Monday, 24 March 2014

Student voices: how do universities compare in their use of technology?

I have a class at the English Language Teaching Centre called Learning English Through Technology, a course that mixes traditional language learning with aspects of digital literacy, so I thought this blog would be a great chance for them to express themselves publicly on a topic connected to technology. Most of the students are European and here on a study abroad programme.  I was personally interested to know how technology was used at their home university and how that compared with the University of Sheffield, so I asked them to compose a short(ish) post on the topic. Each of their contributions are below and - if you can - please leave a comment for the students as they'll be keeping an eye on what people say about what they've written! (David Read)


I'm going to have a closer look at how technology is used in two specific universities. One being the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and the other being the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität of
Freiburg in Germany.

University of Freiburg (source)
From what I have seen so far of the University of Sheffield I gather that most of the teaching is centered around the online platform MOLE (My Online Learning Environment). This is where new about the class are posted, where the course material can be downloaded and accessed from and it also provides a discussion forum about the contents of the class.

This is very similar to the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität. They, too, have an online platform like that called ILIAS. On ILIAS you will find all relevant information for all lectures and courses you signed up for. The slides of each session, background reading, a discussion forum, a list of all other members of the class and their e-mail addresses.

So far the use of technology is the pretty much the same.

But the University of Freiburg also utilizes technology in other ways to help with teaching. There are some departments that record all of their lectures, that way students have the possibility to review the entire lecture at home and listen to it as many times as they want. This is advantageous in many ways. Not only does it offer the chance to revise everything before an exam but also helps students who want to take two classes which happen to take place at the same time. This way they can still take both classes, attend one and download the recording of the other. By offering this possibility the students have more freedom in creating their own timetables and their independent learning ability is trained as well, since this is quite close to learning.

Furthermore, the University of Freiburg has started to implement a feedback platform, called SMILE (SMartphones In der LEhre) which roughly translates to “smartphones in teaching”. This is a student-led project which the university decided to support. It is basically a webpage, in which every student can log on anonymously and then indicate how much of what is currently said and explained they feel they actually understand, if they class proceeds too fast or too slow. All of this will be projected during the lecture in real-time so lecturers can adjust the speed or difficulty level to fit the class level. Besides that, it also offers the possibility to ask the entire class some spontaneous multiple choice questions. This allows students to not be forced into a completely passive position during lectures (where you can actually have up to 100-200 students listening) but where they can actually actively take part

SMILE (source)

Concerning the hardware, on the other hand, the University of Sheffield seems to be better equipped. Pretty much every room seems to be provided with at least one computer, whereas in the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität only the big lecture halls or labs, as well as the computer rooms, of course, are provided with computers.

As you see, the way in which technology is used and applied is quite different. While the University of Sheffield seems to have better equipped facilities, the University of Freiburg focuses on the use of software to make student life easier.


I am from the Aix-en-Provence University, in the south of France. When I saw this topic I just wanted to laugh, as my home University and Sheffield University are generally very different. While Sheffield students have a very modern students’ union building including cafes and nightclubs, in Aix we have metal grids to avoid that bricks falling from the walls knock out students. Now I think it is useless to say that the financial means are not the same. (note: My university is composed of different colleges that are very isolated from one another, both in term of physical distance and in term of management, so when I mention “my university”, I actually refer only to the Art and Literature College. All those different colleges were actually different universities until two or three years ago.)

Aix-En-Provence (source)
But let’s have a deeper look into this topic. I think that the technology medium can be divided into different categories.

Let’s first deal with the big part, the hardware one. In Sheffield, there are smart screens, that I thought were still a sci-fi high-tech dream. There were computers in all the classrooms that I have been to. There are computers rooms in a lot of teaching buildings, but also in the student’s union building and in the various libraries. In Aix, there are only computers in the small and only library. There are some rooms with computers in the teaching buildings, but they can’t be accessed at any time, they are only for teaching purposes.

Now what are we taught about technology in this university? Well in Sheffield the teachers know how to use the different online tools, they can explain them to students, they inform students about the different software and online tools, academic or not, that can be a real bonus for their studies. In Aix, even when teachers know how to use the online tools, they barely use them. In the “IT classes” we are taught how to use Word and Excel.

Then, when it comes to the online tools, the situation is not too bad. The Universities of Sheffield and Aix both have an online “learning environment”, whatever the name they give them is. This gives the possibility to send emails, to see some classes content, to see our results, and so on. But there again, Sheffield has some advantages over Aix. First, they have an online library, providing a lot of academic resources, which is I think one of the most important things for a University. Second, teachers really use it to upload content for the classes, which is very often not the case in Aix.

I want to add that I like my home University, as we have excellent teachers, which is where its strength lies. But Aix University seems to think that learning stops when the teachers stop talking, while Sheffield Uni tries to provide students with as many tools as they possibly can to access information.


Saint-Denis (source)
My home university is the Université de La Réunion located in the city of Saint-Denis in Reunion Island. Before starting the comparison of the use of technology in my home university and the University of Sheffield, I would like to talk about Saint-Denis in order to set up a little context. Saint-Denis is the administrative “capital” of Reunion Island but has only 150 000 inhabitants (more or less). In the Université de la Réunion, there are only 6000 students on average registered. What I want to say with all that is that Saint-Denis is a pretty small city with not much to do and the Université de la Réunion is a small university. I would like to add that Reunion Island is located far away and is behind Europe concerning technology (and other things but it is not the subject).

Inside the IC at Sheffield (source)
So now the context has been set up, it is obvious that technology is not used the same way in my home university and the University of Sheffield. First of all, the University of Sheffield draws very heavily on technology as each students is provided an e-mail address (all the e-mail addresses of the university - other students, teachers, administration, …), access to the library website with the possibility to reserve books in advance, to see what is available or not and even to consult books online. Moreover, the University of Sheffield gives access to Mole which is a platform permitting teachers to put the documents/ homeworks/ information on it and to students to access all that but also to submit their work. There are many other services provided by the University of Sheffield through technology, for example the possibility to add/ drop modules online or your personal timetable updated with your courses.

Of course, in the Université de La Réunion, none of this exists. We do have a website (which is a nightmare to use!) but there is not much on it, just information about the degrees. Teachers and students do not use technology except to look for some information. The library works manually, there no possibility to see what they have online and of course to see if it is available. Even contacting the teachers can be hard as we have to go after them to ask for their e-mail address and to ask for their authorisation to contact them. For the administrative part, there is no point sending an e-mail or calling as in 80% of the case they will not answer because they are “busy”. The best option is to go directly to see them (but be careful to check the hours because if they close in 10 minutes, they will not meet you).

To conclude, I will say that technology has a very different place in both universities. Indeed, technology in central in the University of Sheffield while in the Université de La Réunion technology is not really used. Personally, I prefer the use of technology in the University of Sheffield as it is much more easy and simpler for me to be up-to-date with everything, to contact people and to organise myself. I think one day the Université de La Réunion will reach that point with the use of technology but at the moment, we all have to be patient!


The difference in use of technology between the Radboud University in Nijmegen and the University of Sheffield

One of the first things that stood out to me was the use of Twitter at the University of Sheffield. When we had the introductory talks, one of the first things they asked us was to tweet to the university account, during the talks. For me, that felt like something very rude to do, because when someone is giving a presentation, you don't take out your phone and start tweeting. Even some teachers ask students to tweet during classes. In Nijmegen, that would never happen. No student is allowed to take out his or her phone out during class, and if they do, it is frowned upon, and the student is asked to put the phone away (or sometimes the phone is even confiscated). This difference might also be because Twitter is much less popular in the Netherlands than it is here in the UK. Here, you see Twitter everywhere around you. Every single shop, brand, or cup of coffee has the logo printed on it, and we even saw some beer glasses with a Twitter and Facebook logo. In the Netherlands, it is not so commonplace to see the Twitter logo. I've never seen it on a beer glass before, for example.

Radboud University, Nijmegen (source)
Another difference is the use of the many 'smart blackboards'. I only know of one classroom in Nijmegen that has one, while here in Sheffield, they can be found nearly everywhere. However, I don't really like them. I teach students of Dutch, so I have to make use of them on a regular basis. If you use one of those things, for example for a Powerpoint presentation, and you touch the screen by accident, it goes to the next slide, which can be really annoying. I don't like to write on them either, but I prefer to use a normal whiteboard.

So the differences between the two universities in their use of technology are not that big. I think the Radboud University is much smaller than the University of Sheffield, so it has less money, and less capacity to have very sophisticated technological facilities. However, the use of Blackboard is very much the same, and computers and printing systems aren't very different either.


Seville University (source)
My home university is the University of Seville, Spain and it is the main public university in the south of Spain (Andalusia) with the highest number of students. The University of Seville provides the students a great range of services based on new technologies and these services are called ‘Virtual University’.

The heart of the Virtual University is called ‘Virtual education’. This `Virtual education’ would be the equivalent to MOLE in the University of Sheffield but there are some differences. It seems to be the same thing. The first time I saw MOLE I thought it was the same service that my university offers maybe because they are based on any e-learning template like Moodle, Joomla, etc. It includes a module with ‘Announcements’, ‘Courses List’ and, in the case of the university of Seville, a calendar which shows the students the dates of the exams, deadlines of essays, holidays, etc. This calendar is a useful tool which is very important if you are as forgetful as me. Both services also includes the option of adding new modules and personalise your main page.

However there is a small difference between MOLE and ‘Virtual Education’. ‘Virtual Education’ allows the student to see the emails of the classmates or the teacher in a specific module and it also has a chat option if any of your classmates is online. In this case it is possible to send emails to the teachers through ‘Virtual Education’. This is possible because the University of Seville uses its own email service while the University of Sheffield uses Gmail. So in Sheffield is not possible to send emails or chat through MOLE.

At this point we can discuss about the email of the University of Sheffield. Is it positive to use a google account for students? The positive part of this is that Gmail offers different useful options like Google Drive. The negative part is that the University forces the student to create a Gmail account and maybe the students prefer another option like Hotmail, etc. In my opinion it is not a good idea to create a new google account (without the possibility of using a previous one) taking into account that this email will disappear after finish your studies.

In my case, I have an account from the University of Sheffield (zzb13sc) and another account from Gmail. In the University of Seville it is possible to use one account for everything.

The most interesting feature I used in the University of Sheffield is the service MyFilestore. It provides students file access from any computer of the university with nothing to download or install on the computer. However, I noticed that all the computers use a Windows 7 operating system. The University of Seville use Linux in their computers because it is a free operative system which is also open-source code.

To conclude, I would say that both universities use new technologies in the same way. However in the University of Sheffield is possible to see different brands like Google, Intel, Windows, Photoshop, etc. and this fact gives the student the impression that the university is sponsored by different important brands.


As an Erasmus student, I have now the experience of two different university systems. And let me tell you that there are obvious differences. One of them is the technology use.

I come from France and my home university Aix-Marseille Université (AMU) is located in the south. Apart from the warm and sunny weather, the historical and tourist city and the interesting and good quality courses, my home university has a lot to improve concerning its technology system. That’s why it was one of the big change I experienced when I arrived in Sheffield to spend a year abroad in the typical and lovely South Yorkshire (district).

Indeed, technology is omnipresent in the university of Sheffield. Let’s take for example the fact that every classroom (lecture theatres and seminar rooms) have its own computer which is always used by teachers, as an educational tool to teach their courses (using powerpoints, internet…) and also by students for their presentations. And those computers are of course always provided with a projector and a pair of speakers. In my home university, only a small number of classrooms are equipped with those devices. Sometimes they don’t even work and if they do, teachers and students must bring their private computer to use them.

Another difference is that, even if we have that technology, it is not usually used. We still have blackboards and we still write with chalk sticks. No, I am not joking. It’s true! However they improved a little and we now have more and more whiteboards and whiteboard marker. So if you are lucky enough to have a class in a room equipped with one of these whiteboards, you can avoid the horribly irritating sound made by the chalk on the board.

So imagine how amazed I was, when I came in Sheffield and discovered the smartboard ! I couldn’t believe there was such a thing. A tactile board connected to a computer where teachers can actually write on with some electronic pen! How great is that ?

Besides the university of Sheffield has better quality and more technology devices. For example, in the IC, there are lots of computers, photocopiers, printers (black&white and colours) AND scanners. However, all these devices are present in every single building of the university (eltc, library, student’s union, mappin building, management school…)

In Aix’s library, we only have three printers (two black&white and one colour) and a couple of photocopiers but no scanners and it is the only place where you can find these devices. Moreover, they all have old softwares (like word 94 for example).

However, even if my home university is not at the cutting edge of technology, we still have a virtual learning environment called ENT like in Sheffield...well, kind of. The university website, from which we can have access, is not regularly updated and its design is very simple. It is nonetheless quite easy to use but has lack of informations and content though. That is the reason why , when I started to use the VLE of Sheffield i was a little confused. There are so much information on it that I was a bit lost. However, when you get used to it, it becomes easy. Now I find it better than the Aix’s one. Our email box is horrible. I think it is a good idea to be in partnership with gmail for example, like Sheffield did because it is much better and effective.

In conclusion I think that we don’t use technology enough in my home university compared to the university of Sheffield. Nevertheless, I guess it is because of the university’s budget which is smaller than the Sheffield’s one. (the buildings’ appearance can confirm it).


  1. To Sergio:

    What makes you think that Sheffield is sponsored by different brands? Google is generally free, whereas Microsoft is often paid for.

    Regarding creating a new account with Google, you can create a Google account without creating a new e-mail address.

    Finally, do you think that one system or product line can provide an 'all in one' solution for elearning?

  2. What I wanted to say is that, sometimes, students are force to use microsoft office for example and this software costs to much money. During this year I heard some people who had to download microsoft office in thepiratebay...

    I also think that is possible to provide an 'all in one' solution but maybe is not as easy.