Students bring future of education closer with apps, games and webslides


UGent’s Innoversity Challenge called on students and staff to come up with innovative ideas to improve education, and the results are impressive

Bringing students and professors closer

An app with which students can ask questions during lessons in large auditoriums without disturbing the lecturer is just one of the innovations developed by students and staff at Ghent University (UGent) during the Innoversity Challenge.

Last October, UGent challenged students and staff to brainstorm about how digital technology can improve education in the future. “There is more and more discussion on how the education sector should evolve in this digital age,” explains UGent rector Anne De Paepe. “We want to involve students in this discussion and are happy they answered our call with enthusiasm and creativity.”

The response was indeed impressive: staff and students made a total of 544 suggestions for an innovative project. A longlist of 20 ideas was whittled down to a final 10, with the chosen innovators forming multidisciplinary teams to develop their ideas, with the help of communication, ICT and pedagogical experts.

From these 10 ideas, four were chosen to be implemented at the university. “The four winning projects are not only innovative, but it’s also feasible to implement them in the short term,” says De Paepe.

Next academic year, the ideas will be tested at different faculties, with the ultimate goal being to introduce them across the whole university.

Some of the other ideas will be used to improve the university’s education and services. “The ones that didn’t win were closely related to innovations we were already preparing but provide a useful addition to our work,” De Paepe explains.

Entrepreneurial spirit

De Paepe believes the Innoversity Challenge will benefit students as well as the university. “It shows the importance of taking action, instead of passively absorbing lesson material,” she says. “This experience in entrepreneurship will help them in their professional lives.”

Among the winning projects, three deal with educational matters at university and one should improve the service provided to students in UGent buildings.

One of the projects, called Hermes after the messenger of the gods in Roman mythology, aims to help students who have questions during lessons but find it difficult to ask them in an auditorium filled with hundreds of students. 

It shows the importance of taking action, instead of passively absorbing lesson material

- Anne De Paepe

“It’s not only shy students who have this problem; it can sometimes just be very challenging to make yourself heard in these large auditoriums or to find an appropriate moment during a lecture,” says team member Morgane Janssens, a student of engineering sciences. “Students tend to discuss issues among themselves or ask the lecturer questions later, in person or via email, but the clarification could benefit all the students.”

With two fellow students in engineering sciences and an Advanced Master’s student in economics, Janssens is working on an app with which students can signal difficulties during lectures to both their fellow students and the lecturer. Posts on the Hermes platform will be anonymous.

Questions or comments will only get through to the platform for the lecturer, however, if a significant number – say 20% – of the other students “like” the post. Students will also be able to answer questions themselves.

Comfort zone

“Lecturers will remain in control and be able to choose the right moment to look at questions, so the lectures are not constantly interrupted,” explains Janssens. The creators are also thinking of including an alarm button, so students can indicate that they really can’t follow the lesson. Misuse can be avoided by making sure the lecturer can track the identity of users if they need to.

Will this app not serve to keep students in their comfort zone, rather than pushing them to become more assertive? “It’s just meant for large auditoriums, not for lessons in smaller groups, where there are less practical barriers for asking questions,” says Janssens.

She also doesn’t believe the app will be too much of a distraction. “Most students already look at their smartphones during lessons,” she says. “It would be better if they’re checking something related to the class.”

Another app, this time a more playful one, has been developed by the Gamified Learning team – consisting of both students and staff. The idea of initiator Jeroen Neckebrouck, a PhD student at the faculty of economics and business administration, was to battle procrastination by creating a game that makes studying more fun. 

Student involvement

The game will be made up of short quizzes on the content of courses, in the first phase with questions included by professors and later with questions added by students. Students will be able to follow their progress, which should keep them motivated. The app will also provide feedback on the lesson material related to the quiz questions.

“The game will be a more useful replacement for the typical smartphone games young people play during breaks at school or on public transport,” says team member Elke Minnaert, educational supervisor at the economics and business administration faculty. 

The game will only be an addition to the study process and not a miracle solution for passing exams

- Elke Minnaert

The app should help to keep students on track during the school year and make exam periods less stressful. “Of course, the game will only be an addition to the study process and not a miracle solution for passing exams,” Minnaert says.

A third education project, OpenWebSlides, was started by a lecturer: researcher Ruben Verborgh of the engineering and architecture faculty. He got the idea of using webslides during his lessons, as they offer more possibilities to explain a topic. Webslides are online presentation slides that, like websites, can include features like YouTube videos, tweets and interactive graphs.

His team wants to spread the knowledge of this new technology among lecturers and involve students closely. “What makes our project particularly innovative is that the students can make remarks and propose adjustments or additions on the slides,” says Verborgh. “We want to shrink the gap between lecturers and students by using technology that’s part of their daily lives and by giving them a say in the development of lesson materials.”

The professor and their assistants remain in control, as they decide who has access to the slides, and they must approve any changes. Still, Verborgh realises not all professors will be willing to embrace the technology straight away, even if training is provided.

International audience

“Mindsets are more difficult to change than software, as is proved by lecturers still using overhead projectors today,” he says. “But I think many lecturers will soon realise the advantages of getting more feedback and insights from students in a more organised way.”

The slides can be shared on social media, making it easier to discuss them. “It can also lead to more international recognition for researchers and the university,” says Verborgh. “I have found that it’s easier to reach an international audience if your slides can be shared on Twitter.”

The last winning project, Vesta – named after the Roman goddess of family – offers a practical service to students: an overview of the availability of places to study or work on group assignments in university buildings. 

Mindsets are more difficult to change than software, as is proved by lecturers still using overhead projectors

- Ruben Verborgh

“Studying in a group at university libraries has become increasingly popular in recent years, as more students want to escape their rooms and be motivated by the presence of their fellow students,” says team member Lode Devloo, who’s studying business psychology. “As a result, during exams, students often wait in line at certain libraries, while there are places available elsewhere.”

Vesta also aims to improve the use of computer suites or other rooms where students can meet to discuss group projects. “These are not yet well-known, which means students often meet for group projects at places without many facilities, like university restaurants,” says Devloo.

The Vesta team wants to improve this situation by creating an app that shows in real time how many places are available at various locations. To make it work, scanners will be placed at the entrance of libraries or work rooms, and students will be asked to scan their student card so their presence is registered. In a later phase, the team want to make it possible for students to book a place in a room.

The Vesta app will be used in the Therminal student house during the next exam period, in June. Devloo hopes the system can be introduced in all relevant university buildings by December of 2017. 

Photo (c) UGent/Hilde Christiaens