- Hybrid learning environments can introduce network complexities
- A unified cloud-based networking platform offers effective network management
- See related article: IT leaders are critical for a positive student experience
- For more on cloud infrastructure, visit eCN’s IT Leadership page
As many colleges continue to embrace hybrid learning, a reliable cloud infrastructure is imperative to ensure students are getting best-in-class learning opportunities, regardless of their physical location. However, cloud computing in higher education is projected to only grow 22 percent by the end of the decade.
At Pima Community College, where we specialize in automotive and aviation workforce training, embracing digital transformation and the cloud helps our students take advantage of the latest technology that advances their education and learning experience. With all the technology entering the learning environment, it’s important that institutions don’t create more complexities simultaneously.
Network complexities impacting students and faculty
Pima College’s students and teachers take advantage of a hybrid learning environment, so they need secure, seamless access from anywhere across our 12 locations. This requires a reliable network that the Pima College IT team can manage at the cloud level, but just two years ago we had multiple networking vendors—contributing to the complexities that made day-to-day network management an inefficient process.
Our IT team had limited visibility and little control of many devices connected to multiple networks at each location they were trying to manage. Many of the classrooms were outside the security surveillance radar completely, which made it hard to protect against cyber threats that increasingly affect higher education and the ability for students to learn. It became clear we had to transform and simplify our network architecture road map and execute on it immediately.
By the numbers
Pima College has 12 separate campus locations educating 30,000 students, all of which falls on five IT network engineers to keep it up-and-running. A full-scale digital transformation of this magnitude may seem daunting, but the Pima College IT department took on the challenge, completely rearchitecting the entire college’s network in only nine months with no outside partners for support.
With Cisco Meraki, Pima College installed 400 network switches and over 1,000 access points for better management and visibility through a unified cloud-based networking platform. With a small but mighty team, this simplicity is non-negotiable for efficient network management that powers the connected education experiences Pima College strives to provide students.
Students and faculty thrive with connected experiences
Since joining Pima College in 2020, I realized the limitations of our existing network that made it challenging for the IT team to meet the technology needs of students and faculty. Technology is especially important at Pima College, as many applied programs make use of the latest wireless technology and IoT devices that must be connected to help give students the training that will prepare them for success in their chosen careers.
The faculty experience must also be unified to create these learning experiences from the start. By moving to a cloud-based network platform, our faculty can check student progress on any device, from any location. They can also offer students the resources and training needed right at their fingertips.
And that’s just the beginning. With securely connected IoT devices, students are training on the same tools they’ll eventually use as professionals practicing maintenance testing, reading fault codes, robotic programming, and other real-life situations offered in our centers of excellence. Being able to access the education resources students need, from wherever and whenever, sets them up for success after graduation.
Prioritizing security for seamless access to education resources
Security in higher education is unique, as there is a vast attack surface and little control over how students use the devices that are lent to them. However, what Pima College’s IT team can control is the level of visibility across our unified network and all the devices when connected, which is crucial for securing the day-to-day operations of students, faculty, and staff.
As my security team says, higher education is an inherently unique environment. Every day, IT teams face the dichotomy between open access for students and teachers, whose work requires broad access to the internet, and our back-end systems where things need to be kept a bit closer to the chest—similar to a corporate environment. With Meraki and Cisco Security tools, Pima College was able to scan for existing infections, hunt for and analyze threats, and establish a security posture that is now more robust and predictable.
Now that a single cloud-managed console is bringing reliability and visibility to our network, Pima College continues to prioritize simplicity across its infrastructure. Our small, dynamic IT team now experiences ease of management and troubleshooting, visibility into all consoles, and quick resolutions when there is one unified platform and experience at each campus.
My advice for higher education institutions looking for the next step in their digital transformation: Don’t be afraid of the cloud journey. While it can be intimidating for administrators, engineers, and architects looking at the scale of the task ahead, a unified network experience will mean less human error and headache in the long run. Take it step by step, choose a trusted technology partner, and rest assured it will all be worth it in the end.
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