A safe return to campus: the technology assisting universities in their post-covid recovery.
Updated: Sep 20, 2021
As the UK begins to recover and plan ahead in a post pandemic landscape, higher education institutions are currently considering how they can safely return thousands of students, faculty and staff ahead of the autumn term. With limited foresight as to what the future will bring, universities are being challenged to ensure student welfare and safety remains a priority.
COVID-19 has had many negative impacts on higher education and has understandably evoked an emotional response across the student body, leaving many in a state of confusion and anxiety. According to a global survey conducted by Times Higher Education in Sep 2020, less than one in four university staff feel safe returning to work on campus. Sixty-one per cent of respondents said that they felt that their universities could do more to keep them safe on campus. Recruitment of international students, important for many universities' long term viability, will also need to address both the prospective students’ and their parents’ concerns around safety.
With this in mind it’s paramount that universities look for ways they can instill confidence and reassurance to new and returning students as well as staff. They will need to consider how they can enhance the student experience, protect personal health and safety, whilst delivering enough value to justify tuition fees.
How technology can play a part
The pandemic should act as an accelerator for universities to rethink and plan towards a more positive future. Technology innovation will play a vital and essential role in this, with an ability to demonstrably minimise risk and show a university’s commitment to student welfare. So what technology is currently being trialled, outside of e-learning solutions, that could assist universities from an estate management point of view? Technology that will not only enhance the student experience but also contribute to their safety and security.
Safety precaution reminders
The University of North Carolina designed a first-of-its-kind Health Greeter Kiosk in October 2020 in order to encourage people to wear masks and to spread out. Designed by UNC students under the guidance of Steven King, chief innovation officer for the Reese Innovation Lab, the Health Greeter Kiosk has now been rolled out across multiple locations on campus and uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to detect whether individuals are spaced 2 metres apart and if they are wearing a facial covering. If no mask is detected, a positively-worded message is displayed to encourage mask-wearing.
Attendance and concentration
Biometrics and facial recognition technology that scans body parts like fingerprints, and facial features can help ensure the security and safety of students on campus. For example, thumbprints can be used to track attendance or match facial features via a webcam against approved ID to deliver online examinations. PopID, a US-based startup, uses fever-screening cameras to address COVID-19 symptom concerns, already being used in restaurants across the US and likely to be adopted by educational institutions also.
A smart campus is a digitally connected space, where devices and data come together. Connecting devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets and wearable devices to a single network can help improve operations and convenience. For example, some US campuses are enabling students to pay for food in cafeterias and vending machines through their phones. Amazon has partnered with St. Louis University in Missouri to equip dorm rooms with Echo Dot smart speakers that are specifically programmed to answer questions about dorm and campus life. While this would make student life more convenient and inevitably enhance the student experience, enabling a seamless operation of thousands of connected devices across campus requires immense planning with large upfront setup and ongoing maintenance costs.
Millersville University, a public university in Pennsylvania, has adopted two technology products as part of it’s reopening strategy. A data analytics solution called Campus Pulse and a risk mitigation app called LiveSafe. Campus Pulse offers social density mapping, allowing the university to know exactly how many people are on campus, identifying high social density zones through heat maps. This helps MU manage its capacity limit, whilst LiveSafe is a mobile platform for emergency notifications, risk management, and safety communications.
Similarly in the UK, Falmouth University is currently undergoing a pilot with Cornish-based tech startup Data Duopoly whose white label software product Xplor-CAMPUS also maps where users are onsite. Students and/or visitors operate an interactive map via an app on their phone to navigate and assess the capacity of different areas, avoiding busy areas on campus. The university receives the anonymous user data via an analytics dashboard and can identify potential hotspots for overcrowding in real time, rerouting visitors away from problem areas with personalised offers or nudge notifications. Universities will gain valuable data insight into how students and visitors use the site which will assist with long-term planning around campus flow. This works particularly well for special events and open days and also features an inbuilt COVID tracker and alert system for peace of mind.
Now is the perfect time for universities to seize the moment to be innovative and adapt for a post-COVID-19 world. Products, such as Data Duopoly’s Xplor-CAMPUS brings new technology to a market where it’s not currently being used, offering universities a first-mover advantage. Taking proactive steps to engage with new ideas that ensure safety and wellbeing is being addressed, will help shape perceptions and have a positive influence on the recruitment and retention of students and staff.
Is your university seeking to employ new technology? We’d love to hear about more innovative platforms and tools being used. Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @DataDuopoly