Six higher ed trends and the networking infrastructure to address them.
GUEST COLUMN | by Gerri Hinkel
Just as digital learning, flipped classrooms and the IoT drove wired and wireless networking demand on campus over the past year, 2017 will take each of these expectations – and more – to the next level. This means new initiatives are on higher education IT department to-do lists, including the following six trends and the infrastructure strategies institutions of all sizes are adopting to match.
1) IoT Spreads Institution-Wide.
With Gartner estimating that 5.5 million new “things” connected to networks every day last year, adding up to nearly 21 billion connected devices by 2020, the IoT is swiftly expanding beyond student devices. The onslaught ranges from connected lights, door locks and sprinkler systems to laboratory sensors, classroom instruction and student laundry machines, with ever-more introductions in sight.
2) Everyone Expects Always-on Experiences.
It’s not only IoT devices demanding ‘anytime, anywhere’ connectivity. Whether in the boiler room, classroom, stadium or parking lot, all of your campus constituencies now expect speedy performance from their devices and apps, enabling them to work, teach and learn seamlessly indoors and out.
3) Spaces Become Intelligent and Context-Aware.
A year ago, wayfinding was novel. This year, context-aware mobility is about adding intelligence to spaces so that the space interacts with you. For example, when a professor walks into a room, the configuration of equipment and amenities can now adjust automatically to that individual’s profile. Or, as a student who has opted-in for notifications walks past the financial aid office, she can receive an automated reminder that work-study applications are ‘due this Thursday.’
4) Wearables and Location-Awareness Breathe New Life Into Retention Efforts
Although campus decision-makers are still working out guidelines around maintaining privacy, many expect it’s only a matter of time before institutions begin leveraging data collected from mobile devices and networks as students move about campus. With research establishing that class attendance is the best predictor of academic performance, the ability to quickly identify at-risk students enables establishing interventions that can help get them back on track.
5) Virtual Reality in Classrooms Takes Hold
Wider access to commodity virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) innovations is moving the technology out of research labs and into classrooms. From archeology curriculum to medical education, college faculty members are embracing VR and AR as mechanisms to immerse students in realistic simulations unavailable in the past.
6) All Environments Will Be Dense.
Given the preceding trends, it’s a clear that device density isn’t limited to lecture halls anymore. Students use multiple devices in their dorm rooms, from laptops to entertainment systems to connected lights. Stadium spectators expect to share their experiences on smartphones, smartwatches and tablets while consulting their wearable activity trackers. Cafeterias rely on temperature gauges for warming trays, sensors on soda dispensers and scanners for meal badges – all of which need network access in addition to the student devices being used during meal times. From your Wi-Fi network’s perspective, all of these devices are “things” demanding connectivity. What’s more, given mobile’s ubiquity, there’s little tolerance these days for down time or poor experiences.
Strategies and Solutions to Answer Sophisticated Demands
As mobility and connectivity expectations move beyond the human management abilities in any IT department, much less those in higher ed, campus technology staffs are adopting more sophisticated and intelligent solutions. These initiatives include:
Automating, not just securing, device connectivity. With device proliferation affecting both performance and security, higher ed IT departments will move from self-service onboarding to end-to-end automation of device connectivity and security. Beyond assisting with constrained IT resources, automation is the most effective network defense – for both wireless and wired connectivity – because it denies attackers the time needed to carry out their activities.
The place to start? Establishing device guidelines institution-wide to govern wired, mobile and IoT equipment. While the specific process you employ will be unique to your campus, the important thing is ensuring cross-divisional and cross-functional committee representation.
Use the resulting guidelines to establish connectivity and security policies in IT. Then automate implementation with a robust policy management and access control system capable of operating at scale. If your institution lacks such a system, invest in one this year.
Deploying fast, context-aware Wi-Fi in all environments. To cover all the bases, pursue a robust and cost-effective strategy to ensure your wireless and wired infrastructure covers all the bases.
In 2017, more institutions will take advantage of Wave 2 802.11ac infrastructure and its performance innovations, including multi-user multiple input and multiple output (MU-MIMO) and four spatial streams (4SS). In a nutshell, Wave 2 access points (APs) can transmit to multiple client devices using different streams, thus increasing network utilization and enabling higher device densities to support quality user experiences.
Advanced indoor and outdoor Wave 2 APs also incorporate the Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology necessary for location-based services. This offers opportunities to maximize hardware deployment budgets versus installing separate BLE gear.
Additionally, adopting multi-gigabit Ethernet edge switches will provide needed immediate performance gains and assist you with network future proofing. Multi-gigabit switches resulted from work by the NBASE-T and MGBASE-T technology alliances, which the IEEE utilized to create the recently released 802.3bz specification.
Essentially, the new specification enables deploying the highest-performance Wave 2 APs over existing Cat 5e/Cat 6 cabling, at a significant savings over re-wiring. Some solutions can even automatically detect and provide the proper connection such as 1, 2.5, 5 or 10GigE.
Predicting network behavior and enabling intelligent responses. To continue meeting escalating expectations, higher ed IT departments will begin deploying management equipment with built-in intelligence to automatically make adjustments as networking requirements shift on a day-to-day basis. Advanced management solutions incorporate machine learning to adjust and optimize the entire network – not just a group of access points or a certain area of campus – which is especially important in dense environments.
In addition to dynamically managing the network, the latest solutions also add the resilience and persistence needed for students, faculty and staff to move seamlessly between indoor and outdoor spaces while maintaining connectivity throughout. These innovations supply new redundancy technologies to ensure hardware or software outages are completely transparent to end users, even in the highest-performance applications such as video conferencing and Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi) calling.
To make networking updates affordable, institutions can continue to use phased and tiered approaches, where use cases match the corresponding equipment. For example, re-deploying your existing Wave 1 802.11ac APs to non-public facilities spaces, where reliability is critical but device density is low, may be sufficient in the short run.
No matter what your institution’s specific situation, you have more mobility options and innovations to choose from than ever before. This makes it an exciting time in mobile connectivity as higher ed organizations can offer their constituencies enhanced capabilities and experiences to improve environments, increase operational efficiencies and help achieve educational outcomes.
 Class Attendance in College: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relationship of Class Attendance with Grades and Student Characteristics, Crede, Marcus; Roch, Sylvia G.; Kieszczynka, Urszula M., Review of Educational Research, v80 n2 p272-295 2010
Gerri Hinkel is a senior manager for primary and higher education at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, where she serves as a liaison to educational institutions. Previously, she held education-related roles with Polycom and spent over a decade as a distance learning specialist for educational departments within the State of Texas. She holds a B.S. in mathematics from Colorado State University and an M.Ed. from the University of Texas at Brownsville.