Tech permeates campus life, yet tradition lives on

November 9, 2023

On the heels of Aptitude’s recent higher education projects and with more campus projects ramping up, technology’s impact on college life is top of mind. Some college traditions have stood the test of time; decades-old game day chants and Saturday night socials haven’t changed much. Yet one stark difference is clear: technology permeates most every aspect of student life. According to a recent report published by Gartner, Inc., worldwide IT spending is projected to total $5.1 trillion in 2024, an increase of 8 percent from 2023. It’s safe to assume that colleges and universities are no exception to this trend. Here is a roundup of a few diverse perspectives about how colleges and universities are adjusting for and leveraging technology on their campuses.

Dartmouth College – Douglas Plumley:

Dartmouth College is a private Ivy League research university in Hanover, New Hampshire, with an undergraduate enrollment a little more than 4,000 students. One of the oldest universities in the country, founded in 1769, its website touts that it’s a ‘vibrant, inclusive learning environment where students and faculty respond with research and innovation to the most pressing challenges of our time.’ Douglas Plumley is a software architect at Dartmouth and is also a co-leader for the college’s Smart Campus Master Plan.  During his 13-year tenure there, he has witnessed a growing emphasis on investing in and embracing technology. One recent example of this is the introduction of Wi-Fi in an outdoor space.

“We installed Wi-Fi outside on the green; it’s literally an outdoor space in front of the library where people can get some sun and hang out,” said Plumley.

What was once a clear delineation between the role of information technology versus management of campus buildings has become more fluid at Dartmouth. This organizational change seems fitting given the increasing complexity of built environments and the explosion of data and devices on campus.

“The scope of what IT does is now kind of a crossover between IT and OT (operational technology). Historically IT didn’t delve into the details of building technologies,” said Plumley. “The CIO of Dartmouth, Mitch Davis, has made a conscious decision to invest in campus technologies, and that investment has paid dividends.”

Much of what Dartmouth’s IT and campus services staff are working on is geared toward supporting long-term energy management goals. For example, there is currently a campus-wide effort to migrate from steam to hot water for heating; a project the college anticipates will improve efficiency by 20 percent. This undertaking requires building-by-building redesign and major changes to HVAC systems.

There is a continued emphasis on leveraging technology to create efficiencies and collect data that informs decision making. Plumley said that he is excited about the possibilities on the horizon.

“If you think of an interesting piece of software, it’s versioned. There are new features coming out all the time. I would love it if that’s how we’re treating buildings and the controls,” said Plumley. “If we start to describe what their capabilities are and we start to say, alright tomorrow we’re going to release this new version of the sequence for this building and it’s going to do these things and we have a good way of communicating that to the occupants of the building. And they have a good way of giving us feedback, but we’re able to rapidly make changes.”

Balfour Beatty Campus Solutions – Jeffrey Tate and Dave Vogt:

Balfour Beatty’s Campus Solutions develops and manages student housing properties at universities across the country. Not simply dormitories, most of the student housing projects Balfour Beatty builds could be considered ‘mixed-use’ as they often feature fitness rooms, retail spaces, and other amenities in addition to resident units. Two of the company’s leaders, Vice President Jeffrey Tate and Project Executive Dave Vogt, have both been in the industry for several years and have seen higher education projects evolve during that time.

“Internet access continues to be one of the biggest pieces that nobody can keep up with,” said Tate. “By the time you spec, purchase and get equipment installed on a project, it’s already outdated so how campuses and people like us keep up with that continues to be a challenge.”

According to Tate, security is another trending priority. Many schools are using technology to create a safer environment, such as transitioning from card access to digital credentials on a phone for access to spaces within the building. These digital credentials are authenticated through a phone password or face ID, which adds to the level of security versus a hard credential that does not have the authentication step. More sophisticated security cameras that can identify and map subjects within footage is also an example of how technology is improving security systems.

“It’s drastically reducing the response time in an active shooter situation or some kind of emergency on campus,” said Tate. “It gives more tools for first responders on the campus to respond in a more meaningful way.”

Vogt pointed to some of the tools and conveniences that have become commonplace in recent years, as well as the volume of devices that require more bandwidth than ever before.

“In all of our projects now we have to consider smart package delivery systems and food delivery, places to drop the food,” said Vogt.

“And the quantity of devices one person has in a building is insane,” said Tate. “I think about how just for me I have my laptop, iPad, and two phones. Every single person is coming in with that and more, especially students who might have X-boxes or more too, so we have to think about capacity for all these things and how they can talk to each other. But I do think students want one source of dealing with things. They don’t want to have to open 14 different apps and go to six different websites to manage daily life.”

Tate said that one way Balfour Beatty’s property management side has tried to streamline is by offering software with versatile functionality; everything from putting in a work order to controlling the lights from one site. As well as functionality, students today are equally cognizant of sustainability and value. With the cost of IT equipment continuing to trend upward, companies such as Balfour Beatty look to carefully weigh cost-benefit and efficiency in student housing projects.

“If you recall 10 years ago at the peak of off-campus housing construction there was a move toward insane amenities, like lazy river pools, that was over-the-top spending to try to get students to move to their properties,” said Tate. “I think we’re starting to see what I’ll call a correction where students are a little more focused on the true cost for them to attend.” We’re starting to see a shift more focused on academic success versus amenities that show well on a tour or are exciting but don’t add much value personal success-wise.”

In addition to the shift away from flashy amenities toward those that truly support academics and overall well-being, both Tate and Vogt mentioned that one of the biggest changes in the projects they work on is that now buildings are designed to support entirely wireless technology.

“We’re in a period of changing philosophies where no one is bringing copper to their building and it’s all going to fall to the Wi-Fi backbone,” said Tate. “We haven’t provided cable in our last five or six projects. I remember the first one we did I thought it was a bad idea, but fast forward there were no complaints from students; they can stream wherever they want. We have had to work with some of the retail tenants to adjust to this though.”

Vogt added that the original plans for amenities or the latest state-of-the-art feature can often be “value engineered out” (trimmed from the budget) when it’s time to take a close look at the bottom line.

“At some point though, I think a lot of this technology is going to toggle from being nice-to-have to being must-haves,” said Vogt. “That’s just the world we live in today.”

Aptitude – Derek Seitz:

Derek Seitz is Aptitude’s Midwest Region Operations Director. Not only does Seitz spend his days overseeing sophisticated technology integration projects at a variety of commercial building projects, he is also a father of current and recent college-aged kids.

“My youngest child is visiting colleges to start in the fall of 2024, and the availability of Wi-Fi was a data point on a good or bad visit. The expectation of good connectivity is higher than ever and could be a tie-breaking amenity when choosing a school,” he said. “We see this at play in some of our private student housing projects that are investing in high availability and bandwidth wireless as a differentiator for occupants. In conjunction with this wireless network, we are seeing technology maker lab rooms, podcast studios, and common area audio visual environments that allow streaming of music and shows from mobile devices. Gone is the day of dictating what content is available to use, but allowing the audience to curate what is playing.”

Final thoughts:

To echo Dave Vogt’s belief that today’s ‘nice-to-haves’ will become tomorrow’s ‘must-haves,’ it’s not unlikely that in another 10 years college students might instantaneously upload their term paper and pay for a pizza delivery using the same app. Or maybe we’ll see a move toward biometric scans for access control? Whatever the latest tool, more bandwidth to support the rise in technology use will continue to be key.