The last 12 months have seen universities faced with no other choice than to provide their students with a completely digital education, writes Sean Lowry, CTO. However, as vaccination rollout continues and lockdown has eased, universities are now faced with a decision; do they stay online or go back to in-person lectures? Originally published at Information Age.

As students grow ‘fed up’ of working remotely, blended learning provides a mix of virtual and in-person formats, with an added safety net and flexibility for both students and lecturers as they begin their return back to campus. Yet, one of the common snags that has presented itself over the last year is a greater dependency on broadband connectivity.

According to Ofcom, the average daily time spent online by UK adults grew from 3 hours and 29 minutes in September 2019, to 4 hours and 2 minutes in April 2020. The difference in internet activity pre-COVID-19 compared to now is staggering.

A year later, universities need to find a way to facilitate these new demands. The answer is in utilising smart campus infrastructure that meets the increased expectations on technology in education, while providing long term sustainability and scalability.

Introducing the smart campus

Included in Gartner’s top ten strategic technologies impacting higher education, the smart campus is defined as “a physical or digital environment in which humans and technology-enabled systems interact to create more immersive and automated experiences for university stakeholders”.

It exists to support constantly-evolving technology within university campuses and promote happier, healthier and safer students. Buildings should use automated processes to manage heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting, security and other systems to help deliver a first-class student experience.

Only a few years ago, a smart campus may have sounded like something out of a dystopian future. Fast forward to 2021 and it is firmly within reach, and the pandemic has created the demand that should push universities to invest in their infrastructure.

Expectations have changed when it comes to access to high bandwidth and seamless connectivity. Students need constant access to secure and reliable connections in communal areas, HMOs (house in multiple occupation), halls of residence, or even Starbucks. While the smart campus is much more than broadband, a resilient, fast and scalable connection is the first step in deployment, and it all begins with laying fibre.

Putting in the ground work

There are hundreds of lecture halls and thousands of breakout rooms in universities, topped off by communal spaces and libraries, and all of these spaces need quality connections. There could be anywhere from 150 to 200 lectures being run at any given time and in an ideal world they are all being live streamed. That requires a huge amount of bandwidth, and if these institutions don’t have it, the experience suffers.

The solution lies in internal cabling – setting up rooms and lecture halls with fibre that facilitates 4k – or even 8k – video conferencing abilities, with all the bandwidth necessary. From this point, universities can deliver the ‘fibre city’ – with unlimited data going into buildings, facilitating as much streaming and upload speed as is needed, and without trouble.

Providing a hybrid experience

Following the pandemic, student demands have changed. They want a hybrid experience that allows them to watch recordings of lectures after they have been given, they want to live stream from halls of residence, their HMO, or the green of a nearby park. The past year has shown students that this should be possible, and it has become an expectation.

With that in mind, universities need to sync up their entire network – not only the university campus itself, but also purpose built student accommodation (PBSAs), HMOs, student union buildings, libraries and everywhere in between.

A scalable solution

Smart campus infrastructure doesn’t only provide a reliable solution to short term connectivity issues, but it also offers long term scalability that can continuously be tweaked, upgraded and expanded to fit the institution’s needs as they shift. The ideal scenario would be to have low levels of latency on a high capacity network, creating breathing room so that any significant uptake in usage levels wouldn’t cause any issues.

Alternative network providers (AltNets) can overprovision to ensure that this scenario plays out ideally for the university. By providing much more bandwidth than is needed, bottlenecks can be removed and users can enjoy a seamless connectivity experience. As broadband demand inevitably grows over time, optic kit can be upgraded in line with what is required.

Completing the smart campus

This level of control over fibre is an important aspect of the smart campus. While for now, the infrastructure might predominantly be used to enable blended learning, the ability to scale the network will allow universities to become truly smart. With Wi-Fi 6 deployed across the entire campus, the technology can take universities to new heights.

Reliable, high speed connections implemented across the university would enable the student experience to take on a new form through third party deployments. Suddenly, smart homes can be utilised effectively across the entire campus. Smart CCTV, door access, lighting, heating and ventilation can all be controlled through a smartphone.

Generating long term sustainability

Fibre lasts for 50 years and can carry an infinite amount of data. With the development of the cloud, we no longer rely on wires and huge data centres to hold information. With a Wi-Fi- and cloud-first approach, universities can create a sustainable network that can scale up to whatever is required.

The smart campus greatly enhances the student experience, not only for education, but for quality of life while at university. They can learn around working times, from wherever they want, however they want. COVID-19 took the social aspect away from students, but with the flexibility that smart campus infrastructure brings, they can take that back and then some. University becomes more reachable and appealing for students. The smart campus is the future of higher education.