The campus of the present has changed dramatically over the past few years. Since the pandemic, schools have experienced a mix of in-person and online learning, and also have in some cases taken the opportunity to change what the definition of a modern classroom looks like.
To do their jobs effectively, faculty and administrators need access to an always connected, all-inclusive, integrated and efficient learning environment. Students and faculty alike will look poorly upon an institution that keeps dropping online class video sessions, or one where faculty can’t get access to the technology tools they need to create a best in class teaching experience.
The unifying factor in all of this is the student experience, i.e., making sure everything works, all of the time, for the students connecting remotely to their online classes and those studying in outdoor areas of the campus.
Focusing on that student experience is an important shift from the way campus networks and connectivity have been thought of in the past. By putting the experience first and foremost, schools can utilize their networks to reduce operational costs, and help increase student retention and recruitment
to drive additional revenue. Optimizing the experience saves time and money, while enabling IT departments to best align with key institutional objectives.
The Importance of the Student Experience
Students and faculty alike deserve an excellent experience while connected to the institution. Everyone clearly remembers network failures - the time the faculty lecture stream glitched out, or when extra time had to be requested on a report because the system was down for an extended period of time. No one remembers the millions of times that the network and all related technologies worked as intended.
Few users care about how a network works, they just care that it does work. The network has become an always-on utility just like electricity, plumbing and telephone service. Approaching campus networks from this perspective helps to re-prioritize where time and effort is spent to provide that positive experience.
Elements that Improve the Experience
There are four key areas that campus network teams should concentrate on in order to create that positive experience: Wi-Fi, location-based technologies, security and improving overall operations. These areas can positively impact both the user experience - and the experience of the networking/IT team itself.
• Wi-Fi: Delivering a quality Wi-Fi connection across the campus is probably the most important aspect of delivering a positive student experience. When done correctly, Wi-Fi can power classroom, hybrid and remote learning - and extend the network to any location a student or faculty member might be. This functionality is critical both because of the uncertain times we live in, and because today’s educators and learners come to campus with the expectation that they won’t be sitting behind a desk or in a lecture hall all day, every day. Mobility is the new normal, and the experience provided should reflect that.
Wi-Fi needs to be predictable, reliable and optimized for all users, devices and applications - from client to cloud. Collaborative conferencing and research facilities must be seamlessly supported across multiple locations.
In addition, the application of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to the network can help the networking team customize service levels and optimize the experience for students, faculty, staff and visitors, based on their constantly changing needs and locations. These advanced technologies can also help the team identify issues in real-time and provide appropriate support (such as a replacement laptop, upgraded Internet connection or help on how to overcome technical issues, such as an incorrect configuration).
• Location-Based Technologies: The adoption and use of location-based technologies has increased on campuses - and many schools’ initial efforts have only scratched the surface of what’s possible. Location-based technologies can help better support student, faculty and staff safety and wellbeing - as well as deliver engaging and relevant experiences.
By building location-based technologies and services directly into the network, schools can add enhanced visitor experiences, presenting information or directions to new students, friends and relatives that visit, or to prospective new students trying to take it all in. These services could include turn-by turn wayfinding, class reminders or campus information. Virtual beacons can also be utilized to deliver on the-spot information, such as digital coupons or hazard alerts.
Location-based technologies can also assist a team in locating portable assets (such as student devices, laptops or lab equipment), and can be used to capture data analytics that allow the team to improve the cost-effective use of buildings, facilities and energy. Room occupancy can be closely monitored to meet any specific social distancing or health and wellness requirements as needed. Proximity tracing is another possible activity that these technologies can easily enable.
In the future, location-based technologies could power teams to track footfall and participation, delivering analytics around class attendance trends and anomalies, and they could even be used to help students stay on the correct trajectory for success.
• Security: Security and safety is one of the most important aspects of providing a positive experience to students, administrators and faculty. A school’s network is filled with critical and private data - which must be safeguarded against an ever-increasing number of cyber threats, exploits, malware and ransomware.
A secure, zero trust, threat-aware campus-wide network is necessary to protect the covenant that students and faculty make with the institution - that their data will be safe. In addition to that critical data, many institutions also house extensive research operations which need to be just as safe and protected.
With so many devices and pieces of equipment accessing the campus network, this is easier said than done. Campus security and networking teams need to be able to manage security policy across the entire network, including third-party devices. Top elements needed in a security solution to protect the user experience include: strong efficacy against new attacks; the ability to find and stop botnet and ransomware threats without decryption; the ability to unify and rate intelligence from multiple sources; and the ability to analyze and respond to risks with an easy mitigation tool that can easily scale to handle expansions of the network.
• Operations: The delivery of an excellent experience extends beyond students and faculty. The operations team themselves deserves just as strong and reliable an experience. Better automation, insights and the application of AI technologies can help them deliver new academic applications and services more quickly and efficiently, and assist with the repair and change processes.
For IT and networking teams, the goal is to simplify network operations while increasing service reliability. Applying network automation can simplify the process of planning, designing, deploying and operating networks, while incorporating AI-based tools can dramatically reduce the time it takes to identify and repair an issue.
Traditionally, a technician would need to work down a lengthy checklist and check each item in order to identify a problem. AI can point the technician in the right direction from the start, and even offer assistance on how to make the needed fixes. AI can even predict network problems and performance issues before they happen - and in some cases, take proactive remediation to continually optimize the user experience.
Powering the Campus of Tomorrow
The days where network success was measured in uptime or connection speed are long gone. Experience is the new currency when it comes to campus networks - and rightfully so. Campuses have long been seen as beacons of new technology adoption - and by working to enhance the user experience through improved Wi-Fi, location-based services, security automation and AI, they will continue to be recognized that way.
By remembering what’s most important to students, faculty and administrators - and letting that guide their decision-making and technology adoption - IT, networking and security teams will be well-positioned to deliver an excellent experience for years to come.
Jonathan Daitch, Associate Provost for Online Education, Western University of Health Sciences and Jonathan Labovitz, DPM, FACFAS, CHCQM, Associate Dean, Clinical Education and Graduate Placement Professor, College of Podiatric Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences