Ubiquitous Computing and Education Policy
Tom Franklin, TechLearn and Kathy Wiles, LTSN Generic Centre
This paper looks at the current policy imperatives in further and higher education and how ubiquitous
computing relates to them. Ubiquitous computing could be seen as just a mechanism to support policy
developments, but we should consider as well that ubiquitous computing can in some areas transform
what can be achieved. It will not be more of the same but potentially a whole new approach. Once all
learners have full access to computers, what can be done with them becomes fundamentally different.
Change the context of how and where education is taking place and we begin to transform the system.
There are also areas of policy where ubiquitous computing can enhance rather than transform current
work. To stay ahead in the knowledge economy we need to be serious about transforming our education
To achieve this institutions will need to be able to fund ubiquitous computing, and this paper looks at the
economics of ubiquitous computing in UK educational institutions and how it might be funded. The
paper concludes by looking at the reasons for acting now and possible next steps.
What ubiquitous computing can transform
Ubiquitous computing will transform learning by empowering students. It allows them to learn anywhere
and to communicate with teaching staff and fellow students in new ways. Students can easily create
portfolios of their work and can study in new ways including access to online resources and computer
supported cooperative learning. Ubiquitous computing also provides great scope for students in the
workplace to embed their work in their learning and their learning in their work.
Ubiquitous computing will transform teaching by making learning and teaching visible. Historically most
of what has happened in the classroom (ie between teacher and student) has been private. This has
begun to change with curriculum plans, peer observation of teaching and inspection. However, most of
what occurs is still relatively private. With ubiquitous computing comes the embedded use of technology
in the learning processes and this makes the processes much more transparent. First, things are
recorded (discussion threads, lecture notes etc) and secondly the become published (whether shared by
students or through some formal method of publication. Ubiquitous computing also makes sharing and
group work much easier as well.
HE in FE
It can be difficult for FE colleges (and small colleges of HE) to provide the full range of options and
modules that some courses expect. Indeed, smaller departments in many universities struggle to cover
the full range of some subjects. Where there is ubiquitous computing and all staff and students have
immediate access to computer mediated communications it becomes possible for groups of colleges to
work together, or work with universities within (and beyond) their region to provide a wider curriculum
through access to staff and learning resources.
One of the drivers of ubiquitous computing in the US is equity. It has been strongly argued that many
students will come to college or university with their own computer, and that this cannot and should not
be prevented. The only way to prevent this providing wealthier students with a substantial advantage is
to ensure that ALL students have equal access, and the only way to achieve this is through a ubiquitous
Beyond this there are may areas where without transforming education ubiquitous computing will
considerably enhance education, and these are discussed below.
What ubiquitous computing can enhance
Britain’s productivity gap is to be narrowed, and its shortage of high-level skills is to be
overcome - HEFCE
enable people to obtain the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow- SFEFC
We need to make sure that all graduates have the skills and knowledge necessary for
employment in the Digital Age – SHEFC
The Council will promote the employability of all individuals - LSC
reinforcing the link between learning and earning – SHEFC
One of the essential skills of the modern workforce, especially in the "knowledge economy", is the use of
information and communications technology (ICT). It is not just the basic skills as demonstrated through
the likes of the European Computer Driving License (ECDL) which demonstrate familiarity with the
technology. Beyond this there is also the need to be able to use ICT to communicate with colleagues,
clients and suppliers, locate pertinent information and assess its validity.
These are highly transferable skills which are in great demand in the workplace and can only be fully
embedded in practice by students when learning takes place in an environment where access to the
tools is assumed as part of the learning so that both teachers and students expect students to be
developing these skills. Currently these techniques are often seen as a (poor) substitute for the "real
thing" of locating information in libraries and in journals, when for many online searching is a daily
One of the key skills for jobs in the future will be the effective use of ICT for communications and access
to information. By embedding this in the learning process in education students will be familiar with both
the technology and its capabilities for work. This will only be possible when it is truly embedded in the
learning process and not an add on. Many courses are already moving towards this, and may expect or
require students to undertake internet searches as part of their work. However the complete embedding
of internet based communications is not at the same level yet.
As an example, some courses are now requiring students to produce annotated "webographies", similar
to bibliography except that they cite URLs rather than publications and are frequently expected to give
reasons for accepting the authority of a particular source.
HEFCE will now work with partners on plans to embed e-learning in a full and sustainable way
within the next ten years. – white paper
e-learning means many different things, to different people. From the delivery of entire courses purely
through technology to the integration of ICT into the curriculum. The former is likely to be extremely rare
even for distance education as many courses that are primarily distance courses that rely on ICT will
continue to use books and occasional meetings.
Either way, e-learning cannot be fully embedded into courses unless students (and staff) have
appropriate access to the technology. This can be achieved through a number of means including
access to computers at work for work based students, use of machines at access centres and student
owned machines. Clearly, the latter gives the students the greatest flexibility in studying and is already
a requirement for some OU courses.
For campus based courses there is now clear evidence (mostly from the US) that ubiquitous computing
provides an enormous boost to e-learning. Firstly, students expect that the computers which they have
bought will be of use on their course and put pressure on the teaching staff. Secondly, staff feel free to
include e-learning in their courses as they no longer have to worry about whether the students have the
skills or access to the equipment. This results in a virtuous circle where both staff and students see the
benefits with the result that e-learning is incorporated fully into courses.
I welcome the Council’s continuing strategy and efforts to promote ICT pervasiveness across
the sector – SFEFC
I wish the Council to place a strong emphasis on e-learning and developing the ICT literacy of all
students, to ensure that ICT familiarity and skills are extended as widely as possible throughout
the full range of college programmes, including part-time and distance learning courses. All
students should have the skills and knowledge necessary for employment in the new Digital
Age. - SFEFC
The Council should continue to work with institutions to encourage pervasiveness of IT in the
sector - SHEFC
This is almost a definition of ubiquitous computing. Pervasiveness is about both the availability of
equipment and the attitude towards computing by both staff and students.
Currently there is reluctance on the part of many staff to make considerable use of computing in their
courses because it is perceived to create a barrier. This may be due to the problems that students have
accessing equipment if they can only do so in computer laboratories provided by their institution or
because it is felt to giving an advantage to those students who can afford a computer. Either way much
of the computing that is included in current learning and teaching is seen as an add-on and not a central
part of the course. This will continue to be the view of both staff and students while there are issues of
access to technology.
We also want to be sure that the premium is used properly to support these students through to
successful completion of their degree – white paper
Maintaining a focus on retention will be important- HEFCE
There are a many early indicators of students that are likely to drop out from college or university.
Ubiquitous computing offers the potential for both improved diagnosis and improved support.
Improved diagnosis because much more information is available to tutors. Information on
when they are joining in discussions, whether they are accessing the course material and if
work is being handed in late. This information can easily be collated across all courses to see
if the student is having problems with a single module or with several (the latter being a strong
indicator that the student is not coping with the course and considering dropping out).
Ubiquitous computing provides new ways in which students can be supported, both
automatically and by tutors. Automatic prompts can be sent out which are tailored to the
students needs, for instance reminding of them deadlines, but in a way which integrates all the
deadlines they have – not just for one module. Tutors also have additional ways of
communicating with their students using VLEs, email, instant messaging and so on.
The availability of computing when needed makes study easier with the result that students are
less likely to fall behind. There is a strong link between student resources and retention so that
students most likely to give up have the least good resources.
Give students and staff with disabilities the right to expect reasonable access to institutions’
facilities and services- HEFCE
to remove barriers to participation for students with particular needs - SHEFC
Computing can greatly enhance the experience for many students and staff with disabilities. By
providing alternative forms of communication it can enable many students to access material and
teaching which would otherwise be inaccessible. A couple of examples will suffice. Text based
discussions (for instance using lists) can be output in a variety of formats including any size of text,
speech and Braille, while input can be text or speech to text. Learning materials can also be output in a
variety of formats and are available before and after use in teaching for those who need more time to
Academic standards and the quality of the student experience must be maintained and
improve quality and effectiveness – SFEFC
Council must have a clear focus on raising standards. It will need to introduce robust
arrangements to tackle deep seated problems of inconsistency of standards by challenging poor
and coasting providers, and by ensuring excellence in teaching - LSC
E-learning in general, and ubiquitous computing in particular, can have an important role to play in
quality enhancement. E-learning makes a lot of the assumptions and practices in teaching visible.
Historically much of what teachers do has not easily been visible to others for any purpose. It has been
a closed world between teacher and student and until recently teachers and lecturers have resented any
encroachment on this. While peer observation of teaching addresses makes the actual teaching more
visible, everything has to be made explicit with e-learning.
This means that most teachers have to re-think what they have been doing in order to make explicit to
themselves things which they may not have thought through fully in the past. This almost invariably
makes teachers who have done it understand their teaching better and become better teachers.
When there is ubiquitous computing the assumption becomes that things are and should be visible and
shared rather than private. This will inevitable lead to quality enhancement.
HE in FE
The experience of higher education students studying in further education settings is
comparable to that available in our universities and colleges of higher education- HEFCE
The use of ubiquitous computing can greatly help students in FE colleges (FEC) who might not
otherwise have access to the full set of resources (material and staff) that is available in HEIs. It can
allow easier communication with staff at other institutions thereby providing a wider range of expertise
for students and access to all the resources which are available at Universities.
There have been concerns that higher education offered in further education colleges may be narrower
and not as well resourced as that offered in HEIs. Once students all have computers it becomes much
simpler to share resources between FECs and HEIs so that students can be taught by lecturers from
HEIs (possibly with students from HEIs) and can access resources which may be beyond the means of
FECs though available to students in neighbouring HEIs.
Much of the expansion of provision of HE within FECs is likely to be foundation degrees, and these may
be work based or have a considerable work based component. Students on work placements will find it
much easier to remain in touch with their colleges, their course work and their fellow students when they
have the resources to do this. Ubiquitous computing offers a very powerful way of achieving this,
allowing the student to take their study environment with them at all times.
The Government’s commitment to fair access will not waver. – White paper
The Government has said that by the end of the decade, 50% of young people should have the
opportunity to benefit from higher education by the time they reach thirty years of age. - HEFCE
widening of access to learning opportunities - SFEFC
Higher education must play a central role in taking forward the Executive’s social justice agenda.
attract a whole new generation of overseas students to enrich the learning environment here at
home – SHEFC
widen participation in learning by adults of all ages - CETW
There is evidence from the United States that super-ubiquitous computing programmes actually
increases enrolment at the universities that do it, and that this is true across the sector from Ivy League
colleges to two-year colleges drawing primarily from the local community.
Whether it will encourage students here is still to be determined, but there is some evidence that
students are beginning to expect to have to own some sort of computer in order to study effectively. We
can expect this to be particularly true of part-time students who often find it harder to get into campus
and therefore can make even greater use of both the communications facilities (to work with other
students and discuss with tutors) and the access to information that ICT affords.
One of the key issues here is equity. Some of the laptop universities in the US specifically cite the
prevention of discrimination as one of the reasons for having laptop programs. This is on the basis that
if they do not have such a program then very many students will still have a PC (or laptop) and that this
will disadvantage those who do not. They only ways that this discrimination can be avoided is to ban
PC ownership (not practical or desirable – probably not even legal) or ensure that all students have
equal access to resources.
Professionalisation of teaching
Improved training and continuing professional development of teaching staff as an area of growing
importance in both further and higher education. Many staff are finding that they want staff development
when they start making use of e-learning. Several universities which have pushed the use of VLEs
(including Coventry and Staffordshire) have seen a marked rise in demand for staff development as a
result. Initially these have been specifically in the use of VLEs, but as the staff have started to make use
of this their demand for CPD has grown.
Ubiquitous computing will make these issues much more visible and speed up the recognition among
staff of the need for CPD.
The economic case for ubiquitous computing
It has been acknowledged that one of the potential barriers to ubiquitous computing is the economic
cost, both to institutions and to the individual. Computers are expensive. However, this is rather a
sweeping attitude and fails to account for the possible cost savings that can be achieved through
ubiquitous computing policies.
Some of the issues in examining the economic case for ubiquitous computing are:
The costs of providing technical support
The costs of fitting out fixed computer labs
The cost savings to be made through implementing wireless technologies
Savings in technical and support costs
If ubiquitous computing is implemented within an institution, the primary strategic measure to be
undertaken is to ensure that all students are working with a standardised desktop. If the institution itself
is the main supplier of student laptops, this task becomes even easier. Support can be focussed on a
limited (but not limiting) set of applications and operating systems, reinstalls and updates become a
matter of routine and less specialist support will have to be employed. Helpdesks can become experts
in the standard desktop and will therefore have to refer on fewer enquiries, saving both student and staff
time. Universities which have implemented a standard desktop report real savings in support time/staff
costs and a significant increase in reliability of both hardware and software. Brown further
recommends that institutions implementing ubiquitous computing choose only one brand of laptop to
support, allowing better supplier deals and further support costs savings.
Savings in estate management costs
If every student has a laptop, institutions can reduce their investment in core open access computing
labs, and the costs of replacing redundant equipment can also therefore be reduced. This can mean
major savings in both building and equipment costs. Some universities in city centre locations have
been able to fund ubiquitous computing programmes from the savings in building costs alone. While the
replacement costs of equipment are very significant and can be used to heavily subsidise equipment at
no real cost to the institution.
Napier University recently refurbished a space to hold 500 open access networked PCs. The figures
worked out for a dedicated room with networking and PC at £10,000 per seat. This was not regarded as
Not officially reported, but evidence gathered from Universities of Sunderland and Abertay
David Brown in ‘The Ubiquitous Computing Movement’
an unreasonable figure by the institution, and is the standard figure used now for costing each PC open
The potential of wireless technologies
One of the key issues for ubiquitous computing is providing users with network access for their
computers wherever they are. Until recently this was prohibitively expensive. However, with the
introduction of wireless networking it is now comparatively cheap to provide network access across the
entire institution at an affordable price even with wired network access in key locations.
The Government could pay, as an investment against potential significant gains in the knowledge
economy - though such a mass act of social engineering is unlikely in the current political climate.
Institutions could pay, offering a laptop for marketing reasons, and therefore attracting more students.
In the US this has been one of the major motivations cited for introducing ubiquitous computing
programmes. However, the HE environment is very different there.
One way for institutions to provide laptops to students would be to recover the costs through the
implementation of top up fees. Top up fees in higher education are now a reality in England, and one of
the ways to make their advent more attractive would be to guarantee a laptop to every incoming student.
Of course, this means that the student pays, but at a price likely to be heavily subsidised through the
savings made elsewhere and in part by the Government through low interest student loans.
There may be particular benefit of the use of ubiquitous computing in Foundation degrees, both to make
them more attractive to potential students and to support the work based components of the degree
better. Further, such a move would in provide a real driver for interoperability of ICT provision between
HE and FE institutions.
It would be naive to ignore the significant up front costs of implementing ubiquitous computing- just as
there were significant costs when institutions became fully networked at the end of the last century.
Significant government funding was invested in the education sector to cover some of these up front
costs, and it may be that the government may have to find this kind of money again to pump prime
ubiquitous computing. However, it should not be assumed that all of ubiquitous computing is about
added or extra costs, and educational institutions should be invited to consider how they might make
significant savings on support and estate costs to invest in laptop programmes, subsidising the eventual
cost to the student.
Reasons for acting now
There is considerable interest in ubiquitous computing in many countries including the USA, Australia,
Hong Kong, Canada and some European countries as well as in the UK. The first four all have
examples of universities already using ubiquitous computing, but none have addresses this at the
national policy level. This means that there are a series of ad hoc developments. In the UK we have
the opportunity to address this at the national level, which will put the UK ahead of its competitors. This
is important for a number of reasons including:
Developing a world class workforce
Attracting international students
Attracting the best teachers and researchers
The opportunity to gain competitive advantage, rather than catch up, will not be here for long and if we
are to seize this opportunity we need to act quickly.
There is a need to alert senior managers within institutions of the role that ubiquitous computing will play
and the planning implications for them. This could take the form of a conference, perhaps jointly
organised with UUK, and concentrating on the strategic issues.
With the introduction of top-up-fees coming very soon now providing the ideal vehicle for introducing
ubiquitous computing there is a need to look both at the level and scope of top-up-fees and whether this
is an appropriate use of them. It could be a very powerful way of ameliorating the pain to students of the
top-up-fee by providing a very visible return. Because this costs less than it appears to the institution
(due to the savings which can be made elsewhere) this can be a win-win.
With the increasing number of off-campus students (work or home based study) there is a need to
ensure that appropriate bandwidth is available. Considerable progress is being made here. BT is rolling
ADSL and ADSL lite to an increasing proportion of the country and there are other options where ADSL
will not reach including satellite ADSL and community networks. There is a need to investigate what is
available to ensure that some students are not excluded.
The use of ubiquitous computing in learning and teaching has implications for staff development that will
need to be taken on by a wide variety of organisations including HESDA, ILTHE, LTSN, and their
replacement in the Academy, UUK in higher education and LSDA, Becta, NLN, AoC in further education
as well as ALT and institutional staff development units. The forum should look to working with all these
institutions to ensure that their work is congruent with this.