How AI-driven networks can empower Higher Education

By Jamie Pitchforth, Head of UK Strategic Business, Juniper Networks
Jamie Pitchforth, Head of UK Strategic Business, Juniper Networks on how AI-driven networks can empower student mental well being

Higher education students have had to face some exceptional challenges over the last couple of years. They have gone from on-campus learning to completely virtual learning environments, and now to a hybrid approach whereby some of the courses may be in person, while others will remain digital. For students, the traditional university experience has been upended at a crucial point in their lives where they have already experienced a plethora of change and growth. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that, according to research from Mind, around one in five students has a diagnosed mental health problem. There are many factors at play which contribute to a student’s university experience, but going forward technology and connectivity certainly have a role to play. 

To empower and engage today’s students, colleges and universities must transform legacy IT infrastructure into agile, secure service platforms powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Fortunately, university leaders and administrators are beginning to recognise the power of the network as a critical asset in the campus experience after two years of remote learning. In addition to helping higher education institutions streamline IT operations and accelerate innovation, a modern network helps to improve students’ physical and emotional well-being, reduce risk and create and maintain a safer on-campus environment – critical success factors in a post-COVID world.

AI-powered networks for mental wellbeing

In order to provide safety and security support for students, a network needs to be powered by AI and be location-aware. These AI-driven networks can leverage data and insights to pre-emptively flag when a student may be experiencing poor mental health or dealing with an issue that will impact their experience at their chosen university. For example, location data can identify whether a student’s footfall pattern indicates withdrawn behaviour – enabling university counsellors to reach out quickly and proactively. In today's hybrid, blended education and research world, technology poverty can impact a student reaching their potential. Using AI and data intelligence can pinpoint where a student's experience is poor, allowing appropriate support to be administered. This includes financial support for students struggling with technology poverty. 

Monitoring of students, devices and networks, of course, comes with an element of privacy concern, but by taking an opt-in approach, universities can ensure that people have a clear choice, as is their right.

The University of Reading is a prime example of an organisation that is on a multi-year journey to build a self-driving network to enable innovative programmes and services that engage students and keep them on track for on-time graduation, building their confidence along the way toward their successful futures. With the support of Juniper Networks, the University of Reading has developed an AI-driven network that can provide insights into a student’s success. Integrating location data with the university’s attendance management system may, in future, reveal whether a student regularly attends class, highlighting patterns of behaviour that may be out of the norm for a student and alerting the appropriate student support services accordingly. 

Technology is removing borders and boundaries while shrinking the world and increasing competition in many sectors, and higher education is no exception. Universities have had to adjust and alter their digital transformation plans, speeding things up or reprioritising certain projects. Competition to recruit and entice students back to campus will be tougher than ever post-pandemic. It’s important that organisations leverage AI and networking technologies in the appropriate way, so that students feel connected to their campus and supported by it. Universities have been quite cautious in their approach to digital transformation and change, but IT teams can implement an effective change management strategy so that faculty and staff are involved in new digital processes and can adapt. The ability for campuses to digitalise and transform has a direct impact on the student experience and, of course, recruitment. 

As campuses become full of students, faculty and staff again, connectivity and network infrastructure have a significant role to play in that experience. From making campus life easier and more secure, through supporting students’ mental health and anticipating areas where digital tools may be lacking on campus, AI-driven networks can empower universities to offer a truly life-changing experience for the students and staff that call the campus ‘home’.

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