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How do you solve a problem like BYOD?

BYOD has transformed the way universities and students interact, but does it come with more problems than solutions? Sophie Waterfield reports

Posted by Julian Owen | November 29, 2017 | Technology

Higher education has seen success following its digital transformation, with students, staff and employees being able to access organisational services from wherever they are using browser-based tools. According to research by higher and further education charity Jisc, which questioned 22,000 UK students about subjects such as access to technology, 80% had access to a reliable Wi-Fi source while on campus and 90% had mobile access to organisational services. 

This has further pushed the increase in students bringing their own devices into their institution. Bring your own device (BYOD) is not a new trend for the higher education sector. In fact, some now consider it as leading the way in allowing students to always remain switched on while on campus and beyond. But with new challenges creeping in, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), bandwidth-demanding technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), and providing technical support to the numerous operating systems and devices, universities are risking falling behind. And with university fees being at an all-time high, even considering the current freeze announced by the UK government, there is a risk that students could abandon their desires to attend certain institutions in favour of more technologically advanced universities. 

“When [universities] create a BYOD policy they open up two challenges,” explains Jon Fielding, Managing Director at encrypted USB manufacturer, Apricorn. “People could be bringing in phones, Window machines, Mac machines, and there’s the question about what they will and will not support. They also open up the risk of allowing untrusted and unmanaged end-points and technologies of which they do not have visibility.

“My daughter’s university allows her to use her own devices as it uses its own browser-based tools. These are difficult to use and are limiting in their scope as they can only be accessed online. This helps them manage the breadth of support and the risk.” 

Apricorn SecureKey

One area that universities need to be prepared for is data protection. GDPR, a European Union directive that comes into force in May 2018, will require that higher education institutions be audited, meaning they will need to take a proactive – rather than reactive – approach to data protection and security. If organisations are found to be non-compliant to the audit, they not only have to remedy the situation but could also receive financial penalties. According to Jisc, “…fines for breaches are likely to increase, as the GDPR raises the upper limit from the UK’s current £500,000 to as much as £18m.”

“Academic organisations have been fined by the Information Commissioners’ Office (ICO) before, following breaches, but GDPR means that auditors are not going to wait for a breach to happen,” continues Jon. “There is a need for encryption; if data is encrypted then the financial penalties decrease if there is a breach. Technology can help manage down the risk but GDPR has been in play for a year and a half, so people need to be ready for May 2018.”

Another area that universities are starting to focus on is providing a reliable internet connection to their staff, employees and students. 

“The provision of high-quality Wi-Fi is especially important when it comes to BYOD, as multiple appliances are connected across multiple lecture rooms for sustained periods of time,” says Lucy Allen, Junior Product Marketing Manager at Casio Electronics. “There is high demand for BYOD interactivity from end users, and universities need to look for products with connectivity built in. 

“Displays are moving more towards 4K, which enables users to show up to four HD pieces of content at once. This increased resolution ensures videos are played back with an outstanding quality picture, which is fantastic for those keen on implementing BYOD without compromising the reproduction of the image. AR and VR will become much more commonplace. This will totally revolutionise the learning environment, taking the engagement element to a completely different level.”

Universities such as the University of Cambridge (pictured above) and Manchester Metropolitan University are turning to technology companies to help them implement robust networks. This infrastructure is enabling them to not only meet the demands of multiple devices with multiple IP addresses accessing their connections, but also creating opportunities for students to work across the city. 

The University of Cambridge is one of the world’s oldest academic institutions and is comprised of a federation of the 31 colleges, each with their own IT strategy and budget. Its University Information Systems (UIS) department supplies university-wide IT services. However, it must collaborate with, and not coerce, the colleges. Until 2012, each college had its own wireless strategy, creating a disjointed experience.

“Most universities will have a campus; at Cambridge, the city is the campus,” explains Jon Holgate, Head of UIS’ Network Division. “We wanted to make the wireless experience [at Cambridge] as seamless as possible as users move across the city.”

As one of the world’s foremost research universities, UIS had to ensure visitors enjoyed the same wireless service as Cambridge students and staff, encouraging collaboration. It turned to Aruba Networks to provide a ‘rock solid’ solution. 

“The Aruba solution is easy, reliable and intuitive,” Jon says. “With our manpower resources, we would not have been able to achieve what we have achieved without a solution like Aruba’s.” 

He confirms that the network continues to accommodate high numbers of visitors, providing roaming access to visiting students, researchers and academics. Last year, 30,000 people accessed the wireless network: “These figures tell me we’re making it easier for visitors to connect and collaborate. That can only benefit our reputation.”

However, while it’s clear that universities are investing in infrastructures to enable BYOD, there is a fear that some students might be losing out due to the digital divide. 

“While BYOD is growing, there are still cases where it’s important for students to access institution-owned machines and devices,” warns Sarah Knight, Head of Change – Student Experience, at Jisc. “I have spoken to students at some universities that feel they have had to buy their own devices and software because the university is not providing to industry-standard.” 

According to Jisc, ‘Student digital experience tracker 2017: the voice of 22,000 UK learners’, while students are generally positive about the use of digital technologies, some providers still need to do more to get the basics right. This includes guaranteeing decent Wi-Fi provision across campuses and continuing access to desktop computers, which many students still rely upon. 

The tracker also raised some questions about the level of digital skill awareness within higher education. Eighty per cent of higher education learners felt that digital skills would be important for their chosen career, but only 50% agreed that their course prepared them well for the digital workplace.

“We assume that students have access to these technologies but there is still a digital divide,” continues Sarah. “Institutions need to ensure they are providing students with industry-standard experiences, providing the students with the skills needed to move into the workplace.”

So how can universities ensure that they’re providing a rich experience for students without excluding them?

“There needs to be some middle ground; universities cannot be half-in, half-out,” says Apricorn’s Jon Fielding. “Are students always going to be online? Are they going to be on a train? If services are in the Cloud, students will not be able to connect so it’s not broad enough to provide good user experience.

“It’s going to go one of two ways; back to university laptops or throw the doors [to the network] open, which doesn’t seem viable due to the potential of bringing in malware,” he adds. “Are universities doing enough to provide a full user experience? I don’t think so.” 

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