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By 6 July 2021 | Categories: feature articles

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By Mandy Duncan Country Manager Aruba – South Africa

E-learning has changed the face of education forever, thanks to COVID-19, and there's no going back to the way things were.

At the beginning of COVID education institutes across EMEA had to adjust very quickly to new hybrid learning environments, and there was a need to take a hard look at their IT network capabilities in anticipation of a return to a busy campus in the months to come.                                                                                                    

Numerous technology capabilities have been tested to their absolute limits since COVID-19 forced students of all ages into a home learning environment. But after the scramble to patch together short-term emergency remote instruction, how can education institutes maintain the increased pace of their digital transformation and ensure the enhanced digital capabilities become locked in for the longer-term? Particularly when digital transformation is growing ever more important for student satisfaction and for institutions needing to stay competitive.

When COVID-19 was first identified and started impacting South Africa, the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and the Department of Higher Education (DHE) were forced to restructure their operations and learn how to accommodate teachers, parents, and learners digitally. From the transformation the Department of Basic Education (DBE) indicated that digital learning during the pandemic reached only 30% of the learners throughout the country.

Whether pressured by the global pandemic or not, schools and universities have had to embrace digital instruction and learning, continuous collaboration, and develop more smart spaces.  IT decision makers (ITDMs) in education are being tasked with providing increasingly complex network solutions to our respected centres of learning. As they plan for a new term, they must ensure they have robust capabilities in place to respond to three main challenges: managing expanding campus footprints and devices; supporting more sophisticated and frequently hybrid teaching methods and safeguarding users and data against cybercrime.

Network challenge 1: Managing expanding campus footprints

COVID-19 forced education institutes into remote learning practically overnight – and whilst this has been a herculean challenge, it has also shown its viability. Once the coronavirus is largely under control, some schools and universities may want to keep elements of this virtual situation, even as more students return to campuses. But there is also a need to build in a degree of flexibility to go hybrid between the two – no one knows what the future holds.

Meanwhile, student device and organisational IoT usage is on the rise – with students bringing more devices with them and campuses adopting IoT technologies to improve facility management, lower operational costs and enhance student experiences.

Whatever post-COVID scenario we find ourselves in, campus networks will have to deal with an increased volume of connected devices and an ever expanding and contracting footprint. For education planners the challenge becomes how to provide anytime, anywhere access for students, staff, and guests alike, and deliver a consistent experience whenever and wherever a user logs in.  

To tackle these challenges education ITDMs need to start with complete network visibility – leveraging a single unified infrastructure across administrative offices, departmental buildings, lecture halls, classrooms, research facilities and outdoor spaces to deploy, manage, analyse, diagnose, and remediate network operations centrally.

Moreover, in order for institutes to manage any cybercrime for their students they should set strong and unique passwords for each account or use a password manager. They should also be mindful about what they post online – anything that can’t live on a public billboard shouldn’t be shared. Most importantly students need to understand the basic principles of cybersecurity.

Not only does this move to a unified network approach make it easier to manage a scaling network but it will also help education centres boost student experiences and operational efficiency.

Network challenge 2: Supporting sophisticated teaching and learning modalities

As schools, colleges, and universities embrace digital learning, education ITDMs must deal with issuing more devices to students, as well as building out smart spaces to support not only greater interactivity and collaboration, but also campus safety initiatives.

Against this backdrop, advanced technologies like Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are becoming more common and the use of learning analytics has also dramatically expanded, particularly in higher education. In fact, Aruba research from 2020 showed that 42% of ITDMs in education had production apps running with AI even before the pandemic.

As the network is tasked with supporting increasingly sophisticated technologies, cloud-based apps, and teaching methods, the competition for connectivity is growing, and so too is the resulting administration and troubleshooting required of those trying to manage it all. South African learners have had to also deal with data costs and load shedding. These are significant problems and a lack of electricity in some areas contributed to a drop in attendance. To get around this challenge, live teaching sessions were recorded so learners did not miss any classes. Luckily, as well as contributing to the issue, AI offers the solution here in the form of Artificial intelligence for IT operations (AIOps), which automates many of the day-to-day tasks network managers must run.

One of the many benefits AIOps offers ITDMs is the ability to prioritise apps and essential administrative and academic services and ensure they perform at their peak potential, without impacting educators’ or students’ thirst for new learning experiences.

The technology can also use advanced analytics to anticipate and offer solutions for network problems and ensure zero downtime for all academic, administrative, or building applications – essential for students working on pressing deadlines.

Network challenge 3: Safeguarding against cybercrime

Whenever the discussion around introducing new technologies in education arises, so does the thorny issue of cyber threats. Cybercrime has been increasing over the past years, with education institutes often viewed as a soft target for stealing personal data or shutting down campuses entirely with ransomware.

Already made vulnerable by the increase in student devices and the trend towards an open, collaborative culture, security challenges are growing within the education sector as forward-thinking universities and departments embrace industrial IoT, which is leaving them susceptible to data breaches and cyber-disruptions. In fact, our research showed that 59% of education ITDMs felt connecting IoT devices to networks increases the attach surface and makes them more vulnerable.

According to the KnowBe4.com report they found that during the first quarter of 2020, it was reported that the was a 17% increase in viruses for January, a 52% increase for February, and an alarming 131% increase for March compared to the same months in 2019. This was because students and learners were accessing the internet via their personal devices (from tablets to PC and laptops) that may or may not be up to date with latest security patches and recommendations. Such devices are more at risk of being compromised.

But how do you lock down campuses without diminishing the user experience? Adopting a zero-trust approach to edge-to-cloud security is part of the answer here – assuming that neither the end point nor the network is secure unless the proper authentication and authorization is applied. But network visibility and device identification are also key – ensuring a single-pane-of-glass view and giving IT teams the ability to grant differentiated levels of data access according to device or user group.

Thinking about the openness of university campuses, this includes automatically segmenting visitors from internal administrator and educator traffic.

Act today for seamless learning tomorrow

As they look ahead to the new term, educational organisations need a powerful, automated, and manageable network infrastructure that can enable always-on, secure, and everywhere connectivity for users and devices. This is essential if we are to continue providing safe, seamless education that inspires future leaders. And while such institutions are always under financial pressure, choosing the right network solution can enable them to do far more with less and retain a competitive edge.

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