Where the Tech Troubles Are

Students value connectivity, convenience and being consulted about technology but have little concern about protecting institutional networks.

November 1, 2022
A student looks at an illuminated digital sign.
Nearly two-thirds of students surveyed find the content on digital signage to be useful. BYU Idaho’s two video walls outside its career center allow passersby to see key messages and announcements. The campus has more than 50 information screens.
(BYU Idaho University Relations)

Student interest will continue to grow when it comes to virtual courses and remote learning options for live courses, the desire for creating richer academic and on-campus experiences, and new technology options. Yet, on many campuses, technology dollars are limited, with a wide variety of initiatives competing for that funding.

Even at higher ed institutions that value student input in making allocation decisions, student desires must be weighed against other priorities, such as cybersecurity. “Campus IT dollars are stretched more than ever before at our institution,” says Bill Balint, chief information officer at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “We have to figure out what initiatives are truly important to student success—and remember that a lack of proper investment in cybersecurity carries the most risk, even if students don’t perceive it. Cyberbreaches shut down campuses.”

More than one-third of college undergrads believe students should have a significant amount of input on the tech investments their institutions make, and an additional half think they should have some input, according to a Student Voice survey conducted Sept. 19 to 27 by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan. On the cybersecurity front, only 6 percent of the 2,000 respondents are very worried about their college being targeted by a cybersecurity breach or attack.

Meanwhile, findings from Inside Higher Ed’s Survey of Campus Chief Technology/Information Officers, which garnered 175 responses in August and September, shows how much more concern these higher ed professionals have about network protection. Fewer than one-quarter of campus CIOs in the survey, a collaboration with Hanover Research, are very or extremely confident that their institution’s cybersecurity practices can prevent ransomware attacks. Nine in 10 say their institution has purchased cyberinsurance.

Campus technology investment decisions can represent delicate balancing acts between security, student preference and the institution’s future plans.

The Student Voice survey, which captured opinions of and experiences with both enterprise and academic technology, revealed varying opinions about what campus technologies are most valuable. The right tech investments likely depend on the needs of each campus and its students regarding teaching and learning goals, cybersecurity, and student experience. Data highlights also include that:

  • Wi-Fi is a big concern, with 62 percent of students saying they would like to see it improved and 43 percent saying it’s just somewhat, not too or not at all reliable. The second top area in need of improvement, the online student portal, was chosen from a list of 21 possible areas by 37 percent of students. Nearly seven in 10 say their college’s portal is somewhat (54 percent), not too or not at all user-friendly.
  • Both online and in-person classes get interrupted at least sometimes by technology not working correctly. One in 10 who have had online classes say interruptions happen often, compared to 6 percent of those who have had in-person classes. Just 6 percent of those with online class experience say tech interruptions never happen, and 10 percent of those say the same about in-person classes.
  • More than four in 10 students think it’s OK for professors to limit (34 percent) or ban (8 percent) the use of tech devices in the classroom. Those who attended private high schools are particularly open to device limits or bans—51 percent compared to 40 percent of those who attended public high schools.
  • Fewer than one in five respondents are very familiar with their college’s policies regarding the use of personal devices on campus networks, and students who are computer science majors are even less likely to be very familiar, 7 percent. One in 10 of the full sample are not at all familiar.

Focus on Connectivity

Not having reliable, fast access to the internet is frustrating to students, whether they’re in class, in the library or outdoors. Just 20 percent of respondents say campus Wi-Fi is very reliable in all or most areas, and 37 percent say it’s very reliable in some areas (such as in buildings).

Reliability only in certain locations isn’t enough for most students. For example, Wilson College in Pennsylvania has an equestrian center, farm and athletic fields in a location close to campus that was not connected to the campus network. It was difficult to stream events and ballgames or conduct other tech-enabled tasks in those locations, says Amy Diehl, chief information officer.

Her first task after arriving on campus in early 2021 was to get those areas connected. Now, events and games can be livestreamed directly from the fields and facilities. In addition, Diehl is working with a provider to assess the Wi-Fi network across campus and improve it as needed.

Diehl views powerful Wi-Fi as an ongoing priority for college campuses. “There’s an ever-growing need for data, an ever-present challenge to make sure wireless capabilities are robust and eliminate dead spots,” she says.

Unreliable Wi-Fi can impact learning. Evan Richwalsky, a student at John Carroll University in Ohio anticipating graduation in 2024, says that in spite of a Wi-Fi infrastructure upgrade, he experiences ongoing difficulties. For example, when an in-class activity involves use of an online resource, “there are always some students who have issues accessing it because of bandwidth,” Richwalsky says. “Professors often end up having to put students in groups or something so we can share resources since the Wi-Fi won’t let us all access it.”

Similarly, Richwalsky says he and his classmates have experienced connectivity problems when taking tests online. “We may have to move rooms, stagger our start times. Or the professor might have to schedule a pen-and-paper retake for the next class period.”

A survey respondent from a public institution in California commented that the connection speed in the library is particularly troublesome and that sometimes it’s not even possible to get on Wi-Fi there. Another, from a community college in Ohio, wrote about the system not responding in the middle of an exam and having to ask the professor to reset it. “Some of the professors act like we’re lying that there are still a lot of glitches.”

Almost 50 percent of Student Voice survey respondents say their online classes are often or sometimes interrupted by glitches. The problem is fairly prevalent in person also, with 38 percent of students saying these classes are often or sometimes interrupted by technology not working properly.

While campus Wi-Fi connectivity may sometimes be the glitch culprit, “there are many variables at play,” especially with online classes, says Matthew McFall, chief information officer at Wallace State Community College, in Alabama. When a student is taking an online course off campus, a smooth experience will depend on the student’s Wi-Fi connection, the professor’s Wi-Fi connection and the institution’s learning management system.

“The institution controls only one variable, the LMS,” McFall notes. “All the time, we get people reporting that Blackboard or Canvas are not working, when the LMS actually is working, but users don’t realize that a successful online class depends on a number of other variables.”

Rebecca Hoey, provost and senior vice president for academic and student affairs at Dakota State University, in South Dakota, has a theory around tech glitches being almost as common in on-campus classes as in off-campus classes. “It’s probably not about networks failing. If it’s not happening systematically, the problem is usually more about human error or specific devices.”

Technology’s Role in Teaching and Learning

Forced campus closures during the pandemic created a generation of students and faculty who are more comfortable than ever before learning and teaching digitally. In addition, changing demographics and cost pressures make online learning more feasible for many students. For many campus tech teams, figuring out how to provide the right technology to allow students to learn in the ways they want to learn is a top priority.

About half of survey respondents have taken a flexible class with the option to attend each class session in person or online. Students at four-year colleges were much more likely to have had that option than those at two-year colleges, 53 percent compared to 22 percent.

Tom Andriola, vice chancellor for IT and data at the University of California, Irvine, believes providing such options will become increasingly important. “For some students, being able to control costs by doing more online is helpful, and even in universities that are built around a residential experience and being part of a community, sitting in an 800-seat lecture hall isn’t very personal,” he says. “My role is to push this issue as an optionality topic rather than just an online topic. Optionality allows students to consume the content how they want to, when they want to, which is consistent with how the rest of our lives are moving.”

Not every type of class works well with the option for students to attend in person or online, but when it’s possible, increasing numbers of IT leaders are committed to providing classrooms and professors with the equipment needed to make it happen. “We’ve expanded access so students can take advantage of learning the way they want to,” reports Hoey at Dakota State.

In addition to recognizing student choice in methods of teaching and learning, IT leaders are wrestling with how—and whether—to incorporate tech trends into campus classroom. Take the metaverse, for example, being increasingly used within higher ed. But when asked about their interest in attending classes in the metaverse, 55 percent are not too or not at all interested.

Older survey respondents are more interested than younger students in these virtual reality classes that involve teachers and students “meeting” in the metaverse. Of respondents age 18 or younger, 39 percent (plus or minus 9 percent margin of error) are very or somewhat interested, and that inches up to 44 percent for those age 19 to 23 (plus or minus 2 percent) and to 55 percent for those age 24 to 29 (plus or minus 9 percent). Among those age 30 to 39 (plus or minus 10 percent), 71 percent of students are interested.

Perhaps these figures reflect older students’ interest in learning remotely, or an older generation’s established ideas about synchronous learning.

Students at community colleges also tend to like the idea more than those at four-year colleges.

“I’m always interested when we try to recreate a face-to-face experience for online students,” Hoey says. “Students who study online don’t necessarily do it because they live too far away to make it to class. They’re working, or they have children at home or in sports. Trying to recreate face-to-face requires them to be in a certain place at a certain time. We keep trying to force what people in a certain generation believe class should be like rather than focusing on freedom.”

Despite the need for choice in where and when to attend class, Andriola from UC Irvine expects that metaverse experiences will become increasingly important on campus. “Employers tell me they expect that employees who come to them in five to 10 years will have experience from university in the metaverse, due to the way meetings and work will be conducted,” he says.

Some UC Irvine faculty members are working on developing ways to interact with the metaverse through the teaching and learning process, but “we’re in the early stages,” Andriola says. “This is not just about the classroom, but the overall campus experience. We will see more metaverse experiences embedded in student groups and activities as well.”

The User Experience

As noted, nearly four in 10 students surveyed would like to see their online student portal get improvements.

Dakota State is one institution currently prioritizing a portal upgrade, with the goals being to help it become more intuitive and user-friendly, says Hoey. “Students are very familiar with Amazon, YouTube and other sites created by web-design experts, but often our student portals are a hodgepodge managed by different departments rather than expertly designed and centrally managed. For students, the portal is a big part of their experience.”

The new version will take advantage of internal web-design experts. While most campuses have creative teams available for marketing work, they haven’t traditionally been used to develop tools like the student portal. With an increased focus on student experience, Hoey is hopeful that will change.

Another important factor for student experience with campus technology is the ability to conduct campus business from a smartphone. In the Student Voice survey, 31 percent of students said it was somewhat or extremely difficult to buy a textbook on their phones, and 38 percent said it was somewhat or extremely difficult to drop or add a course on their phones.

However, IT leaders view these tasks via mobile as less difficult: 14 percent of CIOs in Inside Higher Ed’s survey say it is somewhat or extremely difficult for students to purchase textbooks on their phones, and 24 percent believe it is somewhat or extremely difficult to change an academic course on their phones.

“We have to recognize that students live on their phones, and we have to make sure administrative tasks can be done on their phones,” says Diehl at Wilson College. “We need to push our vendors to make sure their software is mobile-friendly. My job is to push our vendors—tell them what our needs are and push them to continue developing their products to be more advanced and intuitive.”

If it’s not easy to purchase books through campus structures, students can always turn to other, more intuitive providers. “I was surprised so many people said it was difficult to buy textbooks on their phones,” Richwalsky says, adding that even if it’s difficult through the campus store, sites like Amazon and Chegg make it easy. “That’s how I purchase many of my textbooks.”

Digital signs on campus also contribute to a student’s campus experience, providing event information and other campus announcements, as well as content such as news and weather. Forty-four percent of responding students said digital signs are both prevalent and useful on their campuses, and 20 percent said they are useful but not prevalent.

“Digital signs can be great, but they can get outdated quickly,” says Wallace State’s McFall. “A lot of institutions don’t put time into the content; I’ve been at institutions where individual departments were responsible for their own signs, so there was no standard look or approach.”

At Wallace State, the marketing team is responsible for the content on all campus digital signs to achieve a common design and practice.

Still, some students are more apt to rely on information delivered directly or via social channels. “We get a daily email at 4:00 a.m. with announcements, and I also keep track on social media,” says Richwalsky.

Prioritizing Cybersecurity

IT leaders find it concerning that fewer than half of survey respondents say they are somewhat or very worried about the threat of cybersecurity breaches or cyberattacks on their campus.

“I don’t know if that means they are confident in their IT department or they just don’t care,” says McFall of Wallace State. “We block phishing emails every day and constantly update security. Many students are oblivious and have no real concern about privacy.”

A July 2021 Student Voice survey of 2,286 undergraduates found that most students were unaware of just how much data their institutions have about them—but also that they were not overly concerned about it. The majority of students had no concerns about the handling of their attendance, grades or enrollment data, and nearly half had no concerns about their course engagement behavior data or their financial information.

While faculty members can be compelled to attend cybersecurity training, the same can’t be said for students. Twice in a recent week, McFall says he sent out campuswide announcements about suspicious emails to avoid. Like other institutions, Wallace State also hosts optional cybersecurity-awareness sessions for students.

“We have to teach cybersecurity like a life skill,” says UC Irvine’s Andriola. “Students will spend the rest of their lives in a threat landscape.”

Besides finding new ways to educate students about vulnerabilities, IT leaders are taking steps to mandate secure access to campus networks. More campuses are requiring multifactor authentication (MFA) for users, for example.

Users don’t always appreciate this step. A survey respondent at a North Carolina public university wrote about the frustration of managing two-factor authentication in buildings with weak Wi-Fi signals. “I can’t mark ‘safe’ devices and … sometimes I’m stuck walking up and down the halls of buildings, even stepping out of buildings just so I can log into my university account. It feels unnecessary, clunky and on one occasion was the straw that broke the camel’s back leading to a full-on breakdown.”

“If a hacker does get through with a phishing email, they may have the user’s credentials, but with MFA, they can’t connect to the system without a second factor,” Diehl says, whose institution recently installed it for students, faculty and staff. “Sometimes, colleges and universities prioritize installing MFA for faculty and staff and leave students out. But a compromised student account can also cause damage to your system.”

To be successful, those cybersecurity initiatives cannot compete for funds with other campus technology projects. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, cybersecurity investments are prioritized above all other technology investments.

When officials there made the recent decision to implement multifactor authentication across campus, “we took the funds needed off the top of our technology budget,” says Balint. “That money is not even available when we start making decisions about classroom technology and other tech investments.”

Technology Input

As noted, the vast majority of survey respondents believe students should have some or a significant amount of input into the technology investments their institution makes. Thirty-five percent say their institution does that through student surveys, 24 percent say student leaders are asked to give input and 19 percent are aware of small focus groups conducted for this purpose.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s IT department surveys its faculty IT committee and its student subcommittee before making decisions about technology investments. However, because student opinions vary so widely, taking their input into consideration is tricky, says Balint.

When students were asked to select which technology aspects they’d most like to see improved on their campus, only one of the 21 different options (better Wi-Fi) received a nod from more than half of respondents; nine other options were chosen by at least 25 percent.

“If we think students have a common view of technology, this survey shows us they don’t,” says Balint. “Their opinions are often very localized and based on their academic program, whether they’re on campus, hybrid or distance only. No matter what you do, there will be a majority of students who don’t care or don’t think it’s an important investment. Our general rule of thumb is to decide which investments can help the most students the quickest.”

In addition, IUP’s technology team looks at what technology investments are most important to student success, using a broad definition of that term, Balint says. For example, with limited dollars available, is it more important to make it easier for students to drop and add courses using their phones or to implement smarter classroom technology?

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Free access to survey results: segment and benchmark. Explore the data“We might say, ‘Well, it may not be simple to drop and add with a phone, but we have tons of computing stations on campus where they can easily do it online,’ so classroom technology may win,” he explains.

While student input is important for making decisions about campus technology, some campus leaders warn that catering to the whims of current students could mean your campus won’t be prepared for the needs of future students. The opinions of current students are valuable but must be combined with industry knowledge and forecasting.

“We’re not just focusing on student expectations but also on taking the technology as far as it can go,” says Andriola at UC Irvine. “It’s not just an issue of what students want now but also how technology will continue to transform the campus experience and the future of teaching and learning.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based journalist with significant experience covering higher education.

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