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July/August 2018

By Sandra R. Sabo

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By being nimble and building on early wins, campuses are poised to tap into—and benefit from—the innovation promised by the Internet of Things.

Since opening its doors in 1965, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, Okla., has asked students to log 10,000 steps and check their heart rate every day. The physical part of ORU’s mission—to educate the whole person, in body, mind, and spirit—required students to keep detailed logbooks, which faculty needed to review each semester. 

All that changed in 2015 when the university began accepting fitness data provided through students’ Fitbits. “Now our students, no matter where they are in the world, have their steps and heart rate uploaded into the gradebook as soon as their Fitbit finds a wireless connection. Nothing else is tracked—we purposely selected the Fitbit that doesn’t track location,” explains Mike Mathews, ORU’s chief information officer. Although ORU recommends but doesn’t require the Fitbits, most of its 4,500 students are happy to forgo the written logs. Mathews estimates retiring the logbooks saves the faculty at least 400 hours of manual labor. “Nothing has changed in our fitness requirements,” he notes, “but the new reporting method has made students’ and faculty’s lives easier.”   

Making tasks easier, simpler, faster, or more efficient is the great promise offered by the Internet of Things (IoT). The “things”—devices containing chips, sensors, beacons, readers, actuators, cameras, and more—are connected through either a wired or wireless infrastructure so that they can gather and transmit data to one another. Concerned about research specimens stored in a biology lab refrigerator? A sensor can detect a temperature change within a two-degree range and automatically send an alert to the lab manager’s cellphone. Want to keep student laundry facilities operating at full capacity? A device monitors the washers and dryers, and then sends a text notification when a particular student’s load has finished. (Read also, “What We Can Learn From Them.”)

More, Better, Bigger Options

IoT is nothing new to campuses, particularly in the area of facilities management. Many institutions have long used building automation controls to manage HVAC, lighting, electrical, and mechanical systems for greater energy efficiency, as well as building access controls, networked to a central server, to enhance campus security. But the breadth and depth of IoT capabilities have greatly expanded as electronics became miniaturized, processor speeds accelerated, and the use of built-in artificial intelligence increased. Inevitably, technology developed in and for other industry sectors has made its way into the realm of higher education.

“IoT includes hardware, software, and skinware—the people who purchase, disseminate, and use the devices,” says Mike Abbiatti, vice president for educational technologies for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), Boulder, Colo. “Technology today moves from the home to the campus, instead of from the campus to the home. Everyone is wearing, carrying, driving, and using Internet-connected devices on a daily basis, which is putting a lot of pressure on all institutions.” 

That pressure stems from the differences between a traditional IT system and an IoT system: 

Number of devices. It used to be fairly easy to estimate how many PCs, laptops, and servers were on campus. IoT devices, however, are embedded all around. On a global scale, the number of connected devices is projected to hit 23 billion this year, based on statistics gathered by Dot Com Infoway, a provider of mobile and Web solutions. By 2020, IoT is expected to encompass 31 billion devices—a 35 percent rise in just two years. 

“The average student brings five to seven connected devices to campus—at least one laptop, a tablet, a phone, and a streaming device such as an iPod touch or Xbox, plus a connected TV, Alexa, or Apple watch,” observes Rajiv Shenoy, chief technology officer at Apogee, a managed technology service provider based in Austin, Texas. In addition to the connected devices already resident on a campus, faculty, administrators, and staff bring their personal electronics as well. Every one of those devices is a small computer that your network must accommodate.  

Variety of devices. By definition, IoT covers a wide spectrum of end points—everything from small medical or personal devices to large consumer appliances and sophisticated building management information systems. The hardware and software inside those computing systems vary widely as well, making it impossible for IT staff to understand every device’s capabilities and idiosyncrasies. “In some cases, IoT is referred to as the Internet of Everything, which is almost true,” says Scot Ransbottom, deputy chief information officer and IT chief of staff for Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va.

“IoT is an emerging technology set that we still need to better classify and understand so that we can develop solutions,” he continues. As a starting point, Ransbottom divides Virginia Tech’s IoT activities into four segments: research, consumer or individual use, health and science, and general buildings/infrastructure. That gives IT staff a general framework for evaluating an activity’s size, scope, and level of potential risk. 

Data-gathering capabilities. Vendors often tout the ease by which IoT devices can gather detailed information for use in institutional decision making. Most existing IT policies, however, were written to manage traditional computer networks and data storage; they don’t necessarily account for the massive amount of information IoT devices can collect and share even without people knowing. Privacy concerns quickly enter the picture.

Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) in Tacoma, Wash., for example, has a wireless network packed with opportunities to monitor social media usage and device location in real time. In a dining center or sports facility, the network might indicate a long line of people waiting to use a bathroom or purchase food, which could automatically trigger an update to digital signage directing students to a less congested area.

“The information is useful and actionable—but it’s all based on tracking where people are,” notes David Allen, director of enterprise systems for PLU, which has not invested in real-time network monitoring to date. “Retailers use this technology extensively, but our institution has not sufficiently grappled with the question of whether we should even be collecting certain data just because we can.” (See sidebar, “How Much Is Too Much?”)

Organizational reach. Many IoT systems affect multiple functions or organizations within a college or university, raising the question of who is responsible for what, says Chuck Benson, assistant director for IT at the University of Washington, Seattle. Installing an environmental control system in a research space, for example, would likely involve both central and local IT, facilities management, the principal investigator, and several vendors. “Between these organizations are gaps through which systems accountability and ownership can fall. Each one hopes the other is managing the system well,” Benson observes. “What can—and does—happen is that the system shows up and then people look at each other and say, ‘I thought you had this.’”  

IoT in Action 

For all its implementation, management, and risk mitigation challenges, IoT can help an institution improve operations, making it a better place for students, faculty, and staff. “Some of the most effective ways I’ve seen institutions use IoT involve the application of back-end analytics to drive student success,” says Apogee’s Rajiv Shenoy. One institution, for instance, tracked streaming content from academic lectures and found some students were playing video games at the same time that they were supposed to be engaged with the lecture material. The distracted students were encouraged to attend special study or review sessions, without any mention made of the data analysis. 

At a large state institution, the director of dining services employed analytics to better understand and influence students’ consumption trends. Based on swipes of student IDs and quantities of food served, the director tracked food purchases for six months. “He realized that, depending on where the salad bar was placed, salad consumption might increase or decrease by as much as 60 percent,” Shenoy reports. “Based on the consumption strategies identified, the institution reorganized the food stations and found that students began eating significantly healthier.”     

To assist students at Oral Roberts University, Mike Mathews has assembled a fleet of 17 telepresence robots that essentially stand in for human learners who aren’t physically present. Nine of the units are mobile; they feature iPads mounted on Segways and utilize Zoom technology. Using an ORU app on their smartphones, students instruct the robot to look up, down, and around the room so that they can see and interact with their classmates and professors. 

“We first used it for a student who had a severe medical issue come up with only a month of classes left. I took that robot to each of her classes and, with the professors’ permission, she finished her freshman year on time,” Mathews recounts. In another instance, three Canadian students missed the start of classes when they didn’t receive their visas in time. Connecting through the robot, they participated in classes virtually until they could arrive on the physical campus. ORU also has eight stationary “tabletop” robots, often used by student athletes so that they don’t miss a class when traveling to games or meets.  

“We’ve also used the robot to enable an online student to ‘walk’ across the stage to receive her certificate and during a hooding ceremony for a student located in Ghana,” says Mathews. “The IoT is not just about things and connections, but about people. For us, the message is that IoT helps people continue their education when life happens.”

Perhaps higher education’s most publicized foray into IoT has been Tempe-based Arizona State University’s renovation of its Sun Devil Stadium. A donation of sensors from Intel, which has a long-standing relationship with ASU’s school of engineering, spurred a research initiative to enhance the fan experience. “We started small, by creating a sound game with real data to get people excited,” says Chris Richardson, ASU’s assistant vice president, development. The sensors pick up different sections’ noise volume, which is visualized on the stadium’s big screen to encourage friendly competition. When the game ends, those in the winning section who have the ASU app—and their location service activated—receive a push notification saying, “Congratulations, you’re in the loudest section.” In the future, the winners may receive a redemption code from a stadium vendor, as added incentive to remain engaged in the game. 

Since installing the sensors three years ago, ASU has expanded its stadium-based research to include video analysis. “The cameras were already in place for security purposes. We’re just using the data in better ways to figure out how to optimize our support services, placement of vendors, and security system,” says Richardson. The research, for example, aims to analyze queue time to understand how the placement of vendors or bathrooms could affect foot traffic patterns and line lengths. He adds, “We’re also working with body and facial sentiment analysis, to determine differences between reactions related to the game and those indicative of danger. This could help us determine whether we need to deploy security, if there is a fight or some type of threat.”    

Outside the stadium, ASU has turned to IoT to help reduce road congestion by increasing staff’s use of golf carts to move around campus. A cumbersome, paper-based system to request a golf cart has been completely digitized, essentially creating an Uber-like transportation service for the campus. “Now you can order a golf cart directly from our app or sign up for one at a digital kiosk, which is a much better consumer experience for people who just want to get from building A to building B,” says Richardson, adding that cart usage has increased. “We’re working on chipping the golf carts themselves, so that we can track battery life, a cart’s location on campus, the speed it’s traveling at, and the route it’s taking. Then we can get better at managing the fleet and have sound data for optimizing usage.” 

Another byproduct of ASU’s stadium research: student success–related enhancements to its mobile app. About 20,000 people have already downloaded the app, originally developed for the stadium’s sound game, but that number is expected to skyrocket. “Many apps don’t deliver on their promise, either by not meeting the customer expectation or by delivering limited functionality that is not useful. But we built ours to be a set of reusable microservices, with multipurpose flexibility, as we know that there will be many uses that we can’t even imagine today,” Richardson says. 

Using the evolved app platform, the IT department has partnered with ASU’s provost and student services to use push notifications or less-intrusive notifications to communicate with students in their preferred ways. The new communications platform, currently in Beta testing, has the ability to quantify action—or lack of action—on the part of students and then use other processes or new information to engage with students. 

Changes Afoot

If ASU’s IoT initiatives seem too ambitious for your own campus, remember that they all started with the installation of a few sensors. In fact, Richardson recommends thinking big but starting small. “A smaller project will build momentum for bigger initiatives—maybe connect some physical services that were never connected before,” he suggests. “But make sure to do it with the right mindset, that you want to try a different way of operating—agile and scalable.”

Chuck Benson underscores the need to take a not-business-as-usual approach to IoT: You’re not just installing a new system or piece of technology. “There’s a real organizational, cultural, and social change that goes along with IoT, because it will—and should—change how we do things,” Benson emphasizes.

Here are some suggestions to support that change:

Articulate your strategy. After looking at IoT in the context of your institution’s role, scope, and mission, discuss how technology can help advance the overall strategic plan. “Address why you need an IoT strategy, what you will do with all these devices in each operational area, and what outcomes you intend to create on your campus,” says Mike Abbiatti. “The business case has to be defined because IoT is not a technology issue—it’s a leadership and strategy issue.” 

The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., for example, recently developed an IT strategic plan to replace the one that was created in 2005. So much had changed in the interim—including the arrival of a president who wanted more emphasis on using technology in the classroom—that Ellen Keohane, the college’s chief information officer, held open sessions to gather input on topics such as IT infrastructure, use of data, and user needs. One of the four IT strategic directions that emerged is Leadership in Technology Innovation, which includes engaging with IoT as well as machine learning, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.

Assess effects on bandwidth. IoT depends upon scalable, reliable, and foundational connectivity and Wi-Fi. Without those, everything else will fall apart—much like having a Tesla without a power source to charge it, says Apogee’s Shenoy. 

Both Holy Cross and ORU have invested in greater bandwidth to handle all the texting, video, and music traffic on their campuses. ORUs’ Mathews says, “At the highest time of student usage, which is about 1 a.m. for the Internet, we never exceed more than 60 percent of our bandwidth,” acknowledging that a significant boost in the use of augmented reality or virtual reality could affect ORU’s usage patterns. “Also, we find many students mixing our Wi-Fi with the power of their own smartphones. One day—and it won’t be far off—we’ll find a way to save money on telecommunications connections to the Internet by working out arrangements with students, because most carriers now provide personal hotspots.”  

In that same vein, Virginia Tech has made significant investments in cellular coverage by adding a distributed antenna system to its stadium. “We are partnering with multiple cellular vendors to provide students with better access to services. It’s scalable; as the vendors’ investments increase, we can increase the capacities,” Scot Ransbottom says.

Decide how to handle your data. IoT devices can produce a mind-numbing array of data to aggregate, curate, analyze, and then use to make operational decisions, comply with regulatory requirements, support research initiatives, and more. Without a plan to coordinate and manage the flood of collected data, an institution risks wasting valuable information. 

“IoT is where many things come together, and you can have some exciting results. But if you don’t plan ahead, you can end up with multiple and different data streams and lose the opportunity for getting value out of the integrated data,” warns Chuck Benson. The energy management system at the University of Washington, for example, has more than 2,000 sample points across campus that don’t feed into one office or data center. To keep UW’s data pipeline flowing, Benson serves on an integrated team, with the university’s assistant director for energy conservation and sustainability, power systems operations manager, and HVAC manager, plus a vendor and a subcontractor. Each team member brings a different skill set and mindset to the same data, and together they figure out what the data mean for overall energy management. 

Redefine IT’s role. For years, anything related to technology on a campus was considered an infrastructure issue and delegated to the chief information officer. IoT has disrupted that concept. “IT is not the gatekeeper of technology on campus anymore. Many IoT technologies are not being brought to campus by IT, nor does IT have direct control over them,” says PLU’s David Allen. Instead, facilities management, residential life, campus safety, or another function is more likely to be the direct manager of a particular IoT device or system. IT’s role becomes more of a consultant or adviser. 

“IT staff will never be experts on the mechanical system, for example. But we can apply the general principles of security, privacy, and reliability of systems and help other areas evaluate those aspects,” says Allen. As part of Pacific Lutheran University’s contract review process, the CFO’s office now calls on Allen to provide feedback on any contract having an IT component that would be connected to the campus network.

At Holy Cross, Keohane is carving out an identity for IT as the innovation organization. She has shifted resources away from IT infrastructure and business applications, and toward educational technology and innovation. Keohane devotes a small portion of the IT budget to providing funds for experiments—such as assisting a professor who wanted to use virtual reality in the classroom. “In IT, we’re trying to get more comfortable being uncomfortable,” she explains. “Only a small percentage of what we try will probably take hold and be adopted on a large scale—and that’s OK.”  

Revamp decision-making processes. Informational and operational siloes can hinder IoT’s potential. Chris Richardson believes, “The real barrier for IoT is often the organizational model of the institution itself. If your university is not seamlessly aligned and people consider their data belong exclusively to them, that will be an impediment to innovation.”

Rajiv Shenoy agrees that institutional culture is the biggest IoT obstacle in higher education. Successful IoT initiatives depend upon collaboration among CFOs and their financial savvy, provosts and their academic expertise, and CIOs and their knowledge of technology. “Unfortunately,” says Shenoy, “collaboration as it’s discussed today in higher education is the idea of sharing notes. What really works is when the parties get together in a room and talk through their challenges and find ways to align everything within the strategic goals of the institution.” 

That’s exactly the wholistic approach Richardson favors at ASU. For each IoT initiative the university has undertaken, Richardson has assembled the parties involved to define the problem to be solved, determine who has what data and technology, identify desired outcomes, and arrive at a plan for innovative change. 

The University of Washington has started down the same path with creation of the UW Compliance IoT Risk Mitigation Task Force. Benson co-chairs the task force, which reports up to the UW regents and includes representatives from central IT, campus security, capital development, research, and environmental health and safety. “We get people together in the same room to share stories about what works and doesn’t with IoT systems and to develop a common language around IoT,” says Benson. Although the task force is currently focused on the big picture, he foresees it providing campuswide guidance on the selection, procurement, implementation, and oversight of IoT systems, including the management of vendor relationships and performance expectations.  

Even though IoT remains in its infancy on many campuses, ignoring its cultural, educational, operational, and financial implications proves impossible. As Ellen Keohane says, “When you look at your personal life, the technology you have in your home and your car, and the pace at which things are changing, you can’t help but think a campus might look or behave very differently in the not-too-distant future.” 

SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minn., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.


Related Topics

“The business case has to be defined because IoT is not a technology issue—it’s a leadership and strategy issue.”

—Mike Abbiatti, WICHE