My week - 29 September 2014 - technologies for learning

Professor Vivien Jones considers the University's technological support for student education.

Professor Vivien Jones

A new academic year is underway.  Once again, the campus is buzzing with students. The first Open Day for next year’s prospective applicants has already taken place and we have another in a couple of weeks.  When I gave the ‘Introduction to Leeds’ talk at that first Open Day, along with three students from different disciplines, I was delighted as always to hear their enthusiastic endorsement of some of the key principles which shape a Leeds education.  They spoke eloquently about the excitement of being taught by experts in their field; of their experiences of volunteering or getting involved in societies; and of the opportunity to do a year abroad or work experience.

But I was particularly struck on this occasion by one of the students who was very keen to make sure his audience knew about the UniLeeds app.  He described with great approval how, when he comes on to campus to work, the app’s location function helps him find a free seat in the nearest computer cluster within minutes.  As many of you will know, you can also use the app to check your individual timetable or library record, or to access LeedsforLife or help@leeds, or even, at a more mundane level, to find an available washing machine!

Providing excellent technological support for our students is of ever-increasing importance.  The UniLeeds app is one of our great achievements, designed and built within a few months by a small dedicated team, and launched on time and on budget.  So it was fantastic to hear this spontaneous student testimony to its success.

A much larger project which has also been achieved in an impressively short period of time, thanks to the commitment of everyone concerned, is the installation of our lecture capture / multi-media recording facility.  This is a sophisticated, state-of-the-art system which is integrated with staff timetables and the VLE.  Inevitably, there have been a few glitches as we went live over the past few weeks, but we’re now pretty confident that it will be operative, as promised, as teaching gets underway this week.  I want here to say a particular thank you to Neil Morris and to everyone in his team, but particularly to the many Education Service timetablers across the University who had the huge job of entering and chasing up the data needed to make the system work as intended.  What they have achieved is fantastic, and I’m very grateful to them all.  

Also smoothly implemented over the summer was the migration of student emails to the Microsoft Office 365 platform.  As well as email, students get free use of the Office Professional Suite for up to four years across five devices – something I will certainly be pointing out to prospective students at the next Open Day. 

It will take rather longer to implement all the processes and systems enabled by the purchase of Microsoft Dynamics as our CRM technology solution, but we are now well underway.  Taught postgraduate admissions management will be delivered next September, the first stage in what will eventually be seamless online support for all our students, from applicant to alumnus, giving them a single interface with the University, whether they are in Leeds or off-campus, and giving staff a comprehensive view of every student.

Doing the best we can for our students is at the heart of all these technological developments.  And our students appreciate the resources we provide.  It was great to see another dominantly positive set of NSS results this year, with modest rises in almost all question categories.  This included ‘learning resources’, where the Library scored 93% against a national average of 87%, and IT scored 94%, against a national average of 88%.

But technology is by no means everything.  Our model for student support, as for learning, blends technology with the all-important interactions between individuals which really make a university education distinctive.  That’s something I will continue to emphasise at open days – and I’m sure the personal testimonies of the students with whom I share the platform will continue to bear me out.


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