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The path to building a technology-forward smart campus requires a deliberate step-by-step approach, not a sprint — and the stakes for doing so have never been higher. The connected campus not only streamlines business models to improve efficiency, but it also provides the services and capabilities that Gen Z and millennial learners are looking for. It’s the foundation for the future of higher-ed.

By first assessing campus needs and taking into account digital readiness and maturity, universities can prioritize their goals and create strategies that make the smart campus a reality in discrete, doable steps.

Defining the smart campus

Smart campuses blend the physical and the digital environments in which students, staff and faculty interact by providing intelligent connected systems. The result is secure, interactive experiences that enhance constituents’ quality of life.

But the smart campus extends beyond the education experience and includes improving critical university operations as well. Attaining it involves combining digital and operations capabilities in an integrated, well-sequenced way. For example, Arizona State University, a longtime leader in adopting IoT initiatives, is now expanding its deployment with a smart fleet solution to reduce vehicle inventory and transition to an all-electric fleet. Other early smart campuses include Penn State, which is investing in natural language processing (NLP) to analyze transcripts of course sessions.

Identify potential impediments

Many campuses, however, are just beginning to explore smart-campus possibilities, and few have developed long-term strategies, including ways to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI).

Yet as universities re-open for the fall semester, several factors make a smart-campus assessment timely. One is that while two-thirds of colleges will resume face-to-face learning this fall, hybrid instruction is set to become an integral component of the overall student experience, and scaling it continues to represent a hurdle. A capability assessment can highlight roadblocks that limit the ability to scale, such as inconsistent connectivity or lack of digital options for flagship campus courses.

Another reason to explore smart-campus readiness is that enrolled and prospective students’ needs are now more diverse than ever, from the rising interest in alternatives to conventional degree programs, to the growth of professional and lifelong learning. A thorough campus evaluation is an essential step to meet these wide-ranging needs.

Higher-ed’s expanded mission

As the academic year kicks off, universities are more aware than ever that their mission — and mandate — is expanding from granting degrees to providing a host of new direct-to-student learning experiences.

Our recent research underscores the changes underway and reveals that higher-ed institutions are indeed prioritizing remote and hybrid learning. AI is a top investment area as universities seek insights into everything from student behavior to use of interactive whiteboards. Connected operational systems are also on the rise, improving the control and maintenance of lighting, HVAC systems and sprinkler systems.

Getting started: Assessing and measuring campus readiness

The following recommendations will help universities accurately calibrate and prioritize requirements as well as uncover strategic and functional gaps in any smart-campus journey.

1    Inventory digital capabilities

Capturing the current state of campus technology strengths and weaknesses can be an eye-opener that sets a foundation from which to build out needed capabilities. Apply a step-by-step approach to inventorying technology capability areas. For example, begin by inventorying the applicant lifecycle management process and then move gradually to other areas, such as student services, institutional development or enterprise management. The goal is to apply simple due diligence to assess each category’s overall readiness and ability to move forward. Take student matching, for example, which is a key capability within applicant lifecycle management. Is there a dedicated customer relationship management (CRM) platform and student information system (SIS)? What capabilities are and aren’t being used? Does the website feature a chatbot to answer questions or connect students to an advisor? This insight can uncover potential gaps, such as the lack of integration among CRM and SIS tools and human capital management (HCM) systems.

2    Use binary scoring for due diligence

To benchmark technology strengths and weaknesses, score capabilities with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. This baseline can then be used to highlight the status of technology areas considered most important to campus goals. For example, a university whose priorities include digitizing prospect management and admissions may want to assess current abilities to implement AI for prospecting and “nudge” technology for onboarding. If the goal is to strengthen adaptive and personalized learning, then the ability to deploy analytics will likely be a top priority. Once overall capabilities have been scored, consider adding more granular detail to the benchmark by assessing it against a predefined capability framework that assigns a tangible score based on configurable weights across all categories.

3    Prioritize projects and initiatives

This final step is so straightforward that it’s often overlooked in the rush to implement digital capabilities. Based on the results of the inventory and the strengths and weaknesses identified, create an implementation roadmap for the capabilities needed. Remember that smart campus initiatives should be evolutionary; don’t expect to undertake them all at once. Break projects and initiatives into manageable increments according to the overall strategy. For example, start by investing in SaaS-based CRM, SIS and HCM systems. If infrastructure cost reduction is the aim, then focus on use cases related to operations and facilities. Also, don’t fall prey to not-invented-here. Partnerships can accelerate the path to smart-campus goals. Consider retaining consulting and advisory firms to sharpen the long-term strategy, and professional service providers for project enablement and deployment.

By leveraging an assessment framework, universities can not only validate their smart campus strategy, but also identify their readiness and digital maturity and pinpoint areas of improvement for making the smart campus a long-term reality in the post-pandemic world.

This article was written by Ameet Sulibhavi Prahlad, Consulting Manager, and Sumit Prakash, Senior Consultant, both for Cognizant’s Communications, Media and Technology practice.

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