The Infrastructure Imperative: How Investing in Campus Technology Infrastructure Increases Access and Improves Learning for Students

As mobile device ownership on campus continues to increase, students who have grown up surrounded by technology have come to expect its presence in every aspect of their lives. According to Inside Higher Ed, students today expect the same high-speed Internet availability and access to digital resources that they have grown accustomed to at home. If you take a peek inside a college students' backpack, in many cases you will find that smartphones, tablets, portable computers and e-readers have long since replaced more traditional essentials such as notebooks, pencils and textbooks. Students today are used to consuming content on the go, from any location, using the device in their hand. In fact, according to a 2013 report by eMarketer, smartphone usage by U.S. college students is expected to increase from 67percent in 2012 to nearly 90 percent in 2016 and with this influx, students are eager to incorporate digital tools into their academic lives.

While this digital expectation has posed significant opportunities for campuses to increase access, improve learning and offer ways to cut costs for students, it also presents challenges for institutions that must reevaluate their technology infrastructure in order to meet this rising demand. According to EdTech Magazine, physical boundaries, obtaining financial support and increasing university bandwidth and security are just a few of the many roadblocks institutions face. These obstacles are even greater for rural institutions where their geographical location does not allow connection to high-speed wireless networks.

Although there are challenges, a number of organizations are thinking outside the box to develop innovative solutions to address the infrastructure needs of today's digital classroom, leveling the playing field so that students at all institutions have access to the best possible learning experience.

Overcoming Technology Challenges in Non-Urban Schools

Distance, affordability and physical boundaries are the biggest challenges for rural colleges and universities trying to expand their wireless infrastructures. Rural institutions are at a larger disadvantage as they often house older buildings with fewer electrical outlets, inadequate network systems and insufficient cabling. As a result of these shortcomings, students are not able to access information via high-speed Internet connections, often preventing them from accessing online courses and educational content from their mobile devices. In some cases, this can also limit the availability of digital and interactive learning programs.

There are, however, a few ways institutions are overcoming these challenges. According to EdTech Magazine, the recently introduced TV White Space (TVWS) allows wireless data transmission over unused TV channels and companies including Google and Microsoft are currently using TVWS in developing countries, where broadband is scarce. TVWS uses lower-frequency white spaces, which allows signals to travel greater distances and penetrate wall barriers better than the frequencies previously used. According to CivSource Online, West Virginia University has integrated TVWS technology into its campus network to provide free public Wi-Fi access for students and faculty at transit platforms. With this technology, West Virginia University is able to add Wi-Fi hotspots in additional locations around campus with heavy foot traffic.

Top business executives are also making additional strides. Last month, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, announced a new goal, in partnership with Samsung Electronics, Nokia and Qualcomm, to make Internet access available to everyone on Earth. The "power to connect" is Zuckerberg's main motive for this initiative as he intends to provide Internet access to the five billion people who currently do not have access worldwide. The campaign recognizes that investing in technology infrastructures breaks down geographic barriers and allows people to join in the "knowledge economy." Finding creative ways to invest in campus infrastructure will allow institutions to level the playing field, ensuring that all students have the same opportunity to benefit from digital access to educational content.

Tech Savvy Campuses Increase Access and Learning

While many schools face significant technological challenges, Baruch College and Everest University are prime examples of schools that have taken the necessary steps to improve their infrastructure and accommodate students' digital needs. According to The Center for Digital Education, Baruch College experienced slow, unreliable wireless connections, which affected its ability to provide students with an enhanced educational experience in the classroom. The school recently upgraded its wireless network to offer enhanced learning anytime, anywhere. Students are now able to use their mobile devices along with the new Wi-Fi network to access course materials across the entire campus. Students can also maximize study time by reserving campus resources such as study rooms and other learning tools via their mobile devices. Since the new network was fully funded by student technology fees, Baruch College was committed to having its students play a key role in the planning process. Campus leaders worked with students to make Wi-Fi access available in one of its new outdoor plazas, extending its technology services and making learning available outdoors.

Everest University in Tampa, Fla., has also recognized the benefits of investing in campus infrastructure to provide students with additional learning opportunities and help drive down the costs. According to Custom Media Solutions, the university made a sizable investment in classroom SmartBoards, which are used to engage students in interactive learning and help professors evaluate students' performance. In addition to these key benefits, The Center for Digital Education reports that technology tools have also helped students shift away from antiquated learning techniques such as recall and memorization and move toward synthesizing and creating content in an interactive and collaborative manner.

The Time is Now
While many institutions have improved their infrastructures to meet the needs of today's increasingly tech-savvy students, the dream for all higher education institutions to provide these types of technological capabilities will not happen overnight. Both time and financial resources are needed in order for schools to completely revolutionize their offerings to students, however, the evaluation process can begin now. Universities electing to invest in their technology infrastructures can provide students with increased access and give them the freedom to access course content anytime, anywhere. These schools have an edge over those with limited access to high-speed Internet and online learning tools, as they are able to cultivate a more engaging learning environment and ultimately provide students with greater opportunities to compete more effectively in a globally connected online world.