Wednesday, 28 January 2009

What is the future of technology in student residences?

Bristol's ResNet service started over ten years ago, in 1998. Now we have 100Mbit/sec connections, live multicast TV, and wireless in some areas. One of the primary uses of the Internet is to arrange your social life. Would we have forseen that 10 years ago?

The University is currently reviewing the residences strategy to develop residences which will serve students for the next 30 years. This is an eon in technology terms, but my role in the process is to develop ideas for residential technologies. The following is taken from my report as a member of the residences Facilities Working Group:

Our aim is to provide facilities which are:
  • Attractive – attract students to study here and live in our accommodation
  • Convenient – be quick and easy to use,
  • Good value for money – what the students want, at favourable cost to alternatives
  • Reliable – high availability
  • Pervasive – present everywhere, and compatible with any device
The residence is a student’s home and place of work. Students work, rest and play in their residence and we must provide facilities to enhance all of these.
The phrase Digital Native is used to describe the generation of young people who have grown up with the Internet. It is present throughout their experiences:
  • Social life - arranged via Facebook.
  • Entertainment - downloaded music and movies.
  • Work - Google is the first reference tool for any research.
  • Communication - Texting and instant messaging.
Internet access is supremely important, as it is the pipe through which everything else is delivered. It is essential that we provide high speed, reliable, convenient Internet access in both study bedrooms and public areas. Students responding to the International Students Barometer (ISB), a survey of over 60,000 UK & international students, rated Internet access as the single most important factor of all elements in the living and learning categories. Internet access rates above even such seemingly essential factors as ‘safety’ and ‘good teachers’! Bristol scores very well in the ISB in the IT and Internet Access categories, contributing to our overall above-average score.

What else do we need to provide? We currently offer IPTV. Three years ago 70% of students surveyed wanted such a service. Now it is in place maybe 20% actually use it. Why? It is now a ‘nice to have’ rather than a ‘must have’. The BBC & ITV websites offer live TV directly. Live TV is being superseded by TV on demand. Alternatives have overtaken the service we provided. Similar arguments may be made for Voice over IP (VOIP) services such as Skype having replaced usage of traditional phone handsets in rooms.

There are still some reasons to offer entertainment & communications services ourselves. In particular the university can act as a trusted guide and provide an easy, convenient option. Students and parents may appreciate this guidance and knowing that a service is there. We must remember though the real risk though that whatever we provide will be overtaken. Our student laptop purchase scheme was intended as just such a convenient trusted guide, but gets little use.

What does this leave us? What do we need to provide apart from a pipe to the Internet?
  • We embed technology in the building spaces.
  • We provide location specific services
  • We provide facilities that students can’t provide for themselves (too large, too expensive)
  • We encourage a productive mix of student-owned and University-owned technologies
We shouldn’t provide mobile phones or laptops to students. These are small, portable, quickly obsolete devices which students prefer to choose for themselves. We should embed power sockets throughout all rooms for charging devices. We must provide wireless everywhere for Internet access on students own equipment.

We won’t provide games consoles, but should provide large flat panel displays and projectors. These are fixed location-specific facilities. In lounges students will connect a games console to a large flat panel for social gaming. In group study rooms students will use a PC and projector provided for presentations and collaborative group work.

We should carefully consider how much technology to embed in student bedrooms. Such technology is expensive and quickly becomes obsolete. Currently the dominant feature in a student room is often a large pinboard covered in posters and photos. In time will the pinboard be replaced by a digital paper display or low energy flat panel? Currently these are prohibitively
expensive, but in five years time?

There will still be an important role for University-provided PCs and printers in public areas. Students own laptops are unreliable. Students appreciate well-maintained hardware that just works. We need to think about different forms of public computer provision, not just the traditional PC lab. Again we should encourage the mix of personally-owned and University-owned technology. Can you send photos straight to the printer from your cameraphone? Can you connect to the scanner from your laptop? Can you connect your iPod to a public PC to download a podcast of yesterdays lecture?

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

How to write

Writing is tough. Writing clear, easy to understand prose is difficult. I'm very concious of my writing skills (or lack of them?) and think hard about how and what I write. Maybe I think to hard and that becomes a barrier to writing at all, if the lack of recent updates to this blog is any indication...

I have a checklist pinned above my desk taken from the University of Bristol Writing for the web workshop (checklist on page 11) much of which applies to writing for any medium.

I also have an old copy of a self-taught course from the Plain English campaign. This was a chance discovery I found when clearing out an old filing cabinet. Miraculously I can still find it when I need it - it has survived my often arcane filing system.

This post was prompted by my colleague Martin Poulter's post Good Practice in Writing which contains some excellent guidance on writing clearly. I'll add a few of my own tips:

Write to a strict word count or space limit. Write something as a paper leaflet - the space limit will force you to be concise. Then rewrite the sprawling website to the same standard.I try to keep email newsletters to 250 words (many would say that is itself too long).

Look for ambiguity
. I know what I meant, but could someone interpret it differently? If that email is going to 5000 people then someone will. Read what you write with a fresh eye. How would someone with a different cultural background or English as a second language read it?

The guidance from many RFCs to be liberal in what you accept and strict in what you generate works well for natural language too. Think about that principle when reading what others have written - force yourself to read the better meaning from something ambiguous, and you'll avoid many unnecessary flamewars.