Mar 12 2024

What Is Windows Autopilot? Supporting Microsoft Device Management in Higher Ed

Managing PC devices through Windows Autopilot gives college and university IT teams visibility and enhanced security.

Editor’s note: Windows Autopilot is a device management solution for PC devices. For Apple iOS devices, check out our article on Jamf.

At colleges and universities, computers are a must-have for students, researchers, faculty and staff. That’s potentially thousands of devices for IT to manage, and some tech teams struggle to keep up.

Configuring and deploying devices, ensuring security and supporting seamless access to school resources: All of that takes effort when it’s done manually. In the Microsoft ecosystem, a device management platform such as Windows Autopilot can automate much of this work.

“Device management tools help our frontline staff spend less time doing manual, repetitive installations of the operating system, applying security policies that we need for compliance,” says Rami Dass, principal IT infrastructure engineer at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It helps them focus on better serving our end users.”

Click the banner below to learn how to optimize device management in higher education.


How Does Autopilot Work?

IT teams use Autopilot to set up and preconfigure new devices such as Windows PCs. It typically is deployed along with Microsoft Intune, a cloud endpoint management solution.

Autopilot helps create “a safe and secure learning environment that maximizes time for teaching and learning, while also saving time and resources by offering touchless device setup and management from anywhere,” says Paige Johnson, vice president of education marketing at Microsoft.

This allows IT administrators “to deploy devices more easily,” she says. “These devices are then managed and maintained by Microsoft Intune, a cloud-based management platform keeping the devices up to date, patched and protected.”

What Autopilot Features Are Most Important for Higher Ed?

A number of key features in Autopilot are especially helpful to higher education IT teams, Dass said.

  • Imaging: “Autopilot uses the original equipment manufacturer’s optimized image that comes out of the box with the computer and transforms it into a business-ready state, as opposed to wiping the system and applying a customized image,” he says.
  • Security: Along with Intune, Autopilot lets IT set a recommended security posture that can be readily deployed to managed Windows devices. “The University of Illinois has baseline security standards to handle low-, medium- and high-level data risk,” Dass says, and device management tools help enforce that consistently.
  • Updating: A tool like Autopilot helps ensure devices are always running the latest versions of Windows. In higher education, “we are required to maintain patching on our systems, and as Windows versions keep changing, the older versions end up going off support and no longer seek patches,” Dass says. “Being able to keep most of our endpoints on the current version of Windows is critical to maintaining the security level and readiness of a system.”
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How to Get Started with Autopilot

Successful device management starts with planning. For example, “because Autopilot will use groups of devices normally divided in some logical order, a plan to name devices in a uniform way will streamline configuration,” Johnson says.

From there, some basic first steps include migrating identities to the cloud using Microsoft Entra ID, setting up your Microsoft 365 tenant, enrolling devices using Autopilot, and then deploying apps and policies using Microsoft Intune, she said.

Dass suggested it is helpful to engage diverse stakeholders in establishing the baselines that Autopilot will help to implement.

“We have engineering, we have STEM, we have humanities, we have different groups with different needs and expectations. We need to make sure that everybody has input into what they get,” Dass says.

“We spent a year with a group from all over campus working on our security standards and our security profiles, these baseline security configurations — from logging to virus and malware protection, and so on,” he says.

Optimizing Windows Autopilot for Higher Education

To best secure the learning experience, it makes sense to fine-tune Autopilot to meet a school’s specific needs, Johnson says.

For example, “a device naming convention that easily delineates one unique group compared to another will allow different groups to not only easily identify devices with different use cases but also simplify role-based administration on these groups of devices,” she says.

It’s also helpful to customize deployments with Autopilot; for example, by preloading Adobe for art students. “We have a computer-based testing facility, and we have a very limited catalog of what goes in that image so that we can make it a true testing computer versus a regular day-to-day computer,” Dass said.

With these and other capabilities, Autopilot empowers IT teams to deploy, secure and maintain devices more effectively. It can free up staff to focus on higher-value tasks while delivering an improved experience across the full range of university user groups.

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