Mapping the Path to a Connected Campus

Higher ed needs a solid plan to accommodate students’ and faculty’s increasing mobile device use without getting in over their heads.

Mobility among undergrads has skyrocketed in recent years.

According to Refuel Agency’s 2014 College Explorer report, the average college student brings seven Internet-connected devices to campus. When you hear that number, it’s nearly unbelievable — that is, until you start counting up everything that connects, including wearable devices like Fitbit and GoPro cameras and entertainment gadgets such as Xbox and Roku. It’s fascinating, really, when you consider that smartphones have been main stream for less than 10 years. A truly mobile world has arrived, to say the least.

And anecdotal evidence shows that prospective and current students have come to expect high-quality wireless access on every one of those devices, whether they be smartphones, tablets or notebooks.

For higher education, that surge of mobile devices creates both opportunities and challenges. Increased access to technology engages students with their coursework and promotes academic success. Research by McGraw-Hill Education indicates that 81 percent of college students use mobile devices to study, and 77 percent believe technology has had a positive impact on their grades. The survey also found that the use of mobile boosts students’ confidence in the classroom.

However, the increased demands of mobility weigh against the benefits of bring-your-own-device learning. Students, faculty and staff require continuous, reliable connectivity to support bandwidth-intensive applications used for research, social networking and entertainment. Visitors such as alumni, prospective students and parents also need temporary access while on campus. As a result, IT must design and implement a scalable network that offers end users wireless access when and where they need it, even during peak use times, such as course registration periods and graduation season.

Funding further complicates the matter. Although mobility can cut university costs by empowering faculty and staff to purchase and maintain their own devices, the savings are nothing compared with the expense of expanding the campus network. Ever-tightening budgets force CIOs and their staff to build and manage network infrastructure with fewer financial and human resources — and IT must justify every new purchase while protecting the value of old investments.

Designing a Solution That Works

As with any major initiative, tackling mobility issues starts with a plan. CIOs should work with stakeholders to create well-formed mobile strategies that establish goals, timelines and current network gaps.

Such plans help universities avoid mistakes, such as optimizing for coverage instead of capacity. By assessing network use on campus, IT can determine which lecture halls, residence halls and facilities are most in need of upgrades. Increasing the density of access points at those locations will reduce the distance between endpoints and improve service far more successfully than distributing APs evenly throughout campus.

The installation of AP clusters is also a major component of a phased network refresh. This highly recommended approach requires that IT replace failing APs on an as-needed basis to take care of performance bottlenecks while helping CIOs plan and stay within their budgets.

Lifting the IT Burden

While the task of overhauling the campus network is certainly daunting, IT professionals have several resources at their disposal. Wizard-based AP configuration tools, for instance, allow staff to connect new APs to an existing network in seconds. Power over Ethernet or PoE-Plus switches can power multiple APs with only a single outlet. That can cut costs significantly, as universities no longer have to install or maintain additional cables.

Network monitoring is another asset to higher ed institutions. It offers IT greater visibility into the entire network, so staff can gather intelligence about trends in network use, bottlenecks and growth. This information not only ensures uptime by directing IT resources to areas requiring maintenance but also guides future modifications to policies and infrastructure.

Network access controls make it easier to request and approve access to the network, so end users get up and running faster without impacting IT. They provide added network protection by ensuring devices meet security policy requirements before they’re granted network ¬access.

Similarly, unified endpoint management reduces security and compliance risks associated with university-owned smartphones, notebooks, tablets and other mobile devices. IT staff are able to track inventory and remotely manage both the devices and their applications to ensure they’re up to date with policies and processes.

Finally, third-party consultants can offer invaluable advice at every stage of the migration process. Network experts help universities sidestep major pitfalls, such as not upgrading support infrastructure along the way. They also keep an eye on the horizon, recommending that IT overbuild the network to accommodate future needs.

And considering college students’ use of mobile devices for studying has jumped 40 percent since 2013, it’s clear that campus mobility needs will be great.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s new UniversITy blog series.

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Oct 02 2015