratcher, but it's not impossible."

What, if anything, can those in the networking communities learn from BGS's experience? Peter laughs:

"Appreciate the bandwidth you've got…and don't give up!"

And Alan?  He concludes:

"I'd say that almost anything's possible." 

Networkshop47 logo

This article is based on a feature from the Networkshop47 magazine 2019. Delegates can hear Peter and Alan's closing keynote, 'Networking in difficult environments', on day three of Networkshop, on Thursday 11 April at 11.45 in lecture theatre 2.

A government strategy launched today into how technology can be used to transform education has been welcomed by Jisc as a key contributor and collaborator.

The Education Technology Strategy – backed by £10m – seeks to bring together teachers, lecturers and education experts with edtech businesses to tackle challenges from reducing teachers' workload to supporting access and inclusion through technology.

The strategy identifies barriers to the use of edtech, including a lack of a consistent use of technology in education and the need for a more modern infrastructure, with slow internet connections and outdated internal networking all too common.

As a key provider of technology to UK further and higher education organisations, Jisc is pleased that its role in supporting critical infrastructure is mentioned as the second of 19 key government commitments in the strategy – the DfE says it will "continue to support Jisc to provide full-fibre connections through its Janet Network to colleges and universities".

The network, with its built-in cyber security measures, is vital to the sector, which the strategy acknowledges, along with the advice and guidance Jisc gives to FE and HE. Education providers are also encouraged to use Jisc's key services, particularly the annual assessments of staff and student digital skills, while its work to negotiate deals on behalf of the sector to secure digital resources, software and other services is also highlighted.

Elsewhere, Jisc is keen to play a role in galvanising support for, and delivering the strategy's wider aims, such as putting together a network of 'demonstrator schools and colleges' that will leverage the existing expertise in the sector and help to provide peer-to-peer support and training. Jisc already has experience in running competitions for edtech start-ups and supports the government's plan to implement its own 'challenges' to increase business activity in this area.

Finally, the proposal for an EdTech Leadership Group comprising representatives across the education sector and industry is also one Jisc will seek to play an active role, as it looks towards the edtech of the future through its vision for an Education 4.0 – a response for the tertiary education sector to deliver to the fourth industrial revolution.

Paul Feldman, CEO of Jisc said:

"I believe that technology in all its forms is a vital resource that empowers our teachers and lecturers and helps our children to succeed. From addressing the simplest needs in the classroom to artificial intelligence and the internet of things, these rapidly evolving technologies are changing how we live, work and communicate and need to be reflected and deployed across our education ecosystem, at every stage of the lifelong learning journey. 

"I welcome this bold strategy and look forward to Jisc collaborating with government, colleges and universities to further realise the benefits of technology, in transforming our fantastic education sector."

With Jisc's learning analytics service going live last summer, we caught up with some of the people who are part of the community of practice shaping the service, to find out how implementation is going and what learning analytics is adding to their university.

Mike Hughes

"We were one of the first universities to get involved when Jisc started to put together a group of institutions to work together on learning analytics,"

says Mike Hughes, education research and enterprise services manager at City, University of London.

"We wanted to get in ahead of the curve and help shape a shared solution. Sometimes it's a tortuous journey but it's worth it when you've been involved in creating something that's designed around your needs."

The development of a learning analytics service for the sector was one of Jisc's first co-design projects and has now reached a key point where institutions are in the early stages of implementation or gearing up to get started.

Christine Couper

The learning analytics community of practice is driving developments and it has grown to around 20 universities and colleges, meeting every couple of months to talk about common issues and work with our development team on an analytics solution. The University of Greenwich joined four years ago and Dr Christine Couper, director of strategic planning, explains why:

"We were aware of learning analytics' potential but we also knew there were many different approaches and we had so many questions. We wanted to explore it carefully in a supported way."


Each community member is working at its own pace and with a particular focus on its own key concerns. The University of South Wales's (USW's) first priority involved its student experience plan, giving staff insights into student engagement and progress so they can tailor the personal academic coaching programme.

Martin Lynch

Each student at the university has a member of departmental staff who is responsible for mentoring and wellbeing. Martin Lynch, learning systems manager in IT services at the university, says the data should open up more meaningful conversations:

"The analytics data will help staff to prepare for meetings. It tells a story but it's not the whole story. It's just a really good place to start the conversation."

And, as he says, this doesn't mean gathering more kinds of data. It simply means pulling together what already exists, albeit in disaggregated form. Bringing it together and presenting it clearly allows patterns to emerge.

[#insertinlinedriver guide#]

After more than two years of what Martin calls 'pipe-laying' to clean the data and get it flowing into the cloud-based learning data hub efficiently – and extensive piloting – USW kicked off a learning analytics project in earnest at the start of the autumn 2018 term. It's one of the first members of our community of practice to do so.

At the same time the learning analytics team at City, University of London has been on a three-year programme to explore the potential of learning analytics.

They are asking questions such as what the university wants to get from analytics, laying the groundwork with staff and students and exploring the privacy and ethical implications using our code of practice as a guide.

Development and implementation

The co-design process is designed to make sure we stay focused on what matters to members and that every participant can make faster, more effective progress than they could alone.

The institutions have worked in partnership with us to shape the architecture and tools at the heart of the service. Together, we've ironed out glitches so that student records and data can flow automatically into the cloud-based learning data hub, for example, and individual institutions have taken particular interest in developing particular tools – Abertay University has been instrumental in developing the student app study goal, which they're using to monitor attendance. As Greenwich's Christine Couper says, "we've all done a bit and been prepared to share what we've learned".

What have they discovered?

For one thing, worries about staff and student reactions to learning analytics often melt away when consultation and communication are done openly and well.

At USW this has initially targeted staff, promoting learning analytics and providing training to 350 key people this year alone. Students are the next priority and the university is prototyping a set of custom-built student-facing dashboards so they can share access to the data and ultimately get more involved in learning design.

At Greenwich, the initial focus has also been on staff and they are already giving positive feedback about data explorer, a tool that provides them with visualisations of VLE usage, attendance and assessment results. The university intends to deploy the study goal app for students before Christmas. Christine Couper says this is an important step because it's university policy for students to have access to their personal learning analytics data; this will put it at their fingertips.

Interestingly, she says, feedback from students to the students' union indicates that students expect the university to be using student data to improve the student experience. And, she says, "far from being overly cautious, students may well prove to be an ally in this new space as they see the benefits that analytics can help us to provide."

Next steps

Over the next few months, several members will start measuring the impact of their first forays into learning analytics. At the University of Greenwich they'll be exploring the kinds of patterns that they are seeing in the data and thinking about how these might tie into wider institutional agendas including the timing of assessments to minimise stress and reducing the attainment gap for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) students.

Mimi Weiss Johnson

At City, University of London, senior educational technologist Mimi Weiss Johnson says they plan to make their final decisions about what kind of analytics service to offer and what they need to put in place to make sure it happens. This includes considerations such as support needs, technical infrastructure and institutional policies.

The City Learning Analytics Project team are working on developing a learning analytics recommendations report, based on their findings, to put to senior management next summer. Part of this work includes a market review of commercial learning analytics solutions alongside the Jisc service. Mimi explained:

"We're exploring the various learning analytics solutions so that we can choose the right one for City, University of London. Working as part of the Jisc community of practice has been a unique opportunity to collaborate with a service provider and I can't imagine anyone but Jisc offering that opportunity. It demonstrates a real commitment to meeting the needs of their customers. It's a great model and I hope Jisc continues to use it in future."

Find out more about our learning analytics service.