Understanding the Internet of Things

At Springfield Technical Community College in Massachusetts, Joseph Griffin and Johm Kubasek evaluate the readings from their sensor network. (Photo: STCC)

In managing the wide-area networks for 13 colleges in northeast Texas, Mickey Slimp has seen campus network usage rise sharply in recent years — and the biggest spike is yet to come.

“We’re seeing exponential growth in bandwidth demands at our institutions,” says Slimp, who is executive director of the Northeast Texas Consortium of Colleges and Universities. Students used to come to campus with a single Internet-connected device, he says. Now, they arrive with multiple devices that access the network, including laptops, cell phones and wearable devices such as FitBits.

In 2008, the average number of connected devices per student was 0.8, according to a Pearson survey. By 2020, Slimp estimates, each college student could arrive on campus with at least four — and perhaps as many as eight — networked devices.

It’s not just student devices that are putting a strain on campus networks. A growing number of security cameras, door locks, light switches, thermostats and other building components contain networked sensors that allow campus administrators to control and monitor their functions remotely. And the number of networked devices will continue to explode in the coming years.

The universe of objects containing microprocessors or embedded sensors capable of communicating and transmitting information across networks is called the Internet of Things, and it has enormous implications for community colleges. Already, many colleges are saving time and money by monitoring and controlling “smart building” features online, and the Internet of Things is shaping the curriculum at community colleges as well.

But there is a downside to this burgeoning technology trend. For instance, campus leaders will have to consider its impact on student and data privacy, as well as network security. Then, too, there’s the issue of bandwidth. Adding connectivity to everyday objects “really taxes the network capacity of colleges,” Slimp says, “and it’s only going to grow from here.”

20 billion devices

Technology analyst Gartner estimates that 8.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide by the end of the year, up 31 percent from just a year ago. The company expects that figure to exceed 20 billion in the year 2020.

The New Media Consortium follows technology trends that are likely to affect colleges. The organization’s 2017 Horizon Report pegged the Internet of Things as a significant development that will have a big impact on higher education in the next two to three years. Already, 51 percent of community colleges say they are actively  considering the potential of the Internet of Things in their strategic planning, the Center for Digital Education says — up nine percentage points from the prior year.

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from the August/September 2017 edition of the Community College Journal, the flagship publication of the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

Besides smart building and security systems, here are some other applications of the Internet of Things that exist today or are in development, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project:

  • Devices that monitor patients’ vital signs or other biomedical information in real time and provide this information to medical providers.
  • Sensors in parking lots and on street curbs that provide real-time information to commuters about the location of available parking spaces.
  • Roadways, bridges and other pieces of infrastructure that give regular readings on the state of wear and tear and provide alerts when repairs are needed.
  • Paper towel dispensers in restrooms that signal when they need to be refilled. Trash cans that signal when they need to be emptied.

The Internet of Things could help simplify campus and facilities management.

“The quality of real-time information that becomes available will take the guesswork out of much of capacity planning and decision-making,” J.P. Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, predicts in a Pew survey. The net effect will be to reduce waste and improve efficiency in the movement of people and goods. However, the technology also creates new challenges for campus leaders. “Our notions of privacy and sharing will continue to evolve as a result,” Pew notes, “with new tradeoffs needing to be understood and dealt with.”

Privacy and security

Community college leaders will have to consider the privacy implications of all of this data sharing.

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College President Carol Spalding says teaching technology makes students more competitive in the workforce. (Photo: Tim Coffey)

For instance: Who “owns” the data generated by networked sensors? How will this information be stored so that it remains secure? What are the expectations for privacy among students, staff, patients, and others whose movements or performance may be tracked and monitored? Will campus leaders have to draft new policies to fill gaps where laws such as FERPA and HIPAA now fall short?

Adding more networked devices also gives hackers more opportunities to infiltrate campus networks.

Recently, so-called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks have begun targeting the Internet of Things. These attacks involve using a network of computers to overwhelm a website or server with so many messages that it can’t handle the load and is incapacitated.

In the past, DDoS attacks were accomplished by hijacking computers with malicious software and turning them into a robot network, or botnet, to send the messages. Now, there is software available on the Deep Web that compromises Internet-connected devices that people typically don’t think of as computers, such as networked security cameras, and uses them as botnets instead.

“There are a large number of people in the world whose main goal is to upset everybody else,” says Roy Bartels, chief technology and information security officer for Western Texas College, who has presented with Slimp about the Internet of Things and its implications for colleges. “Securing the growing number of networked devices on campus is going to be a constant challenge.”

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About the Author

Dennis Pierce
is an education writer based in Boston.