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Prof. Rae Earnshaw: Harnessing the Digital Age - January 2008

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Computer and information technology is evolving, and fast! We're hearing words like downloads, podcasts, streaming, interactive, wikis and blogs more and more. But how is the University adapting to these evolving technologies and using them to improve teaching, learning research and administration for students and staff?

The University's eStrategy programme was created initially in 2003 and as an integral part of the University's Corporate Plan for 2004-09. Professor Rae Earnshaw, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Strategic Systems Development, gives an insight into what it is, what it's doing, and, with a little help from his friends, how it's making a difference already.

The eStrategy has three principal components; wireless and web, smart administration, and communication. It is about Information Technology (IT) facilities, access, and support.

As part of eStrategy, we are aiming to bring about a number of improvements to the technological infrastructure of the University. These include:

  • Creating a wireless and web-enabled campus for all students and staff, supported by the latest innovations in technology such as virtual environments, online information systems, and facilities to interact and share information - such as 'blogs' and 'wikis'.
  • Providing a friendly and easy to use IT environment which complements the real environment.
  • Improving facilities in teaching rooms so most are equipped with projector and sound system along with video/DVD facilities.

Ideally, we want people to be able to use IT whenever and wherever they like and avoid the constraints of having to be in a certain place at a certain time - except for lectures and tutorials of course!

Whilst accelerating our provision, we still need to support users whether beginners or experienced to develop or evolve key skills - from online courses, help files, Frequently Asked Questions to personalised help and support such as that offered by the Student Support Centre.

eStrategy has already delivered noticeable improvements to our working lives. The University can now provide online information and transaction systems 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and allow users at a distance from the campus or in a different time zone to receive the same level of service and support as users on campus. We have seen this through e:Vision - the web version of the student information system - which allows students to update their own details and to see their exam marks and keep in touch after graduation.

The number of distinct users of mobile or wireless facilities on campus has jumped from a peak of 2,000 per month last academic year to 2,500 per month in October this year. This corresponds to 15,000 logins via mobile in October compared with 11,000 last year.

Such is the popularity of wireless connectivity, the number of users of the University broadband service in Halls of Residence has fallen since last year. In October this year, there were 1,251 users making 59,761 logins compared with 1,500 users and 66,000 logins last year.

Our eStrategy will evolve to meet the users' needs and requirements and to take advantage of developments in IT. It is difficult to predict where the University of Bradford will be in 20 or even 50 years' time but get ready for more change!

Communicating in the information age

"With the vast amount of information available at the touch of a button, skills for searching, filtering, interpreting and communicating that information to others are increasingly important," says Ruth Whitfield, Learning Architect for the University's Learner Support Services.

"Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networking tools provide opportunities for collaborative working so that individuals can pool their knowledge to develop online communities of practice from which others can draw information in a timely manner. For me, this is communicating in an information age.

"We offer a 'Communicating in an Information Age' module that focuses on developing group working and information, communication and technology skills so that students can work with others more effectively and exploit technology for presenting and sharing information within a multicultural society.

"It makes use of blogs, wikis and e-portfolios for group project work and personal reflection, and challenges students to reflect on their behaviour in group situations, demonstrate an awareness of others' feelings, beliefs and opinions and consider the legislative and security issues relating to online communication."

The value of SAINT

"The student information system (called SAINT) is crucial to the efficient running of our business," says Dr Nigel Lindsey, Associate Dean of the School of Life Sciences.

"This system provides an integrated record of all the information that we need to hold on our students. This should enable both staff and students to access information such as exam results via e:Vision. It should provide easily accessible information for monitoring of programmes and student achievement. New innovations such as the new Data Centre are starting to deliver this.

"We use SAINT in a variety of ways. For example, a student's progression and awards are run through SAINT where possible which enables communication of results via E-vision. SAINT data is being used for review at both the programme and modular level, student recruitment is run effectively through SAINT and it can provide an effective mechanism for communicating with students, by text messaging for example.

Digital X-rays

"Our complete digital imaging system ensures that our Radiography students gain practical experience using equipment which replicates those found in a modern hospital," says Steve Milner, Associate Dean of the School of Health Studies.

"The new filmless digital system replaces the former and now outdated system which used X-ray films and wet processing, installed when the Radiography team joined the University 11 years ago.

"The former darkroom and adjacent film viewing room have been converted to a dedicated teaching suite with viewing equipment replicating image quality found using radiological viewing facilities in the hospital environment and making the students' learning experience much more meaningful. From their workstations, students can download their images onto memory sticks or CDs for incorporation into their notes, presentations and assignments.

"Fuji's Synapse picture archiving and communication system (PACS) is networked to the Computed Radiography plate reader and workstation and is the repository of all stored images. Being 100 per cent web-based it can give authorised users on-demand access to data at any time, anywhere in the School of Health Studies.

"Very few X-ray Departments use conventional X-ray films and wet film processors any more, so the system represents a very necessary acquisition for the Division of Radiography's staff and students. Few UK Universities can currently offer similar facilities, so we are rightly proud of the fact that we have it here. It has also opened up many new opportunities for staff and student research from within the Division and elsewhere in the University relating to radiographic image quality and radiation dose."

E-plan a career

"The next semester will see the launch of a new interactive eSkills program," says Susan Wilson, Careers Information Officer in the University's Careers Development Office.

"eSkills will help students learn about the employability skills recruiters require, find out ways to assess and develop their own skills, and prepare evidence so they can prove to a recruiter that they do have what they are looking for.

"Students can choose from examples which reflect their own experiences and use them to write statements of evidence, getting hints and tips along the way. These statements are then emailed to us for feedback and linked into students' own development portfolios.

"eSkills will help students to build up a range of evidence to create their own job-seeking resource. This will not only help them answer those tricky questions on application forms and at interviews such as ¿give us an example of a time when . . ." or "tell me about when you have had to influence a group of people", but will also enable them to create and target their CVs."

MBA at a distance

"Our postgraduate Distance Learning programmes are run from Bradford, Hong Kong and Singapore and we use a variety of methods to support them," says Dr Damian Ward, Director of Studies for Executive and Distance Learning MBAs at the University's School of Management.

"The core element of our support is a study guide and textbook. We also use the virtual learning environment Blackboard, discussion boards and provide MP3 recordings of our onsite MBA lectures. We are currently exploring the use of online social networks and are investigating how our text-based material might be converted into an integrated online package.

"Distance learning provision is not a cheap and easy way of exploiting existing intellectual property. There is a need to make significant investments in support materials and to help staff to understand, use and exploit new e-based learning technologies."

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