University of Westminster uses mobile devices to share data

The University of Westminster allows students and staff to view and share academic timetables and course information using smartphones

AVG Technologies recently found young people are more adept at using smartphones and laptops than tying their shoe laces or swimming.

So it should comes as little surprise that students headed to university expect more from their on-campus technology.

The University of Westminster has implemented a system to allow students and staff to view and share academic timetables, course information and appointment details with their smartphones.

What students want

For the first time the University of Westminster’s yearly academic timetable has been made available for mobile devices. It goes out to more than 4,000 staff and 27,000 students during its launch in September 2014, using CMISGo from Advanced Learning, part of Advanced Business Solutions. The university hopes the system will help students better organise their academic commitments.

Before this, students had to use a PC to access timetables through the university intranet, and rooms had to be booked in person at the library reception.

The university decided to change this method when students mentioned how inconvenient the system was.  

Trevor Wills, director of estates and facilities at the University of Westminster, explains: “The students quite rightly wanted a more upfront system that they can access at an earlier stage, understand more readily, and which is more user-friendly.”

But it wasn’t just the students urging change. Wills adds that the university wanted a system to allow departments to more effectively manage information. This led it to look for a system that could help them organise and deploy timetables, and book meeting rooms.

Being prepared

Before rolling out the technology to students, the university trialled the room-booking system in the corporate services department, and found an average of 70 room bookings a day were made.

The trial ran better than expected, with usage rising above the level previously estimated as users' expectations improved.

Colleen Aston, timetabling manager at the University of Westminster, says: “Before, only designated people in departments could access Google calendar and make bookings. In the new systems we opened it up so everyone could make a booking. That’s what raised expectations.”

Increased efficiency

It now takes longer to put together timetables for each group of students, because of the growing numbers of students taking university places, and the substantial number of events taking place throughout the academic year.

Usually, university staff manually use spreadsheets to timetable 8,000 lectures, seminars and tutorials. 

The university chose Advanced, as it wanted something it could adapt to meet its timetabling needs, rather than an off-the-shelf system. The software needed to be able to cover a multi-site administration, and work alongside other software applications already in use across the university’s campuses.

Advanced's CMIS system allowed timetabling staff to enter existing data and automate schedules for 1,400 different courses. By organising the timetabling and room allocation this way, the university knows how to properly allocate resources. Consequently, it began a buildings project earlier than expected as a result of rescheduling that could not have taken place otherwise.

The new system automate timetable changes and can model how this affects the rest of the university. Beforehand, the combination of courses and modules made this very difficult, with 11,000 possible course structure variations to consider.

Timetabling staff have already seen the benefits of the software. For example, they can now relocate an entire psychology course in two days, compared with the several weeks it would have taken to do manually.

An innovative step

Recently universities have been undertaking a number of projects to ensure their technology is as up-to-date as possible. Oxford University has announced it will adopt new communications systems to increase BYOD and collaboration across campuses. The Arctic University of Norway in Tromso uses excess heat generated by its datacentre to warm the university's campus.

But the University of Westminster claims it is one of the first universities to use smartphones for timetabling and booking rooms, possibly due to the lack of the right software in other establishments.

Aston says allowing wider timetable availability and real-time updates to students schedules – which students can now check anywhere, with their phone – will reduce students' stress and increase efficiency across the campus.

Wills adds: "The use of mobile devices to get information out to students happens in many ways already. Not necessarily for timetables. It happens for other things around student societies and lots of other things, so in a sense this seems like a natural progression as far as students are concerned, it’s the next thing they would quite rightly expect to get, and I think it’s only going to increase.”

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