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Tertiary institutions mustn’t forget about availability

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As tertiary institutions prepare for the commencement of the new academic year, attention shifts to an increasingly digital-savvy student base with changing expectations of how technology is used for learning.
This is resulting in the data availability and recovery capabilities of campuses across South Africa being placed under the microscope, writes Claude Schuck, regional manager for Africa at Veeam.
With tablets, smartphones, and notebooks becoming indispensable teaching aids in the modern campus, tertiary institutions must evaluate what is being done to safeguard student data, and ensure that recovery times in the event of a disaster are minimal, leading to a reduced impact on the learning environment.
Looking beyond using technology as teaching aids, there is also a very practical benefit. Students are increasingly relying on online access for their coursework, lecture notes and assignments, and it is therefore imperative for universities to provide some form of online access to this information.
In essence, academic institutions are large organisations often spread across wide geographic areas and are required to meet connectivity needs of staff, students, and other stakeholders.
Similarly, a campus network hosts vital information such as financial (bursaries, student loans), academic (exams, results), and research (student and lecturer-based) among others. Losing any of this mission-critical data could have significant repercussions on the reputation and financial viability of any tertiary institution.
This is therefore an ideal time for the education sector to rethink its views on infrastructure, availability, and data recovery, and do so in such a way to promote a more enriched learning environment.
Not being able to access lecture notes, assignments, or other essential information because of a network error or slow recovery process could hamper the effectiveness of students and lecturers.
According to the 2016 Veeam Availability Report, surveying more than 1 000 IT decision-makers worldwide, 36% of respondents from the private and higher education sector are currently investing in private cloud (including automation, self-service and billing), while 23% are investing in public cloud infrastructure.
Even South African primary and high schools are embracing this new way of leveraging technology for a more enhanced education environment. Just look at how tablets are being used with textbooks and homework as well as class notes being stored digitally on school servers. This means an educational institution’s IT decision-makers need to refine their thinking on how best to support this growing reliance on digital technology, and make sure they have at least a foundational strategy for data recovery and availability.
This rise in blended learning, and the establishment of connected learning programmes for distance education students, are seeing competition in the sector increase.
With differentiation between establishments currently built around which campus is the most innovative in its use of technology, but with a limited set of finances with which to drive changes always a barrier.
For example, student fee increases are always a sensitive topic and tertiary institutions continuously need to justify any such additional expenditures.
Students now expect universities to provide online access to all important documents and research.
This is especially the case for those who are studying via distance learning and students who cannot afford to commute to the campus library daily to get research material.
This means availability, as with any business, must be 24.7.365. Similarly, on-campus students also expect there to be a quality Wi-Fi network in place that provides coverage and access to all relevant information, wherever they might be.
Tertiary education plays an important role to shape our country and continent in terms of growth, development and opportunity. Research about the impact of digital technologies in education consistently show positive benefits.
Therefore, investments in digitisation are exactly that, an investment. All told, business recovery and availability at an educational institution is a must have, and as a result should follow similar processes to that of a business.
However, data is no longer just the currency of modern business, it is at the heart of the next generation too. Planning, testing, refining, and implementing need to be the order of the day, for data has become too critical to the success of education to do it any other way.