Enhancing Teaching and Learning with Internet Services (draft for comments)

We were recently asked to put together some guidance for lecturers on using Internet services (Web 2.0, social media, ...) to enhance the teaching and learning experience. We had a lot of useful feedback on our Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy document, so I thought it would be worth blogging this new draft in a similar vein. If this subject is interesting to you, please do leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Enhancing Teaching and Learning with Internet Services (draft for comments)

Martin Hamilton and Charles Shields

Executive Summary

Over the last decade, there has been a huge expansion in the quantity and variety of Internet services that are either explicitly aimed at academic users (teachers and students) or intended for general use but which have been adopted by education. These services can enrich education but their use can involve significant risks to institutions, individual academics, and students. Certain services, such as Facebook, seem to pose greater risks than others, often connected with privacy misunderstandings and inappropriate online behaviour. This document provides some simple guiding principles that may be helpful to academic colleagues, and pointers to further information and training.


With the growth of the Internet there is now a new class of service available - so called "cloud" or "Web 2.0" services. Many of these have social networking at their core, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Google+. Other services are oriented around file sharing (such as Dropbox, Microsoft Skydrive, Amazon Cloud Drive) or provide more general facilities for online collaboration (such as Google Apps or Microsoft Office365).

There are also a plethora of niche sites and services that are aimed at the academic user (such as iTunesU, Mendeley, figshare, Academia.edu, myUduTu, Socrative) or have seen widespread adoption by academia (such as Lanyrd, SlideShare, Scribd). There is an increasing trend toward delivery via "apps" for smartphones and tablets, and some services are only available as apps.

Practical Considerations

Warranty and Liability: Internet services commonly come with an explicit disclaimer of any warranty or liability on the party of the service provider. This means that the lecturer, the student and the University have no recourse should there be a problem with the service that prevents it from operating as intended. Moreover, not only do Internet developments take place at a breakneck pace, but it is also commonplace for Internet startups to be acquired and services to be merged or dropped altogether. Some illustrative examples are the introduction of charging for Ning, the termination of the Twitterfountain service, and the planned shutdown of Posterous following its acquisition by Twitter.

Data Protection: It is common practice to build Internet services on a substrate of cloud computing technologies such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. This has significant implications where Data Protection legislation is concerned, because as a user of the service you may find that you have inadvertently acted in contravention of the University's Data Protection registration. Indeed, you may well not be able to determine the Data Protection regime that applies to an arbitrary Internet service that you would like to use in your teaching.

Copyright and IPR: The Internet contains a huge reserve of content that may trivially be re-used and re-mixed to build new teaching and learning materials. For the most part, anything that you can see on your computer screen can trivially be copied and pasted, linked to or embedded in slides, documents, videos, and so on. However, you cannot assume implicit permission to do this, as the vast majority of material on the Internet is not public domain. In many cases reproduction is controlled by restrictive copyright clauses, and there have been a number of high profile legal actions over inappropriate re-use of online content.

What's a lecturer to do?

It would be easy for the University to issue official guidance to the effect that formal teaching and learning can only take place through official University IT systems and services, and that staff were forbidden from using Internet services and content. Whilst this would provide a high degree of certainty and keep risk to a minimum, it would also potentially throttle innovation and innovative teaching practice. Such a policy would also be almost impossible to police and out of kilter with the policy that obtains elsewhere.

We hope to avoid being prescriptive by setting out a few simple principles that ensure Internet services and shareable content can be fully exploited, whilst minimising risk:

Third Party Core Services: The University has formal contracts in place for a number of Internet services that you can regard as part of core IT provision. Examples include the Google Apps online collaboration tools and the Blackboard Collaborate virtual classroom service.

Risk Management: Beyond core facilities, take a considered and informed approach to your use of Internet systems and services. Consider what the impact would be on your course if the service suddenly ceased to be available, or changed in such a way that your planned use of it was no longer practical. To put it crudely, make sure that you have a Plan B. Consider also whether the service is offered by a major multinational (eg Google) or a new company, although this may not be obvious.

Digital Inclusion: Do not assume that all members of your student cohort will have fast broadband access at home, an unlimited mobile data plan or access to the latest tablet and smartphone devices. Whilst we aim to provide world class IT facilities on campus, the University is not presently able to extend this out to students' own devices or personal Internet connectivity. If in doubt, check with your students before making any firm plans.

Open Educational Resources: Only re-use Internet content that you have permission to, through an appropriate license such as Creative Commons. If in doubt, use explicitly labelled Open Educational Resources such as those available from JORUM (http://jorum.ac.uk) or through the Xpert search engine (http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/xpert)

Acceptable Use Policy: You might consider alerting your students to the final paragraph of Section 4 of the University’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) which states:
Users of services external to the University are expected to abide by any policies, rules and codes of conduct applying to such services. Any breach of such policies, rules and codes of conduct may be regarded as a breach of this Acceptable Use Policy and be dealt with accordingly. This includes social networking sites, blog and wiki services, bookmarking services and any other external services, including those described as Web 2.0 or otherwise.

Getting Help

The E-Learning team at Loughborough has provided a wealth of information and recommendations via the E-Learning blog: http://blog.lboro.ac.uk/elearning/, in particular through the Tools for Teaching section which is featured as the focus of an activity in Unit 2 of the New Lecturers’ Course. This section will be further expanded with the inclusion guidelines (and case studies) of new services.

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