Down to the wire

This is the Wireless Generation. Today’s students depend on Wi-Fi connectivity for almost everything. How should universities adapt?

The days of pen and paper are not quite over yet, but today’s students increasingly demand rapid access to wireless networks in their daily studies, and further education institutions need to adapt. The results of the University of York’s October 2011 IT services student survey illustrate the point. “Students wanted to be able to access services from basically wherever they wanted – such as classrooms, labs and study bedrooms. They were looking for us to provide more agility in the services that we deliver,” says Heidi Fraser-Krauss, the University’s Head of IT services. The growth in use of mobile devices like tablets and smartphones is a key driver in this trend, and hence an important consideration for network companies. “Our customers want to shift the way in which they design their networks,” says Chris Kozup, Senior EMEA Marketing Director for Aruba Networks. “Previously networks were designed primarily for desktops, but now we’re moving much more towards networks that are designed to connect a whole variety of mobile devices.”

Alongside the technological implications this trend is also accelerating the move towards a much more collaborative means of learning. Of course students today still attend lectures and go to the library, but they can also enrich their learning with extra resources accessed through wireless networks. “We’ve seen higher education organisations using wireless networks as a means of video distribution for example. Take video in language labs, where you have foreign language students being able to interface with recordings that are then distributed to their mobile devices in high definition video,” says Kozup. The ability to connect from anywhere can be combined with ideas from social networking sites to further enhance learning. “We’ve seen some higher education organisations taking examples from sites like Facebook by creating communities of learning, where students can potentially opt in to various subjects and be paired up or matched with other people in their peer group who have the same interests,” explains Kozup. “That could be to form study groups or to share information on a specific topic.”

This kind of technology is increasingly important for higher education institutions, particularly in terms of attracting the next generation of technology-savvy students, who are often among the first to adopt new devices. Improving the student experience is very high on the agenda for all universities, and Fraser-Krauss says the provision of cutting-edge IT services has a huge part to play. “Without good and pervasive IT services it’s more difficult to improve the student experience. If you haven’t got a network you can’t deliver content online for example. If you haven’t got robust Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) then you can’t put content in them,” she points out. As recently as ten years ago access to these kinds of resources would have been provided over a wired network, but this is quickly becoming outdated. “If you take many colleges, they’ve all got wired connections, but devices like iPhones, iPads or other tablets don’t have wired connections, and modern students expect to be able to get online quickly,” says Fraser-Krauss. “For today’s students, sitting there using a fixed connection is a bit like using a fixed line phone.”

A robust IT infrastructure is required to meet the needs of today’s students. For the University of York, Fraser-Krauss says the immediate priority is to provide wireless coverage in as many places as they can, including student residences, teaching spaces and lecture halls. “The library is now covered totally, and every time we build something new we try to ensure there is good, robust extendable infrastructure there,” she says. This does not automatically mean that more people will be required to manage the network, a key issue in the current financial climate. “We invest a lot of resources into how we can improve the maintenance and manageability of our network, so that as universities deploy more and more wireless throughout their campuses they can meet the demand from all these mobile devices,” says Kozup. “We want to ensure we don’t see a commensurate increase in the time it takes for the IT organisation to manage those networks. So manageability is key to the design of our solutions, because we know that IT budgets aren’t likely to increase.”

This is of course dictated by the wider economic climate, but investing in wireless infrastructure can also bring significant long-term benefits, such as in utilising campus facilities during the summer break. Good IT facilities and pervasive wireless coverage are important in attracting major events and conferences out of term time, and the University of York is well equipped. “We have wireless accounts that we give out to conference users – a number of nations are building something called eduroam, which basically allows federated access to other people’s wireless access. So, I can use my username and password from the University of York to access the wireless in another university,” says Fraser-Krauss. The income this generates can then be used to subsidise building maintenance and improve facilities for students, allowing remote access to resources for study throughout the year. “If you put your learning material online then you can get to them whenever you get on the web. So a student needing a document during the summer would be able to get to it,” says Fraser-Krauss.

The rapid pace of technological change and increased use of mobile devices continues to drive up demand for wireless access. As recently as five years ago most students would come into a lecture with a laptop and be equally happy with either wired or wireless access; however, with mobile devices now outnumbering fixed devices for the first time, there has been a significant shift in the design of IT infrastructure. “What we’ve found is that as the device mix shifts in favour of mobile devices, users are far less likely to sit down somewhere at a terminal, meaning the IT department doesn’t have to pull cabling. We see an occurrence that we call right-sizing, which is in effect the ability of the IT organisation to reduce the amount of money they’re spending in fixed Ethernet and cabling – which has traditionally been quite a hefty chunk of their budget,” explains Kozup. For her part, Fraser-Krauss says extending wireless coverage is a priority for her department. “One of the things I’m very keen on is to make sure that we in IT services do meet student demand,” she stresses. “Students today want to be online all the time, so we need to provide extensive wireless coverage.”