4 higher ed tech trends and successful strategies for tackling new demands in 2020 and beyond.
GUEST COLUMN | by Johann Zimmern
After a couple of transitional years,  higher education IT departments are firmly focused on their role as leading contributors to student success. With the strategic role of CIOs at colleges and universities growing significantly, the imperative to stay competitive mandates a long-term view when it comes to digital transformation, IT innovation and network optimization. Overall, we foresee the following four tech trends headlining everyone’s to-do list, requiring you to adopt the right infrastructure strategies to address them.
1) Cybersecurity Still Priority #1
Unsurprisingly, Educause research indicates information security remains the top priority for higher ed IT departments. Adding to the mix of ongoing threats we discussed last year, new perils include espionage – for gaining government research secrets – and securing cloud-based business productivity platforms from human error, which commonly contributes to education industry breaches according to Verizon’s latest Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR). In one notable ransomware attack last year, hackers disabled a college’s IT systems and demanded $2 million in Bitcoin. Taken together, the message is clear: your institution needs to get smarter about network access control.
2) Positive Mobile Experiences Now an Imperative
It’s no secret that fewer college-age students and low unemployment have contributed to overall post-secondary enrollments declines. Further, the latest admissions cohort – bringing an average of 5-7 devices to campus – is our most digitally native yet. Consequently, many assume Wi-Fi access should not only be fast, seamless and ubiquitous, but also offered indoors and out. Clearly, it’s a competitive imperative to move beyond coverage and density basics to deliver on these expectations.
3) Physical Safety and Security Must Mature
Unfortunately, school campuses are not immune to physical dangers or crime. One way to deter these incidents is installing tangible demonstrations of safety and security systems on campus. Fortunately, many institutions have, or will soon, complete refreshes that supply advanced capabilities built into their wireless infrastructures. Whether campus-wide security cameras, network-connected blue light emergency phones, or ID-based mobile dormitory door locks, some are already leveraging such capabilities to mature their safety and security postures in significant ways.
4) IT Staffing Challenges Require New Approach
As if responding to evolving cyberthreats and heightened user expectations weren’t enough, few higher ed IT departments are increasing headcounts. Even if your institution is hiring, competition for IT skills is fierce. In either case, deploying smarter wired and wireless networking infrastructures can streamline and automate traditionally manual chores, while supplying enhanced visibility via intuitive drill-down dashboards. This enables your IT staff to concentrate on the value-added tasks required to meet new challenges and deliver on technology opportunities.
How to Leverage Networking Investments to Tackle Myriad Demands
Whether wireless or wired, networking infrastructure investments offer your institution an array of intelligent and cost-effective solutions to help address the forgoing trends. Here’s how.
Boost Zero Trust Strategies
With the zero trust model becoming the new IT security norm, it’s not enough to simply automate device discovery, registration and policy application to minimize human error. With students now bringing an average of six devices to campus, along with the institutional pressure to connect IoT gear in classrooms, administrative offices and boiler rooms, it’s time to take the next steps.
- Get Full-Spectrum Visibility – A NAC solution powered by advanced machine learning and other innovations gives you full-spectrum visibility into what’s connecting. This includes rich contextual information – such as device type, vendor, hardware version and behavioral attributes, like traffic destination and communication frequency. With such capabilities, you can create exceptionally granular access policies, reduce security risks and meet key compliance requirements.
- Segregate Intelligently – By combining best-of-breed intelligent switches with an advanced NAC, you can dynamically segregate switch ports and assign role-based access control to automate the separation of devices from one another. For example, if you’re adopting new IoT lighting sensors, they can be automatically discovered, classified, registered and assigned to a specific VLAN, restricting access to related subsystems and, as a result, significantly minimizing risk.
Deliver Frictionless Mobility Everywhere
According to the latest ECAR study, the needle is moving too slowly for providing seamless mobility everywhere. Leaders are addressing this deficiency by deploying Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax) solutions that offer advanced feature sets. For example, support for Wi-Fi Alliance Passpoint reduces authentication to a one-time event, meaning constituencies who travel to and from campus, including prospective students and their families, only need to authenticate once. As research shows, positive campus visits by prospective students can increase admissions yields markedly, and frictionless indoor and outdoor mobility experiences are significant competitive differentiators.
Other capabilities in more sophisticated Wi-Fi 6 solutions include enhanced device security with the WPA3 protocol and Enhanced Open, which encrypts traffic in open wireless networks. Operationally, insist on AI-powered optimization, for delivering consistent experiences; smart traffic control, for automatically applying customized quality of service (QoS) policies; AI-enabled utilization monitoring, for energy efficiency; and intelligent power monitoring, for maximizing your existing switching infrastructure.
Make Campus Environments Safer
Although supplying locational information for purposes such as navigating to classrooms and self-guided campus tours is expected from location-based services (LBS) and the campus apps you deploy, you can get more from your LBS infrastructure by also using it to enhance physical security.
For instance, a sophisticated solution can add a panic button to your campus app that raises an alarm and simultaneously triggers a feed of incident data to a 4-D emergency response solution. This type of tool can enable responders to gain situational awareness for an entire campus. Situational awareness, such as the ability to locate people and physical assets via LBS, allows first responders and crisis management teams to take action effectively by drilling down to affected locations, viewing threat entry and exit points, time-stamping incident progress and providing real-time communication between staff, students and visitors. Such solutions significantly reduce distractions and errors during chaotic situations, keeping responder attention laser-focused on the most acute threats and improving outcomes overall.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
For success in today’s challenging IT environment, adopt a truly cloud-native networking platform with a services-rich operating system and intelligent switches from edge to core to data center. Self-validating and self-tuning, such platforms are modular, resilient and elastic. They’re also easily programmed to intelligently automate traditionally manual tasks, like planning and deploying tens, hundreds or thousands of network changes – a significant saver given our modern continuous application update cycles.
The most innovative platforms simplify management and assist lean IT teams with becoming proactive. Enabled solutions use embedded AI-powered analytics that automatically interrogate and analyze any event that impacts a network’s health while providing granular visibility into an issue and supplying guided troubleshooting for rapid resolution.
Regardless which of 2020’s tech trends impact you the most, it’s a sure bet that contributing to student success will include addressing cybersecurity, experience and physical safety while still operating smarter on a constrained IT staffing budget. Fortunately, you’ve never had more options for leveraging the intelligence built into your network infrastructure to meet these demands.
Johann Zimmern is a senior solutions marketing manager for K-12 and higher education with the global marketing team for Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. In this capacity, Johann manages Aruba’s education customer advisory councils and focuses on the realization of advanced network infrastructures, wireless, security, and access management – all in support of student success. Johann has nearly 20 years’ experience in the EdTech space, having worked for innovative tech companies such as Electronics for Imaging, Macromedia, Adobe and others. Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter.