How IT Provisions a Student’s Home Away from Home

BASED ON PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE OUR COLUMNIST ARGUES STUDENTS NEED ‘LOTS AND LOTS OF VERY FAST BANDWIDTH’

When this week’s column is posted to the Internet, I will be in Manhattan, celebrating my oldest daughter’s graduation, with lots of honors, from a metropolitan-area college. We moved her in eight days before 9/11 and her exit from New York City has also been marred by violence, as she now lives about 200 feet from where those poorly-made ‘grenades’ exploded in front of the British Consulate last week. (And she arrived home from a late-night study session that morning within 30 minutes of the explosions.)

I spend a lot of time scanning the higher education environment on various issues and one has been the move from dormitory to residence hall-–driven by student expectations. During Ruthy’s matriculation at college my family personally experienced the demands and needs of students and the sometimes ineffective response by the college administration. So, whenever we can give students what they want without a huge expense, we should give it to them – and that includes unlimited bandwidth!

This week’s column is actually driven by some recent discussions on the EDUCAUSE CIO Constituent Group about bandwidth: How you control it and whether or not colleges and universities should accommodate even the greatest expectations of their students.

I come down on the side of, “Yes, by all means accommodate their expectations.”

In the residence hall world, many colleges and dormitories currently fail miserably at student expectations. Many of today’s students come from households where they had parking at the front door, have always had their own bedroom, and often even their own bathroom. How well each new crop of freshmen adapts to what our institutions have to give them, shows the resilience of young people.

One way of putting the issue is to accept that we cannot realistically expect students to think of the campus-–including their living spaces–-as having only academic functionality. That would be ludicrous. Students eat, sleep, party, romance, play, exercise, and basically live out all of the parts of a modern young person’s life. And a lot of this is on campus.

It’s not a bad thing to accept this, but if you have some misgivings, then perhaps a focus on a growing trend in pedagogy that posits that “learning”-–including learning of academic things-–g'es on for students 24x7, no matter what they are doing.

And there is very little as important to learning (and, yes, to play and those other things) than bandwidth: Lots and lots of very fast bandwidth. Why should we not provide unlimited 24x7 bandwidth? I can’t think of a single reason besides these two: (a) it’s a little more work for IT staff and (b) it costs a little more money.

Well, maybe it’s time-–as one poster on the CIO group said (paraphrased here as I was unable to reach him to get permission to quote him in full):

Maybe we should be more and more looking at networks like other folks on campus look at things like other student amenities, such as intramural athletic fields, the new residence halls that are quite luxurious that are springing up in many places, the one-stop shopping for student services, and so forth.

I am not advocating that all IT be considered infrastructure, but if the very basic essential (as students see it) of adequate and 24x7 bandwidth is considered just plain necessary infrastructure, then some of the agonizing over whether we pay another $1,000 a month for more capacity can decrease.

We have those amenities in the physical space of the campus because they were recognized long ago as essential to student lives. It’s time bandwidth joins the ranks of things that we know we just have to have, no matter what it costs to get it. This is even more true in light of decreasing bandwidth costs.

Right now, we spend a lot of time agonizing over bandwidth issues and coping with complaints. We spend time trying to educate the students about shared bandwidth and think of the abusers as the culprits when their downloads are too slow. But do we still have dormitories, excuse me, residence halls, where if one student is a bit excessive with a long shower then others have only cold water left? Not at very many schools we don’t.

We purchase, install, and maintain tools like Packeteer, Tipping Point, and Net Enforcer, and why? The ‘why’ from one perspective is because we just don’t have enough bandwidth. Of course, from another perspective it is because we can’t afford enough bandwidth. But that latter perspective is one that comes from deep within the budgetary constraints of the IT department and as one of the CIO group folks noted, bandwidth is really more of a student service than it is an IT thing. At one campus, the move was made from 12Mbps to 0Mbps at a cost of only $650 per month. I’d bet the staffers there would say that they have saved far more than that in time and energy handling student education and complaints.

Colleges and universities have long been viewed as oases of connectivity in the world. That’s to our advantage. It would be a shame if we let pecuniary considerations cause us to ‘feel’ to students like we are not up there with other places and resources in their lives with regard to connectivity. I bet, in fact, that your institution’s enrollment managers and recruiters would agree if you put it to them like that. They’re beginning to be aware that many prospective students are asking the tough questions ahead of time: “Will I always be able to download massive files at 2 am?”

At a recent conference I attended, it was noted that the current crop of student governments are actually quite-– not docile-–but reasonable. Unlike the students of 15-20 years ago who wanted to protest and fight with the administration, many student governments now actually work with administrators. They propose positive changes, and they often propose them along with suggestions about how to make them happen and offers of partnership.

We’ve all see instances, in the media if not on our own campuses, of students “taxing” themselves to help the institution develop a sustainability program or some better, faster, new email service. Indeed on that CIO discussion, a number of folks mentioned working with student governments to assess needs and find solutions.

Maybe an analogy will help. I don’t know about you, but when I travel what makes a good hotel room for me is (a) great shower pressure and lots of hot water and (b) high speed Internet connectivity. I usually can’t find out about the water pressure until it’s too late, but I absolutely plan where I stay-–where I live that part of my life and the learning involved--based on the existence of high speed Internet access. Don’t you?

So let’s junk the education programs, the monitoring, the cost of buying and operating expensive tools for shaping bandwidth use and focus on providing more bandwidth. Someone, somewhere on your campus who controls the purse can be convinced of that. All you have to do is find that person and make the case. Maybe it could even be outsourced. Your staff has enough other things to do.

P.S. Perhaps the alumni department is another place to look for support for massive bandwidth. It may be hard to convince a grad to give back to the school if that grad spent 4-5 years struggling and frustrated with slow and awkward networks. (Parking’s another story!)

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