Jamie Pitchforth, Head of Education Practice, EMEA at Juniper Networks

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented and formidable challenges to the viability and sustainability of university operations, practices and systems. Universities around the world have endured outbreaks on their campuses, resulting in students being quarantined in their halls or sent home unexpectedly. Revenues have fallen, research has stalled, and the impact on student communities has been immeasurable. According to a recent large-scale study, one in five students were already struggling with their mental health pre-pandemic, and another recent study from Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) revealed that almost two-thirds (63 percent) of UK university students said their mental health was worse as a result of the pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, university is supposed to be a time when students make friends for life, yet the current generation of students has been deprived of opportunities for social connection. They may feel isolated or lonely due to online-only learning or new restrictions on movement on campus. More than ever before, it’s important that campuses remain open wherever possible, so that students can benefit from the full educational experience and opportunities for socialisation that are so unique to campus life. In this “next normal,” universities will need to provide a safe and secure environment as students return to in-person learning, and also look after their mental and emotional well-being in new ways. This mandate is coming at a time of heightened competition in the higher education community, with universities in many places focusing on improving the on-campus experience in order to attract and retain the most promising students.

In this new reality, technology will be an important differentiator for universities seeking to compete. Just as digital infrastructure helped institutions make the rapid shift to remote and hybrid learning over the past year, the right technology can help facilitate a safe, effective return to on-campus learning. Fortunately, university leaders and administrators everywhere are beginning to recognise the power of the network as a critical asset in enabling students to safely return to campus. In addition to helping higher education institutions streamline IT operations and accelerate innovation, a modern network helps to improve students’ physical and emotional well-being, reduce risk and create and maintain a safer on-campus environment – critical success factors in a post-COVID world.

The Case for a Modern, Location-aware Network

To successfully provide safety and security support for students, staff and visitors, a network needs to be powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and be location-aware. Location analytics enable contact tracing and journey mapping, which allow a university to replay the steps of an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 (or any other communicable disease) and identify those at risk instead of placing large numbers of students into quarantine as a catch-all solution. This data-driven approach helps mitigate the risk of a large outbreak on campus and dramatically reduces the impact on the student community. Location data can also identify students who are struggling – for example, if their footfall pattern indicates withdrawn behaviour – enabling university counsellors to reach out quickly and proactively.

Congestion alerting is another benefit of an AI-driven, location-aware campus. Space and occupancy awareness allows universities to redefine and control the use of buildings, facilities, rooms and defined areas using real-time management and alerts. A location-aware network system makes it easier for university leaders to identify and contact people within a certain area, whether that’s a classroom, a lecture theatre, a café, a library or an outside seating area – as well as pinpoint how many people are occupying a certain space at any given moment. This helps enforce occupancy and social distancing guidelines, as well as contact tracing and journey mapping. The more effectively universities can manage their physical spaces, the greater their chances of remaining open for in-person learning.

Location-based services also help reduce security risks. Every institution must operate and invoke incident management when appropriate, and a modern, location-aware network provides the visibility needed to respond quickly. If an incident poses a potential or real threat to those on campus, the network can accurately identify where the incident is, who is at risk, and proactively engage with those in the vicinity, guiding them to safety or providing instruction on the correct procedure to follow. This level of digital support not only enhances campus safety, but also helps provide peace of mind for students and their families.

A Safer and More Resilient Future

Of course, some students may choose to opt out of location-based tracking, as is their fundamental right. Whilst embracing location services can create a safer campus environment and significantly reduce the impact of viral outbreaks on the university community, the need to balance privacy with safety will be crucial.

As universities around the world have made tremendous efforts to adapt to the pandemic, those institutions that have prioritised their network and embraced AI-driven technologies to improve the campus experience are best positioned to control their own destinies. “Digital transformation” is a term that often gets tossed around, but in the case of AI-driven, location-based services, it’s not an overstatement – this technology is transformational, and can be used to help protect lives, assets and institutional reputations.

From a student perspective, the traditional campus experience has been hit hard by physical distancing, but this experience has underscored the importance of socialisation and face-to-face interaction as a basic human need. The isolation and uncertainty caused by the pandemic have made student mental health a key priority for university leaders, and as students return to campus, institutions will need a proactive approach to their health and well-being. That includes a modern, location-aware network that can help reduce the risk of threats to the physical environment and ensure the safety of campus spaces.

As the world advances from the grip of the pandemic, the longer-term benefits of location-based services will only become more apparent. Resilient, connected campuses will be better able to respond to public health threats whilst minimising the impact on the student community. They will also be able to reimagine campus life altogether, including how they use different campus spaces and deliver critical student services. There is no single blueprint for higher education success in the next normal, but the network will nevertheless be key to creating future-proof, resilient and safe campuses in the years to come.

Jamie Pitchforth, Head of Education Practice, EMEA at Juniper Networks

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