Mobile IT Challenges and Opportunities in the Education Sector

By Deke Kassabian, Senior Director for Networking & Telecommunications, University of Pennsylvania

Deke Kassabian, Senior Director for Networking & Telecommunications, University of Pennsylvania

Mobile device use is skyrocketing everywhere, and higher education is no exception. Each year we see thousands of new students and faculty members arriving on campus, usually with one or more personally-owned mobile devices, with an expectation of getting connected quickly in order to access University data and Internet resources. Each year, as new iPhones, iPads and Android devices come to market, they appear on campus in large numbers within days of release and the expectation is that they will be fully functional on the campus network. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) has been practiced at scale at Penn and other universities for more than a decade!

By the numbers:

• To meet the very considerable demand of mobile device users, Penn has deployed roughly 4,000 WiFi access points around the campus.
• Roughly 70,000 WiFi devices connect to Penn wireless networks each month.
• In a recent month, we saw 38 percent Apple iOS mobile devices, 27 percent Apple OS X laptops, 17 percent Android mobile devices, 16 percent Windows laptops, and 2 percent miscellaneous.

When we look at campus WiFi network usage data, we see a clear trend: the average number of WiFi devices per campus user has increased during each of the past several years as users more often carry some combination of laptops, smartphones and tablets. The average number today is about two and we expect to see that number approach three in the coming years, which in turn places additional demand on IT resources such as network address, network capacity and more.

Securing networks is a challenge faced by organizations in every sector, including universities and commercial enterprises. On the one hand, a university is regularly involved in the creation of new Intellectual Property that must be protected, and additionally needs to protect regulated student and health data and so network security is very important. With that in mind, we use enterprise-class access control and encryption techniques on our WiFi networks. On the other hand, ease of access is also important. We have a very large community of visiting parents, guest lecturers, conference attendees, spectators at sporting events, and others for whom easy access is a requirement. We try to address these competing needs through the use of multiple WiFi networks, each with appropriate service levels and protections.

"Campus web content is increasingly moving to adaptive and responsive design approaches to allow for access from a range of screen sizes"

Another challenge on a residential college campus involves the expectation of students for whom the campus is not simply an enterprise – it’s also their home. Students living in campus housing have the reasonable expectation that network connected devices they regularly used at home before coming to Penn will also work when on campus. That can sometimes be a challenge. The game systems, TV set top boxes and book readers they would like to use do not always support the security feature set that we rely upon to achieve enterprise-class security. We work with these devices and their manufacturers when asked in order to find workable solutions to accommodate them.

Another group of WiFi-connected devices at Penn worth mentioning are those devices with no single primary user. This category includes the multimedia and specialty technology in classrooms and labs, as well as the door lock systems and environmental sensors and controls increasingly appearing in our campus buildings. These devices, sometimes known by the name Internet of Things (IoT), need WiFi access, but also need protection and ideally will also maintain a device identity in support of auditing. Campus WiFi networks need to accommodate these needs as well.

Key Drivers for Mobile IT Infrastructure:
• Increasing number and diversity of end-user devices.
• Growing use of WiFi classroom technology as well as WiFi-connected environmental sensors and controls, lab equipment, and other Internet of Things (IoT) applications
• Need for security capabilities (access control, encryption of data) and regulatory compliance.

Of course, support for mobile devices on campus must go beyond infrastructure. Campus web content is increasingly moving to adaptive and responsive design approaches to allow for access from a range of screen sizes, and mobile apps, such as campus maps and public safety apps, are starting to provide the campus community with a native mobile experience. Additionally, IT support teams are rapidly developing the expertise to support mobile operating systems and devices, much as in the past they developed expertise for Windows and MacOS computers.


Two recommendations that I make regarding mobile IT challenges on college and university campuses today involve timing of technology choices and funding decisions.

WiFi technology evolves very quickly. When it comes to decisions on timing for adopting new technology, I recommend finding a balance. We tend to deploy new network infrastructure technology, such as the new high performance 802.11ac WiFi capability, when it is relatively mature and when there is a critical mass of end user devices ready to take advantage of it.

When it comes to funding the WiFi infrastructure needed for the coverage and capacity that our users require, we know that this expense must be balanced against all other IT costs. At Penn, we directly involve the community in making choices on how to invest in IT infrastructure, including wireless networks. Together, we decide on appropriate investments in the mobile IT infrastructure used in support of all aspects of the University research and education mission.

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