Challenge 4: a robust, flexible digital environment

By ‘digital environment’ we mean both the digital infrastructure that students use and the spaces and places of the institution that are enriched with digital capacity. This is the aspect of their digital experience that tends to be most visible to students and about which they are most likely to be asked (and to express) their views. There is no doubt that students expect their transactions with institutional systems to be straightforward and consistent. They want institutional services to be familiar in look and feel, and to interface easily with their personal technologies and services. Many of their expectations arise from the experience of using technologies in other contexts such as shopping, gaming and social media. To keep pace with developments in these other digital spaces is no easy task for an academic institution with limited IT resources. What are the priorities for students?

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Key Findings
Further resources

Key findings

Our study found that free robust, ubiquitous wifi/broadband was the most significant expectation across student groups. Students tend to feel that their basic human needs are not being met unless they can access their personal services and networks, ideally using a personal device, at all points on campus.

Students also expect access to institutional services to be straightforward and for the interface to feel familiar. Single sign-on, sign-on using multiple devices including mobile, integration between institutional and personal/cloud services – these are difficult to achieve but unfortunately students are likely to notice when they go wrong. Personalised dashboards are hugely popular where they are available.

Students expect access on arrival – if not before – to standard institutional systems such as email, a virtual learning environment with resources for all their courses, online assessment submission, file space, and digital library services. There is little that institutions can do to impress here, especially as many students will have used similar systems in school, but it is still important that these core systems are well designed and easy to use, as they are strongly associated with the process of joining the institution and gaining a student identity.

Other systems are not always provided as standard but access to these can make a significant difference to student learning. At the moment, lecture capture seems to be an area where students experience wide variation in provision, and they are likely to be quite vocal about this. Other institutional systems with a positive impact on the student experience include:

  • e-portfolio system, especially when introduced early and used consistently across the whole programme of study;
  • video/audio/photo editing suites and associated hardware to loan;
  • up-to-date subject specialist software e.g. for design and analysis, data capture and data management.
  • webinar system and/or another live online learning system;
  • space and tools for authoring blogs and wikis, individually and collectively, with the capability to publish openly.

Other apps, software and services fall into a grey area where many or most students will prefer to choose their own, but institutions still need to ensure guidance is offered and there is provision for all who can benefit. Applications in this area include:

  • productivity software – office etc
  • presentation tools
  • search tools
  • note-taking, annotation and collation tools
  • time, task and project management tools

Spaces and places need to be designed to support a wide range of different kinds of learning including solo and group learning with access to networked devices. Considerations will include:

  • flexible, reconfigurable spaces and furnishings
  • access to secure storage
  • access to display technologies e.g. plug and play screens, tables, projectors (by students as well as lecturers)
  • power supply, ideally wireless power
  • access to printing, ideally wireless printing
  • robust wifi coverage

Branding as well as blending: Despite the value they attach to ease of use and integration, students like to know when they are in a ‘university’ digital space and when they are crossing boundaries into personal and public spaces. Digital services are also opportunities for building student loyalty and showing what is available as part of the university offer. So branding is important.

Walled gardens, paths out: Students expect and in the early stages need opportunities to practice in secure, closed spaces where the stakes for failure are low e.g. VLE and associated facilities (closed blogs, wikis, discussion spaces, collaborative spaces). Later on they need progressive support to manage how they present themselves, communicate and undertake professional/academic tasks in more public digital spaces.

‘What I need to succeed’ Despite their attachment to their own devices, students like to feel the university is providing them with the access and infrastructure they need to carry out university work (e.g. fixed computers and printers, specialist software).

Learner analytics: Students may benefit if the university can track their digital experiences and use that data to provide personalised support – but they often prefer to use open digital services and spaces where personal data is not readily handed off to institutional systems. Also students are increasingly worried about how institutions might use such data. So it is critical that learners are involved in discussions about this aspect of their interaction with the institution.

Students will compare their digital experiences and need to understand the reasons for any differences (e.g. subject related), otherwise they may feel they are missing out.


  1. Integrated strategy for and investment in the digital estate (learning and social spaces, flexible configurations and furnishings, plug-and-play screens, secure storage, sockets, robust wifi).
  2. All stakeholder groups including students with different needs are engaged in decisions around the ICT / information environment, enabling a user-centred approach to development. Informal user groups are encouraged and consulted.
  3. Software, hardware and systems, licenses and access agreements suited to different courses of study are rationally procured e.g. via a central clearing house, and where feasible are available across course/departmental boundaries to all who can benefit.
  4. Smart authentication with single sign-on and enlightened (non-restrictive) security.
  5. Students can personalise institutional digital spaces and services – with photos, links, favourites, friends/followers – and informal relationships e.g. friendship groups, societies, are supported.
  6. Personalised notifications via devices/services chosen by students, progressing to provision of personalised learning data via a student dashboard, ideally accompanied by guidance on using such data meaningfully to track progress.
  7. Contractual aspects of the student/institution relationship around digital technology are clear – access, response times, ICT support, acceptable use, ‘bring your own’ and ‘switch it on’, other policies.
  8. Disaggregated VLE incorporating external services where appropriate e.g. dropbox, social bookmarking, social media, blogging, wikis.
  9. Seamless access to content, with clearly identified institutional investments (subscriptions, micro-published resources, e-books etc), lecture materials, and access to quality external content (open repositories, youtube, slideshare, TED talks, iTunesU etc)
  10. A more open information and content environment where this supports innovation and variety in educational practice and enables external partnerships.
  11. ICT support reprofiled to focus on use of personal devices and on developing people with their technology (supporting high-value use) rather than just supporting technical systems.
  12. Software, hardware (etc) and sources of ICT know-how and support are clearly signposted to students across courses of study.
  13. Services and support are outsourced where there are clear gains, but without losing institutional branding and identity.
  14. Effects of digital divide monitored and addressed e.g. loan schemes, assistive technology, support for students with low digital confidence
  15. Work towards parity of digital resourcing/provision within the institution e.g. across departments and distributed campuses: robust network infrastructure, core data services and functionality for academic tasks.
  16. Consider a layered approach to ICT support, with ‘core’ technologies fully resourced and supported; advice and guidance on ‘recommended’ technologies; and decreasing levels of support towards the periphery.



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