Jan 26 2021

Q&A: How a Smart Campus Can Reinvent The Student Experience

Rich Nedwich, CommScope's global director of education, explains how smart solutions can help higher education reduce operational costs and increase retention.

Disruption often leads to innovation. When COVID-19 forced campuses to shut down nationwide, it also created opportunities for universities to understand what students need.

If anything, the pandemic has proved that a fully remote learning model cannot last forever. The virus may vanish one day, but higher education’s pre-pandemic problems will not. To resolve budget shortfalls and declining student enrollment and retention, higher education will need to reinvent the campus experience when students return.

Rich Nedwich, global director of education at the technology infrastructure company CommScope, spoke with EdTech about how smart campuses can help reduce operational costs and improve student experiences.

EDTECH: COVID-19 forced many colleges and universities to rethink the way they serve students. How can higher education address its biggest challenges moving forward?

NEDWICH: Higher education was already facing significant challenges before the pandemic hit. A 2019 Newsweek poll found that students would rather go to community college with a guaranteed $100,000 job than go to Harvard tuition-free. Higher education leaders had to ask themselves: What is the value of a college degree? Will people even need to go to college in 20 years, or will schools go out of business?

That’s why the COVID crisis may have come with a silver lining. It became obvious that people wanted a real campus experience, which has created an interesting tension. Now we know that pure online learning is not going to displace on-campus learning. However, universities still have a problem attracting and retaining enough students to sustain profitability.

MORE ON EDTECH: In AI, colleges see cost-effective ways to boost enrollment.

EDTECH: It seems like the issues with on-campus learning, student retention and profitability are all connected. How can a smart campus help?

NEDWICH: A smart campus approach solves several issues at once. First, it provides information in real time, so both IT and the administration can see where they can improve the student experience in areas such as learning, wellness and safety.

Second, that same infrastructure can help operations. We can connect separate IoT systems into one platform and dashboard, which allows us to take contextual information further.

To give you a safety example, let’s say a student finds a key card in a dorm hallway. They try it on a couple of doors — tap, tap, tap — and that action triggers an event, such as turning the LEDs in the hallway to full brightness and capturing a photo or video. A smart campus can define and automate a process. In this case, it would connect systems — such as locks, lights and cameras — to make it more powerful than those individual systems working separately.

MORE ON EDTECH: Read about how smart paint can improve campus safety for visually impaired students.

EDTECH: Where does higher education go from here?

NEDWICH: We’ve been thrust into distance learning, and we’re not going back. If they haven’t already, schools will need to scale up their VPN infrastructure for teleworking and make sure their IoT is secure. They will need to repurpose spaces for more flexible learning — like classes under tents. For vertical campus spaces, stadiums and other structurally challenging locations where students gather, make high-speed internet and voice available to everyone, everywhere through a distributed antenna system or a Citizens Broadband Radio Service.

Schools can enhance the on-campus experience by using the data they already collect to come up with solutions for ongoing issues. For example, machine learning and IoT can monitor the environment to keep students from nodding off in a dark or warm classroom. A different data set could cut down the time it takes to find a parking spot or to wait in line at the cafeteria.

Converged IoT platforms provide technology that can scale your operations, and this can be more cost-effective. Who doesn’t want to monitor and optimize their electricity, lighting, water and HVAC usage? IoT systems are perfect for accomplishing this.

Campuses aren’t hospitality groups. They can’t afford to build shiny new buildings all the time. However, they can leverage smart technology to foster social interaction, attract students and keep campuses healthy and safe.

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