The prospect of handling the combined traffic of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of devices is enough to make any wireless network buckle -- and some already are. At colleges and universities across the country, chief information officers are exhausting their budgets just to maintain their existing networks while congestion threatens to choke their online traffic.
Empty a student’s bookbag, and you’re likely to find a laptop and a smartphone -- perhaps even a tablet. Back in their dorm rooms, students may have hooked up a gaming console or two. And if wearable computers, like smartwatches and -glasses, enter the mass market, students could in a few years bring twice as many devices to campus as they do today.
No wonder the Educause IT Issues Panel named the “device explosion” its No. 1 issue of 2013.
Robert Howard took the job as CIO of Armstrong Atlantic State University in April 2012. During his interview, which included lunch in the dining hall, Howard said, “I went off-script and started asking the students questions -- ‘What’s up with IT?’ The very candid response I got was ‘Wireless sucks.’ ”
Pampered by the speeds offered at home by their Internet service providers, students have come to expect the same from their campuses. That shift in expectations has taken some institutions by surprise, as they have in the span of a few decades gone from being the gatekeepers of the Internet to struggling to address students’ calls for more places to access the network and stable performance once they do so.
Yet even though students have come to demand more from their institutions’ IT offices, CIOs say they have yet to comprehend the scale of managing campuswide networks.
“In talking to people, they don’t relate it to the number of devices they are carrying,” said Theresa Rowe, CIO at Oakland University in Oakland County, Mich. “[Students] just know they can walk into a Starbucks and get connected, and why can’t they here?”
One of Howard’s first projects as CIO was to take inventory of the devices regularly connecting to the university’s network -- “to get a baseline,” he said. One year later, that number has increased by 260 percent. The university’s roughly 7,500 students now bring an average of 2.5 devices each to campus, while faculty members bring about two.
“What you figure is most people have a laptop -- that’s one device -- most people have a smartphone, and quite a few people have a tablet as well,” Howard said.
An increase in the number of devices is only part of the problem. As the devices get more advanced, they eat up more bandwidth. The original iPhone, for example, wasn’t capable of sending picture messages. Not counting Apple’s pre-installed software, there was no such thing as an app. In the six years and five iterations since, Apple has expanded the device’s range of uses -- from multitasking to cloud-based storage -- and with it, its hunger for data. Hopping on a wireless network also means dodging a cellular service provider's usage cap, making consistent wireless coverage even more appealing.
“I think the demand for consumption on those devices is going to continue,” Howard said. He pointed to tablets, the most recent arrival on campus, as a platform that is likely to grow in the coming years. “Right now it’s easier to be a consumer of information than a creator of information on a tablet. If people can create on it, that can drive usage up.”
Howard arrived at Armstrong at the same time as the university made available funds to replace its networking hardware. The institution then changed providers, uprooted the existing network and rebuilt it with the idea that students would access it on the go -- in class, the dining hall or on the campus quadrangle. The change has cut three-year maintenance costs from $235,000 to $180,000, and should future-proof the university for the next three to five years, Howard said.
“The national conversation is about college affordability,” Howard said. “Anything I can do to take overhead costs out of the university and take it into the classroom is a win for me and a win for the campus.”
Howard’s experience is far from the norm. Many CIOs, facing tight budgets and pressure to keep costs from rising, are using their funds merely to replace aging hardware once it powers down for good or is rendered technologically obsolete.
“I have an adequate budget to replace 20 to 25 percent [of access points] every year,” Rowe said. In other words, if she spends part of her $90,000 budget to increase the number of access points on campus, fewer will be replaced. “In the meantime, I expect bandwidth demand and drain on the access points to continue.”
Rowe credited her administration for making tough choices about where to allocate funds, but said she is preparing to make the argument presented by Howard during next year’s budget negotiations -- that an investment in wireless networking translates to better student outcomes.
“The case we’re going to have to make is that wireless networking is allowing learning to occur any time, any place -- and not just enabling mobile Facebook surfing in between class,” Rowe said. “Otherwise, I don’t know how you justify the reallocation of funds away from those initiatives that are going to achieve the mandates we’re going to be given.”
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