Between an exponential increase in cyberattacks, the pandemic that changed how and where students learn, a tight job market, and an increasingly regulated research environment, technology teams at colleges and universities across the country are being hit from all sides with complex issues as they try to meet the diverse needs of their campus community – all on a tight budget.

To deliver on the promise of a modern, seamless, and secure experience where students, faculty, and staff can engage and collaborate, higher education leaders are looking to technology – including modern and secure data centers, artificial intelligence (AI), and 5G connectivity – to support campus life, provide robust academic services, offer seamless and secure back-office operations, support primary research capabilities, and much more.

But there are hurdles to overcome. A recent survey of higher education decision-makers found that 49 percent say outdated infrastructure prevents them from delivering the modern services today’s campus communities expect. Ninety-two percent of mid-sized higher education institutions experienced staff productivity loss because of data center downtime.

Technology teams have to overcome the challenges of legacy technology and modernize their infrastructures in order to stay competitive in an environment where student enrollment is falling and researchers are demanding technology that offers them a faster time science.

Higher education IT teams are stepping up to the challenge. Ninety percent of respondents agree that digital transformation is a top priority and will lead to investments in hybrid learning technology, increased student engagement, and improved idea sharing and collaboration among educators.

The Path to Modernization in Higher Ed

Modernization roadmaps in growing higher education organizations are designed to address a series of interrelated priorities that create incremental change today and a future-proofed foundation for continued growth.

Colleges and universities have extraordinarily diverse and sometimes siloed data sets and applications. The key to any successful modernization project starts with simply inventorying the current environment.

“It may seem obvious, but IT organizations on campuses today need to take inventory of their data and applications and where they are located,” said Chris Wessells, senior higher education strategist at Dell Technologies. “Knowing where applications and data are located can help ensure data is secure and defines the path for realizing modernization efficiencies.”

“When we did a thorough inventory at the start of our modernization plan, we were actually surprised by the number of data centers that we had,” said Nassos Galiopoulos, chief technology officer and deputy CIO at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “We had several large data centers that all required generators, back-up systems, and everything else that goes along with maintaining a legacy data center. We were spending budget on inefficient and outdated technology.”

“Once we discovered exactly what we had, we got everyone in a room – technologists, researchers, security teams, and operational staff – for a week-long exercise to design a better, more secure long-term solution,” added Galiopoulos. “We started with what we had, then defined what we needed, then architected a single Tier 3 data center that will support our campus community’s long-term needs.”

Security is Critical  

While the main objectives of campus IT modernization are to improve the quality of services and the user experience while also reducing costs, security must be built into everything. Since the pandemic, cyberattacks against higher education institutions have increased dramatically. These attacks are not only disruptive, but they are also very costly. The University of California San Francisco paid $1.1 million in ransom to regain control of its hijacked servers following a ransomware attack.

“Security is top of mind for us in everything we do,” said Adam Hobaugh, the deputy chief information officer and co-director of the Center for Research Computing at the University of Pittsburgh. “Our research community has to follow strict compliance regulations. We make security an initial filter in terms of decision making in our technology planning process. We have a dedicated security team with subject matter experts that sit on a cross-functional team that includes end users to collaborate solutions that will serve everyone’s needs. Because of this collaboration, security is layered into our infrastructure from the planning stages.”

“It’s also essential that higher education institutions with large research functions follow Federal cybersecurity guidelines including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the DoD’s Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC),” added Wessells. “At Dell Technologies, our security professionals use a risk register to identify risk when working with customers. In addition, colleges and universities should have periodic penetration vulnerability testing and third-party audits.”

Tapping Into Emerging Tech to Improve the Student Experience

College campuses essentially act like cities. They have public safety officers and other essential services including housing, health, environmental services, utilities, and dining. Just like citizens are demanding a better experience when accessing government services in a post-pandemic world, today’s students are looking for a seamless experience when interacting with their college or university.

Emerging technologies like 5G and AI can improve that user experience. The underlying infrastructure needs to be in place though to realize the full benefits.

“Use of AI is growing across campuses of all sizes,” said Wessells. “AI leverages big data in student retention and student success platforms to identify trends, it can bolster cybersecurity in end point detection and response systems, it can be used to improve the student experience with frictionless pay systems and other operational technology, and it may also support research activities.”

“To realize the full benefits of new technology, we have to ensure that the underlying framework is in place,” said Hobaugh. “We also can’t make assumptions that the capabilities we currently have will support new technology. When COVID shut down in-person classes, we discovered quickly that students were having a bad experience with distance learning because they had connectivity and device issues. They lived in a place with poor internet access and were learning on their phones. The sheer volume of students that were affected surprised us. We just assumed everyone had what they needed to learn remotely. To solve the problem, we offered laptop and WiFi hotspot loaner programs to better support them, which is still in place today. Once we realized the problem that was based on a faulty assumption, we were able to address the issue.”

Campuses of the Future

To drive engagement and collaboration in higher education while keeping data secure, the campuses of the future must seamlessly blend local, modern data centers that offer scalable server and storage with multi-cloud resources to scale on demand, provide more personalization, integrate automation, and provide more self-service capabilities. These robust environments can power workloads that deliver new insights by enabling institutions to tap into vast data stores and leverage edge computing and IoT applications, AI, and 5G connectivity.

Learn more about how leaders across higher education institutions are transforming student, faculty, and administration experiences, improving cybersecurity, and delivering modern, flexible digital services to meet the expectations of their campus communities now and into the future in Delivering Modern and Secure Education, a webinar underwritten by Dell Technologies.