Sketches for a #smartcampus

A few weeks ago, I noticed on Twitter that JISC was asking for contributions on the subject of ‘the intelligent campus’ (or, ‘the smart campus’, as it’s also known). I’ve been tinkering at the edges of research on this prospect myself over the past year or so, so this gave a good opportunity to gather some thoughts together and add them to the conversation. They came out as a collection of linked tweets, my first ‘Twitter essay’. The following is a tidied-up ‘translation’ of that essay.

My interest in the smart campus comes from being a member of Professional Services staff supporting university teaching and learning. I recognise however that research and estates management are further key factors in considering the smart campus too, even if teaching and learning is my primary focus.

Although this piece is mainly aimed at higher educational institutions, many of these issues (research aside, perhaps) could apply to buildings that house activities across the educational spectrum.

Industrial Technology Research Institute, Taiwan (from Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA)

There are, I think, two key questions to ask about the smart campus at this stage in its conceptualisation. The first is to define it – ‘What is the smart campus?’ It is necessary to identify what is actually meant by the use of the term, and also therefore what the smart campus is not. The second, arguably more important, question is how can the smart campus be shaped or developed to positively impact on the activities of its users (i.e. teaching, learning, research, and the professional services that support them)?

For me, the smart campus is an indication of a convergence between several wider social and educational trends currently unfolding. It is what happens in and around an educational building when enhanced learning spaces, data generated via learning analytics and the proliferation of ‘Internet of Things’ devices are holistically integrated with each other.

JISC’s intelligent campus call also mentions technological features like facial recognition, artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning, on-campus notifications, broader use being made of people bringing their own mobile devices (BYOD), as well as smart experiments.

Pushing the envelope a little further than this, the smart campus may also be a chance to ‘think big’ on ideas to really enhance the on-campus experience. Why not facilitate remote guest speakers holographically rather than via clunky web conferencing software? Why not set up bicycle pools to be used as recharging stations? Recharge your own mobile device as you get around or across campus?

The second question is, of course, premised on the assumption that the smart campus is an inevitable trend in educational buildings. This in turn is premised on the notion of continued trajectory of technological ‘progress’ – the Silicon Valley paradigm of an inevitable progression towards a tech-utopian vision of the world via ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ – not being completely derailed by possible social or political chaos over next few years/decade(s).

This fits the smart campus into the wider ‘smart cities’ narrative, the zeitgeist in ideas for future living. Smart cities (aka ‘intelligent cities’) have urban operating systems, digital public spaces, city APIs and responsive, mobile-centric citizen services. These are all features that could be considered at the smaller scale of a campus, rendering the smart campus as the smart city in microcosm.

Research into and development of smart campuses are both still in their infancy, although there are some useful breadcrumbs already laid on this particular trail.

A specialist meeting was convened in 2013 by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Center for Spatial Studies to discuss ‘Advancing the Spatially Enabled Smart Campus’.

Their final report (viewable above) looked at general perspectives on the concept, prerequisites for implementation and the integration of a smart campus with the higher educational mission.

A master plan is needed, they suggest, but it should be seen as a ‘living document’ to reflect emerging conditions or arising innovations. The planning process ‘must have a participatory framework’ that engages all stakeholders, while the ‘case for space’ is built on ‘evidence-based documentation of contributions to sustainability, knowledge sharing, student involvement’.

Their smart campus ‘elevator pitch’ includes the following features:

  • efficiency savings and sustainability practices
  • better asset management
  • increased interaction between campus users
  • improved educational and research outcomes for the institution
  • healthier campus living
  • increased enrolments

The University of Glasgow, with input from Future Cities Catapult, is developing the concept of a smart campus in a new building currently being built.

For Glasgow, the smart campus ‘actively learns from & adapts to the needs of its people & place’. Their smart campus creates systems, services and structures to support people, place and purpose (Santa Barbara’s ‘mission’).

This is probably the UK’s first example of a ‘smart campus’, so will clearly both set the tone of what is to follow and will be one to watch in future.

What of the case against the smart campus? These are diverse, significant and cross many different areas of concern, from administrative practicalities to ethical considerations.

Enhanced learning spaces are particularly challenging initiatives to achieve successes in. They are resource intensive, need multi-stakeholder input to fully represent all users, and are notoriously difficult to measure ‘impact’ in.

An even more challenging consideration to the vision of a smart campus is that fears and concerns about pervasive computing are amplified in responsive, sensor-laden architecture.

A sample of questions from the case against the smart campus that might be asked include:

  • Who has access to my personal data?
  • How secure from hacking is an intelligent building, when filled with and operationally-reliant on ‘Internet of Things' devices?
  • Where can I find ‘private’ space?
  • Are local/regional inequalities amplified where one town has a smart campus and the next one doesn’t?
  • Large technical systems and the data put in them are often messy. How to avoid this messiness at smart campus scale?
  • The cost of higher education is rising sharply in many countries. Will tomorrow’s students be able to afford to go to a smart campus?

If concerns such as these are effectively addressed, such a learning environment could be a fascinating and challenging development for university campuses and add significant value to the on-campus experience over wholly online distance learning approaches. If they are not, we may end up building environmental dystopias for our future learners.

Would I send my daughter to a smart campus for her post-compulsory education in around 15 years? It’s almost impossible to tell from 2016 what the world of 2030 will look like, particularly with current global turmoil but I’d like to think that the smart campus will be an exciting place then that truly facilitates a higher education!

May their development be genuinely intelligent.