The Internet of Things may seem like a futuristic technology, but some education experts predict IoT-enabled learning will arrive sooner rather than later.
In fact, a 2016 survey from Extreme Networks found that 46 percent of K–12 and higher ed IT managers think the technology will have a major impact on education within the next two years.
Already, innovative colleges and universities turn to connected devices to control and monitor heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, improve campus security via IP cameras and monitor student health using smartwatches.
Extreme Networks survey respondents foresee a future in which IoT technologies also improve student engagement, support mobile learning and enable personalized education, among other benefits.
While those possibilities could tempt more institutions to experiment with IoT, higher ed IT leaders must first take steps to prepare for the fully connected world of tomorrow.
1. Improve Wi-Fi Coverage
According to Gartner, by 2020, consumers will use more than 13.5 billion connected devices, while organizations will employ another 4.4 billion cross-industry devices, such as the smart HVAC and building management systems currently seen on many campuses.
Bob Nilsson, director of solutions marketing at Extreme Networks, says the sheer number of IoT devices will necessitate increased Wi-Fi density. That’s especially true in residence halls, classrooms, libraries and other areas where student- and faculty-owned IoT devices might appear en masse.
“But the other consideration is that Wi-Fi coverage will have to be in places people don’t think of today, such as in building mezzanines, basements and crawl spaces,” he adds.
That change will account for the mobile and stationary sensors and devices that have transitioned from wired to wireless and now require connectivity.
“Campuses need to start preparing now for broad-based coverage and density,” Nilsson says.
2. Address Privacy Concerns
While wearables and other connected devices make it easy to monitor and collect data, institutions might face backlash if students and faculty feel their privacy has been violated.
James Wiley, principal analyst at Eduventures, suggests administrators avoid such issues by being open and up front with students, faculty and staff about the data that IoT devices will collect, as well as how that data will be used.
“It could just be a written policy, very clearly stated so it doesn’t surprise people,” he says, adding that higher ed institutions should test these policies to ensure users will understand and accept them.
3. Prioritize Security
Besides privacy, security stands as a top concern for higher ed IT leaders. Extensive vulnerabilities leave internet-connected devices open to attack, putting proprietary and student data at risk.
To combat the threat, Wiley recommends that colleges and universities outfit networks with policy-based controls that monitor devices. “If a device that, according to the network, is a machine starts behaving like a human, searching different websites, then you know something is wrong right away and it can raise flags,” he says.
Margaret Loper, chief technologist for the Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, recommends that IT leaders also distribute IoT-specific security expectations to students, faculty and staff — particularly if the institution is already investing in IoT research.
“Campuses should think strategically about how on-campus IoT research projects could open the university up to vulnerabilities by not having a consistent approach or policy or strategy with respect to security,” she says.
4. Initiate Training and Professional Development
Any effective technology rollout requires user training, and IoT is no exception.
Security awareness programs ensure campuswide IT policies have greater impact, but Wiley suggests offering training on a variety of topics, from IoT data analytics down to the basics of how the technology operates.
Wiley says vendors should offer this training up front, but if they don’t, he recommends that universities and colleges start demanding it.