Government // Mobile & Wireless
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5/8/2013
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Interop: Higher Ed CIOs Focus On Bandwidth, Mobility

At Interop Las Vegas 2013, University of New Hampshire CIO Joanna Young and Seton Hill University's Phil Komarny discuss blossoming wireless bandwidth demands.

New England Patriots' Winning Technology Plan
New England Patriots' Winning Technology Plan
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A university might be judged by the strength of its faculty and the accomplishments of its graduates, but these days it is also increasingly judged by its network, particularly its wireless network.

That was the message I heard after meeting CIOs from two very different schools at Interop, a UBM conference focused on networking, infrastructure, and technological innovation. As University of New Hampshire CIO Joanna Young put it, ubiquitous wireless access has become a universal expectation. "It's not just students, either," Young said. "When parents come on campus, if they can't get on the Wi-Fi for the mobile app for the campus tour, they're highly annoyed."

Young and Phil Komarny, CIO at Seton Hill University, came to Interop as guests of Enterasys Networks, which has them speaking in a series of education sessions on the expo floor. I connected with them for lunch thanks to a Twitter introduction by Vala Afshar, the Enterasys chief marketing officer I know as a social business enthusiast.

UNH is a public university with about 15,000 students. Seton Hill is a Catholic university in Greensburg, Pa., with only 2,500 students, but both spoke highly of Enterasys as a technology "partner" as well as a vendor.

[ Sketchy Internet access plagues more campuses than you might think. Read Can Colleges Tame The Bandwidth Monster? ]

A university campus that covers a large geographical area and includes a lot of old buildings is a challenging environment for networking in general, Young said, much less reliable, high-density wireless coverage. It helps that Enterasys also provides technology for other demanding venues such as the New England Patriots stadium, she said.

The overall demands on the campus network are on a "hockey stick" curve, Young said. "Bandwidth had been doubling every year, but now it's tripling or quadrupling." As more educational content is delivered online, "I've got to make the network a positive differentiator," she said.

In addition to supporting its own campus, UNH is now delivering digital learning content -- often with a heavy dose of video and interactivity -- to community colleges around the state, she said. So far, UNH has steered clear of involvement in massive open online courses, or MOOCs, typically offered for free but produced by elite private institutions. However, this summer UNH will offer what it calls a MOCK -- Massive Online Course for Kids -- on Harry Potter, with English professor and Potter devotee James Krasner. Although not free, the $200 course is intended to help students entering grades 4 to 8 maintain or sharpen their language skills over the summer.

Another model UNH is exploring would provide the first course in a certificate program for free, but charge for the remainder of the courses required to earn that credential, Young said. An introductory course in geographic information systems would be one candidate for that treatment, she said.

Komarny runs a much smaller operation, but one that has distinguished itself by providing iPads and Apple laptops for students, faculty and staff. Full-time undergraduates entering the school in 2013-2014 will receive an iPad Mini, as well as a 13" MacBook Air. Because some faculty didn't want to switch to the Mini, Komarny plans to offer faculty who are due to receive a new tablet the option of choosing a 10" iPad instead. As a result of this wholesale move to mobile devices, 98% of the traffic on the campus network is mobile traffic.

The mobile device program, which dates to 2010, got off to a rocky start because initially the university "didn't consumerize the network completely," Komarny said. Early on, mobile devices were forced to authenticate to a different Windows domain depending on where they were on campus, he said. Now, students authenticate through a mobile Web portal connected to the university's LDAP directory for a unified directory that follows them around campus, he said.

Before joining Seton Hill in 2009, Komarny had run his own Web design firm designing websites for entertainment firms and sports teams, so he is particularly proud of the design of the university portal. Although it's essentially the latest implementation of a Web portal he previously had implemented for several other universities, it comes to life when users can "touch the data" on a tablet, he said.

The portal is continually refined with new features for students and faculty alike. One recent addition makes it simple for a professor to look up a student who might be failing to attend classes or turn in assignments and raise an alert with other faculty members who have that student in their classes. The idea is to get the faculty collaborating to intervene early if a student is at risk of dropping out, Komarny said.

Komarny has also been serving as a university design partner for the development of OpenClass, the cloud-based learning management system offered for free by Pearson, and he is enthusiastic about its approach to offering a built-in market for educational apps. OpenClass is tightly integrated with Google Apps, which dovetails with another technology Komarny has been promoting, the use of Google+ Communities for student and faculty collaboration.

Standardizing on Apple mobile technology to support access to all these online resources has greatly simplified technical support, Komarny said. Although the mobile device program for students is a good recruiting tool, "the reason we do this is for faculty," he said. Because the instructors all have the same familiar setup, they can help each other, he said. "And that's priceless."

Follow David F. Carr at @davidfcarr or Google+, along with @IWKEducation.

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