Using a range of smart technology devices in different locations that allow students to collaborate and study together easily.
As a primarily distance learning based University it is important that the OU continues to support new methods of communication to enable students to work collaboratively and to form connections with their peers on their modules and qualifications. While we used to run physical meeting groups and multiple residential schools, recent years have seen a move towards forum usage and attempts to find web-based solutions, such as using online rooms.
We now have an opportunity to support this type of working practise to a far greater extent if we are able to take up usage of what the abundance of smart devices in student households and workplaces offers, which is services and hardware specifically designed for group communication via audio and video conferencing. The growth in adoption of devices such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Facebook Portal means that society has become used to using these devices to stay in touch with family and friends and to communicate with work colleagues.
Yet the use of these devices for education has been limited, with Universities preferring to keep students within their own environments and technical setups. This is true even at the OU where we now primarily offer Adobe Connect rooms for student use. However, these services are aimed at high-end collaboration, being designed specifically to cope with features that do not get commonly used, and are perhaps over-engineered for short, informal group calls. They are also not available quickly and easily via devices, generally requiring the use of a PC or laptop to function. This is in inflexible approach to informal (and perhaps formal) student collaboration at scale.
The purpose of this strand is to establish the possibilities of the use of lower-end services by students, such as Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or Google Duo group calls, and whether promoting and facilitating the use of these services to students to work collaboratively on a more informal basis can provide benefits that are not yet realised by our higher-end provision.
There are questions to answer about, and possible issues with, the safeguarding and protection of students in such environments that will need to be considered, but these are similar issues to what we face now in any case, as students still make use of Facebook and external forums where the University cannot monitor activity. However, we are only promoting the use of these calls between students that want to work with each other and who would need to find a method for this in any case.
The benefits of utilising technology that is almost dedicated to these types of activity for educational use, instead of social, could be substantial if they lead to a rise in collaboration and better end results. There could also be potential benefits for improving the digital literacy of students, in addition to social benefits of getting to know peers. There are also possible employability benefits, in that it is common to use such systems in the workplace and familiarity with the technology will be beneficial.
The major benefit is that these devices and services offer a far greater level of flexibility for the student. The vast majority of students own and use a smartphone today - our own research shows that at least 89% of our students do - and the applications we are looking at here are all available to use free on iOS and Android. They are also available via almost every single smart device on the market, meaning that there is massive flexibility in choice on device type to use, but also in what location, as these services have been engineered to work well on low level connections and via mobile data. Available 24/7/365, these services have almost 99.99% uptime, meaning students will be able to use them whenever and wherever they wish. With our support and guidance, assisting students in understanding the benefits available to them and suggesting possible use cases to them, these devices could provide huge benefits.
There is also a potential benefit to the University in that uptake of such services could reduce load and stress on the core systems and reduce the associated costs of licensing a system going forwards.
Updates will be made available here as the work progresses.
The Smart Tech project was born out of the need to understand more fully the potential benefits of smart device usage on student success and to assess whether there are changes that we can make to the production and delivery of learning materials to assist in this aim.Discover more about the project