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Enabling digital learning with network visibility

The need to connect remotely has hugely affected all students this year, altering their university experience. By Adrian Rowley, Senior Director Sales Engineering EMEA at Gigamon.

The pandemic’s impact on higher education institutions, and its workforce however, has been equally significant, as they have had to immediately pivot to distance teaching to maintain operations and minimise disruption. A recent study from Universities UK shows most universities are planning to hold in-person classes this autumn, but with the situation continuously changing depending on infection rates, the reality is that institutions will continue to shut their doors unpredictably and face-to-face lessons are set to be regularly interrupted.

While this shifting landscape will present many challenges, it will give some universities the opportunity to reimagine the learning model and embrace innovative new ways to teach. Sure, it’s time for higher education institutions to future-proof their networks to remain relevant in the era of digital learning. But holding classes remotely requires resilient and seamless networks, functioning with modern systems and overseen by efficient operations. How can universities successfully enable this shift – particularly with IT budgets shrinking due to student cancellations and drops in enrolments?

A continuing effort

Even before the pandemic, some institutions were already questioning the existing teaching model – the traditional classroom-based learning environment – and considering the modernisation of their practices and minimisation of their dependence on legacy IT systems. As technologic innovation transforms other sectors, universities have been looking to enhance the learning experience to improve cost efficiency, attract digital-natives and stand out from other institutions to encourage high-paying international applicants. At the core of such new developments is, without a doubt, technology. Medical students are able to study the human body through hologram-like projections, computing pupils are benefitting from AI-powered teaching assistants, and language students learning foreign tongues in record times thanks to virtual reality labs in which they converse with AI avatars.

But, it’s not all about futuristic technology powering new learning techniques. The focus is also on replacing administrative tools – many of them legacy, on-premise systems – with more effective solutions. While this was a pressing need before COVID-19, the advent of remote learning has made this an absolute priority: universities need IT systems that can support remote access for workers logging in from home or elsewhere, enable digital learning tools for students, and power new business models (such as subscription-based classes) designed with flexibility in mind. These initiatives are critical to maintaining university rankings, student population and revenue, as well as justifying tuition fees in what has inevitably become a very different, virtual educational environment. Needless to say, that using more and new technology for distance learning and teaching creates new challenges for a university’s infrastructure.

Future-proofing university networks

Regardless of previous innovation projects in higher education, digital learning is now a fundamental service for universities if they want to remain operational and competitive in the current climate. But, what does this mean for university NetOps teams? University networks were already among the most heavily trafficked. Now, with distance learning, these networks will be stretched even further and will have even greater performance and bandwidth requirements. Meanwhile, budget cuts are affecting IT capabilities and impacting future investments. These challenges culminate in less than ideal circumstances in which to accelerate new digital initiatives, such as technology-powered learning. Doing more with less and making the most of existing technology investments is crucial.

The only way to achieve this is through real-time, accurate visibility across the institution’s network, which allows teams to understand and optimise performance of existing technologies and applications. Supporting remote access for students and employees requires network resilience. So, NetOps teams must leverage visibility to monitor increasingly complex networks, and spot and eliminate potential bottlenecks that could impact performance, thereby accommodating the exponential growth in traffic volumes.

The security element

Among other challenges, the adoption of distance learning has caused a significant rise in cyberattacks on universities. These incidents must be prevented not only because they may compromise sensitive data relating to students, teachers and other employees’, but also because they can disrupt classes. The networks of higher education organisations are traditionally a hacker’s heaven, with huge numbers of devices (organisational and user-owned), and complex networks used for studying, working, and researching, as well as personal activities. In fact, only last year there were over 800 breaches flagged in the education sector, double the number of security incidents that took place in 2018. Then, earlier this year, the switch to remote access caused networks to turn inside-out, further expanding attack surfaces, diminishing defences and increasing risks. Both universities and colleges have endured hackers interrupting remote classes with unwelcome activities. There have also been a number of financially-motivated attacks with hackers targeting educational institutions with ransomware.

In addition, research universities have been victims of state-sponsored attacks, aimed at stealing intellectual property and hindering research. Improving cyber threat detection and response in universities is paramount. Now more than ever, InfoSec teams must ensure constant, unclouded visibility into all network traffic to spot any anomalies before they become a significant problem, prevent blind spots and mitigate risks, thereby helping prevent breaches. In the era of digital learning, this won’t be easy as threats could originate from a myriad of devices and locations – that’s why visibility must pervade the entire network. Threat detection has to be aided with technology, not just to improve accuracy, but to support overstretched IT teams operating with limited resources.

As the global crisis moves through unpredictable phases, it’s likely that higher education teaching will continue to change. While we’re unsure what the learning experience will look like in a few months – let alone a year – we know it will never be the same. This, however, can be a positive for both students and universities themselves. Disruption of normal events can be a catalyst for innovation and can encourage creative thinking and funding aimed at doing things better and, in this case, make education more valuable to more people. Distance learning may just be the beginning of the new tomorrow for education.

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