Universities are experimenting with AI and big data to improve how students live and learn on campus
Think of a university campus: it has its own roads, shops, residential areas, banks and transport links. It may be visited by tens of thousands of people each day. It is, in effect, a tiny city. Across the globe, these mini metropolises are increasingly opting for a smart city approach. This is a tech-driven model that’s used in places such as Barcelona, where street lamps react intelligently to surroundings to save energy; Seattle, where smart traffic lights respond to the conditions on the road; and even Milton Keynes, which has a real-time “data hub” sharing information about the town’s energy and water consumption, transport, weather and pollution.
Universities are taking notice. The US is leading the way, with on-campus innovations around energy (the University of Texas at Austin has a fully independent grid that provides all its energy), transport (the University of Michigan has introduced a self-driving shuttle system) and information (the University of Minnesota has installed 300 digital signage boards, updated with real-time data).
UK institutions are following suit. The University of Glasgow has been working with innovation centre Future Cities Catapult on a strategy to bring smart tech to the campus as it expands. The vision includes intelligent campus AI, an on-demand bus service and a data centre powered by renewable energy. It’s not yet confirmed if all of these will be implemented, but according to Gemmy Ginty, one of the designers who worked on the strategy, universities are uniquely well placed to experiment.
“Smart cities are kind of slow-moving,” she says. “Cities are so big, and there are so many players and stakeholders, it can be difficult. But universities have control over their estates. They own all the buildings, they own all the networks and they have a captive audience in terms of the students, so they can become like a living lab.”
Many UK universities are doing fascinating things with tech, she says, but are often operating in a siloed way, department by department, rather than in unison. It’s something that Manchester Metropolitan University is attempting to address with its own smart campus plan, which unites six projects including engagement monitoring, digital wayfinding, lecture capture and cloud access.
“The smart campus idea was first floated in spring 2016,” says Tori Brown, the university’s IT portfolio manager. “As more projects and initiatives kept coming to light, it felt right to bring these together to tell a story around student engagement and how we can use technology to support this.”
“It’s a continually evolving plan,” she continues. “There are possibilities around smart kiosks with personalised information, true cross-campus digital and personalised wayfinding. These include wearable tech like smart watches and phones. For example: ‘You have a lecture in 10 minutes in Room X in Building Y, here’s a map and directions’; ‘Have you remembered your assignment due in this class?’; ‘As you’ve got time, if you leave now you can also take back that library book that’s due for return tomorrow’.”
Deakin University in Victoria, Australia has built and implemented a similar system, named Genie. It’s a digital assistant, in the form of a Siri-style voice-activated smartphone app, with information on assignments, timetables, referencing and more. Because it runs on AI, it grows more useful as it is used.
The university has a large distance-learning cohort, with 25% fully online and “the other 75% act[ing] like they are”, according to Beverley Oliver, deputy vice-chancellor for education at Deakin. As well as getting smarter, the system is producing a huge amount of that most prized modern commodity: data. Oliver says the university has “a strong policy around not surveilling students, but using their data with their knowledge in order to help them”.
That’s also the driving force at the University of Nottingham, according to estates manager Andy Nolan, where they are using data to understand how the physical space of the campus is used and adjust planning accordingly.
“It’s still early days,” he says. “We want to do more research around human behaviour in particular, so we can start to use things like the wifi network to monitor the presence of people as a proxy for footfall in different areas of the campus. We’ve done some early piloting of data capture which was interesting, so we’re looking at how we can roll it out more widely.”
But any kind of monitoring does raise questions around privacy. Curtin University, in Western Australia, has joined up with Hitachi to turn the campus into a “data-gathering laboratory” , with 1,600 cameras linked to facial recognition and analytics software to gather information on building trends, study patterns and course attendance. According to the university’s chief operating officer, Ian Callahan, this will be used “to improve student experience and enhance learning”.
Universities need to remember that data isn’t a magic bullet, says Kathleen Armour, pro-vice-chancellor for education at the University of Birmingham. “I am not convinced by the suggestion that we need to collect mountains of data on everything a student does,” she says. “It’s easy to be carried away. Instead, we need to use anonymous data intelligently to ensure our campus, support and systems are made as effective as possible to meet students’ needs.”
Shân Wareing, chief operating officer and deputy vice-chancellor for education at London South Bank University, says it’s the ownership and application of such data that should be a vital concern.
“The data should belong to the students more than the organisations,” she says. “It should be made available, and students should be able to see what their attendance looks like compared to their peers, and how their attendance may relate to their overall achievement.
“But we should be really wary of universities owning that data, and making judgements and adjusting their provision in relation to that data. It’s part of the kind of surveillance society we don’t want to sleepwalk into. It’s paternalistic and not a true partnership, not enabling the students as adults. It’s not that the data isn’t useful, but we don’t know enough yet about how to use it carefully.”