How to prepare for everything

The Internet of Everything offers IT the opportunity to bend the cost curve, increase efficiency, and improve student outcomes. Laying the right foundation is key, though

internet-everything-ITThese days, higher ed IT leaders must feel a lot like Sisyphus, the poor soul sentenced to push a boulder uphill for all eternity. First, they scrambled to meet the bandwidth and security needs of BYOD on campus. No sooner had they wrapped their heads around that than they had to confront the challenge of the Internet of Things (IoT)—computers, phones, facilities sensors, cameras—all dependent on IT’s systems.

And now it appears that the stakes have been raised again. Welcome to the Internet of Everything (IoE). That’s right—everything.

IoE is seen as a logical outgrowth of IoT. “Although much of the spotlight today is on the Internet of Things, the true power and benefit of the internet comes from combining things with people, places, and information systems,” explained Hung LeHong, a vice president and Gartner Fellow at Gartner Research, at an exposition in Dubai in April. “This expanded and comprehensive view of the internet is what Gartner calls the Internet of Everything.”

It’s a view shared by networking giant Cisco. “I think of the Internet of Things as devices, sensors, cameras—anything that can be connected to the internet,” said Renee Patton, US Public Sector Director of Education for Cisco. “The Internet of Everything is the integration of people, process, data, and things to make these things intelligent.”

If this sounds almost like a definition of Big Data, you’re not far wrong. In fact, a lot of confusion swirls around what the “Internet of Everything” actually means, with some industry watchers even using the terms IoT and IoE interchangeably. To get a handle on the concept, it’s helpful to understand that IoE is not a tsunami set to crash on the shores of higher ed the way tablets and smartphones did. In fact, it’s already here.

(Next page: Examples of IoE on campus; best practices)

Today’s student-retention systems are great examples of IoE at work. These systems apply complex algorithms to multiple data streams—some of which appear completely unrelated—to identify students who are at risk of dropping out. Some of today’s systems draw on dozens of data feeds, but that may be just the beginning in the world of IoE. As more and more devices, data sources, and technologies come online, schools will have the opportunity to increase the accuracy and effectiveness of their systems.

Indeed, Patton feels that higher ed stands on the cusp of much greater things in this area. “For the future, it’s wherever our imagination will take us,” she said. “Imagine being able to use facial-recognition software to determine whether or not a student is engaged and interested, and give that real-time feedback to teachers.”

This ability to solve old problems in new ways lies at the heart of IoE. In coming years, everyday devices ranging from washing machines to bicycles will have the capability to connect to the internet. And, with the advent of wearable devices and imbedded sensors, so will people.

The challenge for higher education lies in deciding what devices, sensors—and people—are worth connecting to the internet and then developing the analytical software needed to create intelligence out of the data deluge.

For higher education institutions that do it right, Patton believes, IoE represents a very real opportunity for them to bend the cost curve. “We think that the economics of higher education is the single most important trend for the coming year,” explained Patton. “Where do schools think they can most increase streams of tuition or revenue, and how can they decrease cost?”

The answers to these questions will obviously vary from school to school, but administration sometimes represents the lowest fruit on the tree, not least because its top-down management structure makes it easier to institute change. “If you look at administration and management, it’s super-clear where IoE is going to play,” said Patton. “It’s all about streamlining processes and more effectively managing facilities. How can they look at all the facilities across campus?”

Safety and security are other areas where IoE is gaining traction, with sensors, cameras, and analytical software uniting to create new solutions for old problems. At the University of San Francisco, for example, facial-recognition software is being used in conjunction with security cameras to eliminate the problem of “tailgating,” where an unauthorized person enters a restricted building by following a student through a locked doorway.

It is in the area of teaching and learning, though, that IoE offers perhaps the greatest rewards—as well as the biggest challenges. “It’s about making it easier and more automated for universities to track students and figure out where they’re doing well and where they need help,” noted Patton, who is acutely aware that traditional higher ed institutions face an existential threat.

“[Colleges] have to really create connected learning experiences for students, so they will want to go there, and the Internet of Everything simply accelerates that.”

(Next page: A shining example of a University’s embrace of IoE)

Patton singles out Arizona State University as a school that has really embraced the concepts of IoE to assist in teaching and learning. “They’re doing some very interesting work in the area of data analytics,” she noted. “They’re building a lot of the applications themselves, but they are also working with different companies, and whatever they can pull of the shelf, they do.”

The barriers to an IoE future in higher ed are both institutional and technical. The institutional roadblocks certainly won’t surprise anyone who has worked in higher ed. “The biggest challenge is inertia,” noted Patton. “[Schools] are so used to doing things based on a very traditional model. Faculty go into teaching because it gives them the opportunity to be the sage on the stage. I think it’s going to be students really driving this transition.”

On the technical front, though, the issues boil down to one word: scale. According to ABI Research, more than 40 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020, and higher education will account for its fair share of them. Plus, many of these devices will be wireless. “Students have to have that ubiquitous access, whether they’re in a classroom, in a dorm room, or on the bus,” added Patton.

A solid-core network—both wired and wireless—with built-in security is key if schools are to handle this surge in devices. “That’s why we take a network-centric approach to it,” noted Patton. “The network gives you the controllability over the devices. The network must be scalable, secure, and reliable. If you have the right architecture, then your investments really make sense.”

For schools only now putting in the hard yards to ensure that BYOD can live happily on their networks, it’s worth calling timeout to determine if the system they’ve devised is capable of accommodating exponential growth in the number of “things” on their networks—and how those things are going to be able to deliver intelligent, actionable information that can reduce costs and improve outcomes.

For IT leaders, this may require something of a metamorphosis, shucking off the role of Sisyphus to transform themselves into none other than Buzz Lightyear: “To infinity…and beyond!”

Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelance writer for eCampus News.

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