Using data to transform students’ campus experience

There are few sectors that have seen as much disruption in the past two years as higher education. According to market intelligence experts IDC, around 55% of European universities have been significantly affected by COVID-19 or the economic slowdown.

Higher education was already a highly competitive sector, but this intensified during the pandemic. Technological evolution means that students don’t need to be on campus to pursue their education. Distance learning has opened up the world and is enabling students to gain their qualifications remotely.

In many cases, this translates into new revenue streams for universities – but also puts more pressure on them to compete in this new, disruptive landscape.

Universities must also ensure that they are attractive to a generation of digital-native students. The digital solutions on offer are a huge consideration for any student weighing up their university options. Connectivity and access to content-rich education and research is non-negotiable.

Seasonal challenges such as onboarding thousands of student devices, all hungry for network resources at the beginning of each term, is a huge challenge for universities and one that’s guiding them to modernise, digitalise and transform. This expectation of the user experience is also causing universities to be more digitally competitive with one another.

At the same time, universities must ensure a safe return to campus for students, without further disruption to the educational experience. The challenge is that universities must deliver all these things, while somehow reducing their operational costs and meeting their environmental, social and governance or ESG targets.

The experience-first network

This is where the experience-first network comes in. It is a way of delivering business value in new and innovative ways that go beyond ubiquitous connectivity and the resilience of the network – although both of these are paramount.

It drives real business outcomes through student recruitment, retention, health and well-being, attendance and asset management, among other benefits.

To achieve these strategic objectives, university IT leaders are demanding the following capabilities in their networking architecture:

• Intelligence to provide real time awareness and mitigation of threats and network issues.

• Automation to reduce operational overheads and workload and enable network administrators to focus on higher value-added tasks.

• A software-defined operation, management and deployment which simplifies migration and is agile enough to adapt to user and market demands.

Because of these demands, the network of the future must be cloud-based, artificial intelligence-driven and with DevOps levels of agility and programmability. This translates to simplified deployment and operations, reduced total cost of ownership and a consistent user experience. A strong cloud platform adopted by universities will also scale to support ongoing growth and simplify the onboarding of campuses in the future.

Data-driven decision-making

Like any enterprise, data-driven decision-making is at the heart of the university experience today. The network is key to this, delivering greater insight and control that allows data to be harvested and turned into meaningful information.

Here are some examples of how the network is enabling universities to make intelligent decisions and deliver better user experiences, cost savings and efficiencies.

Delivering a personalised service

Using location data, the network can recognise when a student has arrived on campus. They can be greeted with a message to the university’s app on their mobile phone and asked if they need a space to study and for how long they need it. It can then offer blue dot navigation services to that space.

Student health and well-being

By harvesting data through an Application Programming Interface (API), a Software Development Kit and webhooks from systems such as library services, class scheduling, a Virtual Learning Environment system and attendance figures, universities can now add accurate footfall data.

This is a hugely valuable barometer of student engagement. Universities can use these indicators to identify a student success trajectory.

Value comes from having real-time insight into where and when a student falls below an ideal success trajectory, which provides an early warning system to initiate appropriate and relevant support and pastoral care.

A great example of this is gaining early insight into withdrawn behaviour, typically associated with mental health and well-being issues. Universities can now provide proactive and proportionate support to students identified as at risk.

Student retention means more revenue

These location-based mechanisms and services, such as ‘digital nudging’, are also hugely important for recruiting and retaining students. UK universities lose millions of pounds each year through students leaving their courses prematurely.

If a university can identify early on if there is a problem – indicated by a student’s absence from campus and lectures – they can proactively address the problem and give themselves a better chance of keeping that student in education.

Lowering costs, improving sustainability

Real estate is expensive. The network can deliver huge operational cost and environmental savings by calculating footfall to identify populated areas to better manage occupancy across campus. In buildings that aren’t being used, a university can turn off heating, air conditioning, lighting or other services accordingly.

By using APIs to integrate the network with the university’s building management systems, IT leaders can gain a greater understanding of how to optimise facilities. From a return on investment (RoI) perspective, this can result in significant cost savings.

At the same time, sustainability is a huge priority for universities – and empowering the smart campus in these ways can make a dramatic difference to their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and hit their environmental targets.

Experience-first networking in practice

The University of Reading is embracing experience-first networking to enhance the campus experience.

“We’ve seen how we can rapidly move to new innovation, new digital ways of working,” says Stuart Brown, director of digital technology services at the University of Reading.

“Going forward, we can see how many data and data-driven decisions are being made. It opens the door for all sorts of things that we need to be doing around attendance management – creating dashboards of attendance – which leads to improved retention and well-being.”

He adds that, in pandemic circumstances, the university can also do things like track and trace, to ensure students are socially distancing properly, that study space areas are set out properly and that there are places for students to sit down safely.

Ultimately, the network can enable universities to deliver exceptional user experiences to meet the exacting demands of a new generation of students, while helping to reduce costs and delivering an advantage over the competition.

Jamie Pitchforth is head of education practice for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at artificial intelligence networking experts Juniper Networks.