Higher education: It’s all about the user experience

One of the biggest themes in student user experience could be seen in the multiple session discussions on providing a comprehensive BYOD and mobile deployment strategy for students; which, said panelists, begins with a smart Wi-Fi strategy.

“I was lucky enough to have a provost that should have really been a CIO,” said Scott Hughes, CIO for Moravian College. “That being said, our vision was to assure each student would have modern technology to enhance their learning and living experience here. When we committed to issuing multiple devices to our students, we realized they would also be bringing more from home. Students have high expectations of what wired and wireless networks should provide to support their research for classes and their social interactions. We needed a network that could effectively handle the academic load that would be placed on it and easily support the social and entertainment load the students would generate.”

In order to ensure the best experience for Moravian’s “customers,” Hughes began working with Alcatel-Lucent to design a network that could handle more use anywhere on campus.

“Together we took a look at the healthcare industry which has a vertical, double-layer mesh to ensure access no matter the geographic volume or unstructured access to wireless,” he explained. “With our new network, [we] can achieve an environment in which everyone has the same tools and same access experience regardless of where they are on campus or which network they are using.”

“Yesterday was about campus-wide coverage of Wi-Fi, often achieved with 802.11n. Today is about capacity, with 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi and 80MHz channels,” said Meru Networks—a provider interested in the ongoing development of open-standards-based networks—now being used by many colleges and universities to better deliver capacity for student experience.

Cedarville University, which deployed Meru 802.11ac to support high densities of student devices, is investigating Meru’s software defined network (SDN)-enabled Wi-Fi. With the majority of its servers running in virtual configurations, its IT management is interested in minimizing VLAN and DHCP configuration challenges. To do so, they want to unify management of its wired and wireless access networks using OpenFlow-enabled SDN.

“The role of the campus edge network is changing daily, with device and application numbers, traffic levels and user expectations always on the rise,” said David Rotman, associate vice president for technology and CIO for Cedarville. “Our IT department needs to be faster and more flexible than ever before to keep up with the demand. [This] approach to SDN will help ensure that we have access to the applications we need to maintain the rapid pace of change.”

User experience through online options for learning was also heavily emphasized during the conference, with multiple panelists relating online learning as education-as-a-service.

“Most students today expect some portion of their education to be available online,” said Ann Hamilton Taylor, director of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute at the Pennsylvania State University. “It’s the modern institution’s job right now not only to fill that need, but to provide the right technology and structures to make delivery engaging, flexible, and agile.

One way that institutions can best provide an incredible user experience, especially through online learning options, is by better investing in data analytics, said Margo Day, vice president of U.S. Education for Microsoft.

“It really comes down to supply chain constrain,” she said. “You could even take the example of traditional degree options: You have a student who wants to complete their degree but a required course is full. By applying analytics to see which courses fill faster and which are most needed, et cetera, colleges and universities can offer proprietary or modular options to fit student needs and provide the best experience—with the ultimate aim of retaining students and enticing others for enrollment.”

Day explained that user experience is also being expected for faculty and administration, with communication tools increasingly becoming critical for collaboration.

“Having faculty and department heads, with the click of a button or a log in to a system, be able to have organic, meaningful conversations anytime and anywhere is critical for talent retention and smoother operations,” she explained; “and this really harkens from the roots grown in business—departments want real-time opportunities for application sharing, virtual ‘whiteboarding,’ and a lot more.”

In discussing Dell’s initiative with Southern Illinois University called the Mobile Dawg Tablet Initiative, as well as general trends from the conference, Sam Morris, worldwide education segment executive at Lenovo–which was showcasing their flexible tablet to laptop with stylus, called Yoga–said that from flexible devices and course delivery in different modalities to competency-based education pathways and credentials, you won’t find a more common theme circulating today in higher education than providing the best user experience.

“It’s the institutions that are putting ‘customer’ wants and needs first, and doing it quickly and effectively, that are going to survive in the next decade,” he concluded. “It’ll be interesting to see how they execute that mission.”