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October 22, 2004

Students’ ever-rising demand for links to university networks means that institutions cannot stop investing in IT. George Cole reports

Walk into any lecture in a British university today and you will see more than a handful of students taking notes on their laptop computers. Some may even be using the campus wireless network to search the web for more information about a point the lecturer has made. This scenario is increasingly the rule rather than the exception as computer networks - both fixed and wireless - become as critical to universities as they are to businesses.

As a result, spending on information technology in higher education continues to rise. According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Nottingham Trent University spent £9.2 million on central computers and networks in 2001-02, up more than £6.4 million on five years ago. Warwick University’s spend rose £4.3 million to £6.1 million.

Other institutions spent a lot less, according to the statistics, but getting an accurate picture of IT spending across the sector is difficult because some universities do not include departmental IT budgets in the total figure.

For Steve Molyneux, director of the Learning Lab at Wolverhampton University, the amount spent is not the key factor in determining the quality of a university’s IT provision. “What’s more important is how the money is spent. Is it on staff? Greater connectivity? More efficiency? Creating educational materials?”

Simon Marsden, director of management services at Edinburgh University, adds: “A greater concern should be what the institution is trying to do rather than what you see in the computer suite.”

Jenny Lees-Spalding, co-author of The Student Book 2005 , published by Trotman, says: “Students are not so much interested in the amount spent as how easy it is to get access to IT.”

Students today arrive with higher expectations about the quality of IT provision than they did a few years ago, says Iain Stinson, director of IT services at Liverpool University. Molyneux adds: “Now students are fee-paying customers, they will have consumer rights - and that includes having good access to IT. Information-literate students entering post-16 education will expect good IT services or they will feel frustrated.”

A recent survey by the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association found that about 70 per cent of students own a computer - a figure that has doubled since 1997-98. But that does not mean institutions can cut spending, Marsden says. “It’s a mistake to think that the more students who own their own computer, the less an institution needs to spend on IT. The opposite is true, because the more computers students have, the more IT facilities they want.”

Students want to access campus networks from their own computers. The demand has created conflict in many universities. The UCISA survey found that the biggest concern for higher education IT managers was staff and students accessing university networks from their own machines and the resulting security issues such as viruses. “It’s no surprise given that our networks are critical to our business,” Stinson says. “If the network goes down as a result of, say, a virus, people can’t do what they need to.”

Molyneux says denying students access is wrong. “IT departments are there to support the staff and students, not control them. They are being overly paranoid. Businesses have no problem in allowing their employees to access their network from the outside, and there are measures you can take to protect your IT.”

More institutions are opening their networks to students despite security concerns. Last month, Reading University launched its ReadingConnect service, which was inspired by a similar service at Warwick. It will see 5,000 rooms in halls of residence fitted with sockets that will enable students to plug into the campus network to access services such as email, the internet, resources and stored materials. “We don’t have enough space on campus to have as many PCs as people would like us to have,” says Mike Roch, Reading’s director of IT services. “This way, we can extend the campus network into the halls of residence.” More institutions offer network access points around the campus, such as in the library.

Another development driving the demand for good IT access is the growing use of e-learning systems such as Blackboard and WebCT, which give students online access to forums, lecture notes, resources and stored files.

Some institutions have turned to sophisticated systems to protect networks that are open to students. The London Business School uses technology from the network protection company MessageLabs to monitor its network. “All students are provided with anti-virus software, and we can see if someone is coming on to the network without it. We can isolate them if there is a problem with their PC,” says Laura Gibbs, head of consumer services.

Education is the key, Marsden says. “We encourage our students to keep their laptops updated with the latest anti-virus software and Windows updates [software patches or fixes]. We have all the latest Microsoft patches on our internal network, so we make it very easy for students to have the latest protection.”

Wireless networks, which allow anyone with a wireless card in a laptop to log on to a network anywhere on campus, are becoming more common. These make access far easier by doing away with the need to find a network socket. Liverpool University has a wireless network that extends to a bookshop adjacent to the university, and Goldsmiths College, University of London, lets students surf while they eat in the refectory.

University IT managers face a difficult challenge in meeting the ever-increasing computing demands of staff and students who want easy access to a wide range of online services on their own machines, all the while ensuring that networks do not fall victim to viruses and attacks or become overloaded. As e-learning becomes routine for students on and off campus, it is a challenge that is not about to go away.


CAMPUS CONNECTIONS

Liverpool University
The campus has Roam Net - areas with sockets that allow students to plug in their laptops and get email, web access, the Blackboard virtual learning environment and some software such as Microsoft Word or Excel for which the university holds campus licences. Students can also access
Liverpool’s network through connection ports in rooms in halls of residence rooms and via a wireless network that extends beyond the campus.

Reading University
Under ReadingConnect, a scheme that the university recently started, 5,000 rooms in halls of residence will be provided with connection ports to the university network. The service will include access to email, the web and e-learning materials.

Wolverhampton University
More than 18,000 students can access Wolverhampton’s network from off campus and gain access to email, e-learning resources, e-mentoring and more.

London Business School
The campus has at least one site that offers 24-hour access to desktop PCs. A wireless network covers the campus, and students can access it from their own machines.

Goldsmiths, University of London
The institution has a wireless network that students can access from off campus, but only via Goldsmith’s internet service provider. Services on offer include email, full internet access and a virtual learning environment. Students using the institution’s machines to access the network can also use licensed software .

Edinburgh University
Students can plug into the campus network from rooms in halls of residence. Edinburgh has introduced a wireless network that extends to the library, meeting rooms and outside buildings.

Warwick University
Students can access the university’s network from wireless hotspots around the campus in areas such as the library, student union and coffee shops. There are also access sockets around the campus buildings. Halls of residence rooms have broadband connections, as do some student houses.

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