Building Blocks for a Connected Campus

Wireless networks, collaboration tools, and other solutions position colleges to facilitate learning inside and outside the classroom. For today’s college students, constant connectivity isn’t just an expectation. It’s a requirement. Students arrive on campus with carloads of connected devices: tablets, smartphones, and laptops; fitness trackers, smartwatches, and other wearables; gaming consoles, smart assistants, and wireless speakers. When institutions lack robust wireless networks that can accommodate these devices, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say students might pack their devices back into their cars and drive off to another college.

While students certainly rely on mobile connectivity to facilitate their social lives, they also view dependable wireless service as essential to their learning and academic success. Several years ago, institutions might have been able to get away with supporting high-end solutions primarily in classrooms and libraries, but students now view their entire campuses — including residence halls, common areas, and even outdoor areas — as learning spaces that ought to be connected. To create truly connected campuses, institutions must invest not only in wireless networking but also in back-end supporting technologies, security tools, and collaboration solutions that help students make the most of network upgrades.

Elements of the Connected Campus
Look at a group of teenagers on a college campus tour, and you’ll see more than one set of eyes turned down, looking at the screen of a smartphone. But these prospective students aren’t all checking their Instagram feeds or texting friends back home. Many are simply testing the on-campus wireless connectivity. For some of these students, the lack of a good the connection is enough to take a potential college off their list.

To adults who graduated from college a decade or more ago, the idea of picking an institution based on its Wi-Fi connection may seem silly. But in fact, these students are making a strategic decision about their educations. Students today don’t just live online; they also learn online. Consequently, a college that makes it difficult for students to use mobile devices to connect with peers and online resources isn’t just putting its enrollment numbers at risk. It is also doing a disservice to its current and future students.
Fortunately, administrative and IT leaders at most institutions recognize that connectivity is a priority for student life and student learning, and they’re racing to upgrade their infrastructures to accommodate growing demand. But on many campuses, work remains to be done.

The following IT solutions are critical for colleges that want to turn their entire campus into a connected learning environment:

Robust Wi-Fi
At many universities, IT networks have sprawled over time, with individual departments adopting their own solutions, often without a cohesive strategy to guide investments. As a result, disparate legacy hardware can limit the performance of the wireless network and make it difficult to perform upgrades without massive rip-and-replace efforts. By centralizing their networking strategies and investing in state-of-the-art solutions such as 802.11ac Wave 2 access points, colleges can give students and faculty the robust, reliable connectivity they want and need.

Network Optimization Tools
As networking investments grow, so do monitoring and troubleshooting tasks. Network optimization tools can aggregate data from across the network to alert IT, professionals, when problems arise. Often, such tools help IT staff diagnose and correct potential problems before students and faculty even notice them, thereby increasing user satisfaction and reducing the maintenance backlog for IT shops.

Digital Signage
Increasingly, higher education institutions are adopting digital signage solutions to share information across campus, enhance classroom learning experiences, provide wayfinding services, and facilitate emergency announcements. According to Digital Signage Today, up to seven out of 10 colleges have already implemented digital signage, for reasons ranging from saving money on printing to needing a convenient way to encourage students to fill out course evaluations. Digital Signage Today notes that 97 percent of students now prefer to receive information digitally.

Student Demand
Although virtually every institution has invested considerable resources in recent years in both wired and wireless networks, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the growing demands that students place on IT resources. The situation is improving rapidly, but work remains. Similarly, more than four in five institutions now offer robust Wi-Fi in the vast majority of dining facilities and residence halls (including student rooms, community spaces, and administrative areas), with each area seeing a bump of at least 10 percentage points over a three-year span, according to the report. In outdoor spaces adjacent to residence halls, such as courtyards and parks, however, adoption has decreased, with the percentage of campuses offering robust Wi-Fi in the vast majority.

Best Practices to Support the Connected Campus
While the benefits of creating a more connected college campus are readily apparent to most administrators, the transition is easier said than done. To truly turn living, dining, outdoor, and common areas into connected learning spaces, most campuses must undergo a significant transformation, with obstacles ranging from funding to institutional inertia.

It makes sense for programs to be able to invest in the tools that leaders consider
most helpful for their individual aims, but this scenario can lead to a hodgepodge of solutions that IT staff must support. This is especially worrying when ad hoc IT implementation extends to networking solutions and other systems that should be centralized. To the extent possible, IT administrators should work to bring the connected campus systems of various departments under the umbrella of a single, cohesive strategy.

Modernize the Data Center
Whether institutions are thinking about investments in IoT, data analytics, wireless connectivity, or all of the above, they’re likely to need three things to power their plans: more networking capacity, processing power, and storage. As IT staff work to replace legacy infrastructure with modern tools, leaders must take the time to strategically evaluate options. In just the past few years, the options open to data center administrators have changed dramatically. For instance, public cloud adoption has grown, and the price of high-end, on-premises solutions such as flash arrays has dropped. Officials should consider these changes and future needs as they map out data center modernization efforts. By upgrading the data center, institutions can drive operational efficiency and cut costs, enhance security and reliability, improve the student experience, and future proof their campuses.

Collaborate with Other Colleges
Technology vendors, consultants, and resellers tend to focus their efforts on the largest institutions, which have bigger budgets and larger IT staffs. As a result, some smaller colleges, especially those in remote or rural markets, may not be early targets for tech companies rolling out new and innovative technologies. This is not to suggest that IT administrators at small colleges are not informing themselves about changes in the industry, but even when these leaders want cutting-edge solutions, financial constraints often force them to scale back their ambitions. One way to address this gap is for neighboring institutions to partner on large-scale IT initiatives. By collaborating with peer institutions, colleges can leverage the expertise of IT colleagues and share the costs associated with connected campus projects.

Rethink Learning Spaces
At the K-12 level, educators are working to create modern learning environments in their classrooms. In practical terms, this means providing students with connected devices, deploying audiovisual tools, and installing flexible furniture that can accommodate multiple learning styles. The trend hasn’t made as much headway in higher education, in part because of differences in education models (at most colleges and universities, for example, students provide their own computing devices).

However, colleges absolutely should re-examine the ways in which classrooms and learning spaces affect teaching and learning, together with how IT upgrades and other changes might improve student outcomes and opportunities. Some institutions are already doing so, creating active learning classrooms that emphasize tech-supported collaboration and support pedagogical trends such as flipped learning. For starters, institutions should work to expand and improve connectivity across their organizations, helping to turn virtually all corners of their campuses into potential learning spaces. But educators can also enhance or redesign existing classrooms by incorporating technologies such as augmented reality and telepresence solutions. Some colleges are even creating maker spaces featuring cutting-edge tools such as virtual reality equipment, digital editing software, and 3D printers. Such initiatives help take the connected campus to the next level by giving students hands-on experience in technical fields and truly revolutionizing the learning environment.

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