Can Smart Technology Boost Student Engagement and Happiness in Higher Education?

SmartCitti considers how future technology could improve student wellbeing

Digital transformation (Dx) and the use of smart technologies in higher education is a trend that is fast reaching its prime. According to research conducted by EDUCAUSE, 13% of universities surveyed were already engaged in digital transformation, 32% were developing their Dx strategies and 38% were exploring Dx. All told, over 80% of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) surveyed indicated they were giving attention to digital transformation. And with disruptions to learning brought on by the pandemic, digital solutions that support remote learning while also engaging students are even more relevant.

Emerging technologies and changing market standards are some of the factors behind digital transformation in HEIs. However, evolving student expectations is one of the most important factors. Improving student engagement to meet these evolving expectations has been key in getting more and more universities to prioritise Dx. Many students in the UAE, UK, US and Australia rate their satisfaction based on the quality of on-campus life. And because services in virtually all areas of life have been digitised, young students increasingly expect campus life to be enhanced by digital technologies. For instance, a 2019 survey by TechnologyOne found that Australian students want much of their university experience to be enhanced by digitisation.

For experts in the smart tech industry, the digital transformation of HEIs means much more than digitising processes and adding tech-enabled services here and there. For people like Sajid Hussain, SmartCitti’s Co-founder and General Manager UAE, the digital transformation of HEIs should ultimately involve the creation of intelligent campuses where technology is utilised to re-imagine the student’s journey and “Enable frictionless, intuitive experiences driven by empowered and inspired learners.”

In this feature, we take a closer look at how smart tech can boost student engagement and happiness at HEIs.

Understanding Student Engagement

Student engagement is a famously broad concept encompassing what happens within and beyond the classrooms of university campuses. It has to do with the quality of learning, the quality of facilities and services, as well as community life, wellbeing, and much more. While student engagement can be understood outside the context of a traditional campus, such as in a virtual learning environment (VLE), the quality of campus life is generally taken to be a measure of student engagement.

So, to understand why digital transformation is critical to the quality of campus life and student engagement, it is important to recognise that student engagement does not happen in a vacuum. As Paul Ashwin and Debbie McVitty point out, student engagement is situated in a time and place, and is greatly influenced by the conditions of the environment (the institution) as well as the quality of the relationships within that environment. How Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) structure their institutions and processes has far greater impact on student engagement than the individual choices students make. So, it is important for HEIs to take the perspective of asking what they can do to improve student engagement instead of simply asking students to be more engaged.

Student engagement is also something that happens in degrees ranging from mere participation to partnership and ultimately, leadership. Evidence suggests that students are no longer content with paying institutions to participate in academic, community and extra-curricular activities in which that have no say. As Sajid Hussain of SmartCitti explains, “Participation is the low bar for student engagement. Students want less of the prescribed, predetermined engagements you find in many universities. Instead, students want to be partners and leaders in shaping their university experience and smart tech can play a role in making this a reality.”

What True Digital Transformation Means for Higher Education

In higher education, digital transformation (Dx) is ultimately about enhancing value delivery and efficiency. According to EDUCAUSE, employing smart technologies enhances the operations and value proposition of an institution by enabling new educational models driven by shifts in technology, culture, and workforce.

So, technology in the form of smart learning solutions and digital classrooms is only one part of the Dx equation. True digital transformation is holistic. Enhancing culture and engagement are also key which is why true digital transformation for HEIs involves understanding the student experience and then taking steps to completely re-imagine the student journey using smart technologies. HEIs that successfully undertake this transformation develop a Student’s Journey map outlining the student’s path from enrolment to graduation. This helps institutions identify the highs and lows of a student’s experience so as to strategically enhance student engagement at every stage.

In addition to being holistic, true digital transformation should also be data driven. Information and insights about students’ academic performance, usage patterns, self-reported feedback, communities of interest, reviews, etc, should be collected, analysed, and used in real-time to drive engagement by providing relevant information when it is needed.

Smart Tech Solutions for Higher Education

As mentioned above, digital transformation in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) involves much more than providing digital learning solutions. It’s about using smart technologies to address students’ pain points and enhance student engagement and wellbeing. The Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University (HBMSU), which is the UAE’s first accredited smart university, has implemented many smart tech solutions supported by SmartCitti. These include seamless indoor/outdoor navigation to help students and visitors navigate the university’s premises, an emotional review feature to capture the sentiment of staff and students, as well as a number of IoT (Internet of Things) sensors that facilitate monitoring and sustainability practices for greater efficiency.

Holistic digital transformation also means that smart technology solutions can be tailored to the needs of particular student groups. For instance, indoor/outdoor navigation tools can have inbuilt features to help students with disabilities locate, access, and rate services around a campus. Emotional review platforms like the one powered by SmartCitti can also be used by students to leave happiness POIs (points of interest) and service reviews that can help university administration make decisions that will enhance student experience. Smart tech solutions can also empower students to create the kind of supportive academic and social communities they need while also easing access to essential helplines that support students’ mental wellbeing.

Digital signages are another smart tech solution which can serve as critical navigation and assistance tools within an intelligent campus. They can be designed to provide general information, process simple navigation queries, and even provide more customised information using data collected from proximity sensors.

Furthermore, IoT sensors can play a very crucial role in making HEIs more energy and resource efficient. Many institutions already implement smart lighting solutions based on room occupancy. Smart washrooms and smart parking facilities are an extension of this kind of service which also enable access to real-time data on traffic information and parking availability while regulating resource use.

How Smart Technologies Enhance Student Engagement & Happiness

There is strong evidence linking student engagement to wellbeing, happiness, and better overall academic achievement. It is complex chain which confirms what educators have long understood about learning. For instance, a longitudinal study of undergraduates at a campus-based UK university found strong positive correlations between student engagement and student wellbeing. Separate studies have also shown a strong positive relationship between happiness/wellbeing and good academic performance. A study of over 300 people conducted in 2015 showed strong correlations between happiness and academic performance. This correlation also holds true for high school students.

Microsoft’s seminal white paper titled ‘Emotion and Cognition in the 21st Century’ leans heavily on the connection between wellbeing and academic performance. They found that 79% of the 762 educators surveyed from 15 countries believe “positive emotions are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important for helping students to achieve academic success.”

With these scientific correlations established, here are 4 ways smart tech solutions can boost student engagement and happiness.

1. Empowering Students

At their best, smart technologies deployed to create intelligent campuses empower students to take greater control of their entire student experience. As Sajid Hussain of SmartCitti puts it, smart technologies empower students “With choice, awareness, purpose, value and an unparalleled experience.” When students are empowered to be partners and leaders in their student journey, they are better engaged. The role of smart technology in boosting student engagement through things like personalised learning, enhanced collaboration and teaching critical social skills was also highlighted in Microsoft’s Emotion and Cognition white paper.

2. Supporting Student-Centred Higher Education

EDUCAUSE identifies the shift to student-centric higher education as one of the positive outcomes of ongoing digital transformation in higher education. This student-centred system facilitates the creation of what they call a ‘student-services ecosystem’ which is responsive, adaptive, and sensitive to the student’s journey. It is precisely this dynamic that has experts at SmartCitti excited about the possibilities that come with establishing intelligent campuses. The smart tech solutions that will emerge within each institution will undoubtedly be tailored to the unique needs and perspectives of the students there and will change as these needs change.

3. Helping Institutions Deliver on Key Student Expectations

The digitisation of on-campus life is a key expectation of today’s students. It is certainly easy to understand how a generation that has come of age with services and interactions facilitated by technology would expect no less from their colleges and universities. That said, it is worth emphasising that this expectation goes beyond convenience which is an important consideration. It also has to do with cost reduction, quality of life and quality of services on- and off-campus. By integrating smart technologies in their operations, higher education institutions (HEIs) of all sizes can demonstrate their readiness to deliver the kind of service and lifestyle their students expect.

4. Strengthening Institutions to Weather Disruptive Times

With the current economic situation and disruption to learning both brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, running HEIs efficiently has never been more important. Operational efficiency is about resource management and cost reduction. Students are also interested in cost reduction. The efficiencies that arise from digital transformation of HEIs are well documented. According to EDUCAUSE, in addition to reducing waste and increasing value, digital transformation can also make education more affordable for students. For instance, online learning resources are infinitely reusable with the only cost being that of providing data and access to internet-enabled tablets and laptops. With respect to hardware, cheap solutions are also available through the purchase of used devices or time-bound device rentals.

Conclusion: Creating a Seamless, Painless Student Experience

So, can smart tech boost student engagement and happiness in higher education? The answer is a resounding yes and for very good reason. In the end, digital transformation (Dx) is about making the student’s journey seamless, painless, and intuitive, which ultimately improves student engagement and wellbeing. Dx is about getting logistical hiccups and inefficiencies out of the way so that learning and community-building can take place without limits. It’s also about providing tools to empower students to create and constantly improve their experience as respected partners with the institutions themselves.

If you would like to contact Saj about this blog or SmartCitti please do so on [email protected], and download the SmartCitti app at