Universities are using clever tech solutions to prep for the fall

universities-are-using-clever-tech-solutions-to-prep-for-the-fall

Tech companies partner with administrators to offer solutions from apps with geofencing to unique scheduling software to prime classrooms for the fall amid the pandemic.

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IMAGE: iStock/Mark_Breck

Due to the coronavirus, educational institutions have been forced to reinvent their entire operational models. In a matter of days and weeks, many institutions had to transition their entire classrooms online. Needless to say, this sudden adjustment hasn’t been exactly seamless for students or faculty members.

Currently, many graduating seniors with college ambitions are left with difficult decisions surrounding their academic futures. The thought of paying premium tuition costs for online higher learning or attending on-campus courses amid a modern plague has many students considering a gap year. In fact, about one-in-six students reported that their college plans had changed due to the pandemic, according to a recent ARTSCI poll.

For institutions, there are both public health concerns and monetary considerations at the forefront of the conversation. To help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in the classroom and on-campus, schools are unleashing a host of technologies. Below, we’ve taken a look at some of the cutting-edge approaches to public safety schools are implementing around the country.

Online learning has proved to be challenging

The ongoing e-learning experiment has had mixed results around the US. At the collegiate level, one student has taken legal action against Harvard University for “inequities posed by online learning” and plenty more. In Los Angeles, approximately 15,000 students were absent from online courses and had failed to complete any homework whatsoever, according to a report from the Los Angeles Times.

“The verdict is out and the judgment is that the online homeschooling didn’t work, so they have to do something to get their kids back and fast,” said Cognize CEO Lars Nordenlund.

Cognize specializes in leveraging a host of technologies, including artificial intelligence, IoT sensors, surveillance cameras, and thermal imaging software, and bringing this information into an interactive dashboard. A biometric scanner can determine if a person has an elevated temperature, a potential signifier of an infection. The facial recognition systems can monitor social distancing throughout a given environment and ensure masks are worn.

“If they have an already upgraded video surveillance infrastructure, we can snap into that and use some of the basic infrastructure, but we will add our own specialized sensors on top of that to complete IOT coverage,” said Nordenlund.

Some smaller companies have created entry parameters relying on person-by-person temperature checks performed by human gatekeepers. However, as the systems become more complex, the margin for error also increases.

As population density increases, using human beings to monitor manual temperature checks and enforce compliance becomes a logistical quagmire, if not outright Sisyphean. For this reasoning, Nordenlund believes these AI systems are necessary components of an effective virus mitigation strategy at scale as students return in the fall.

“The human mind and the human attention span is just not there. It’s not efficient enough. Studies have shown that after 20 minutes people start to flicker, do something else, they look at phones, and can overlook stuff. The attention span for people, the manual human mind just can’t keep up with the complexity of these situations,” Nordenlund said.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) 

Apps for contact tracing and symptom checks

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a number of universities roll out apps to help enhance public safety on campus. For example, the University of Alabama recently announced it had developed a coronavirus app in partnership with the state’s department of public health. Students on all three of its campuses had been encouraged to download the app which works as an all-in-one symptom tracker and contact tracing tool.

The University of Central Florida has added new features to its existing campus app to help with symptom screening on campus and assist contact tracers. UCF is currently evaluating other parameters to better leverage this app data. One such approach under consideration would look at the number of individuals logged on to UCF campus Wi-Fi at a given time. The university could then use this network information alongside the number of screenings submitted via the app to better understand usage and data quality.

UCF has also added geo-fencing capabilities to send out alerts to app users. If a student is en route to an area with typically heavy foot traffic, the individual could be prompted to wear a mask via notification.

Universities leveraging their existing systems

While these apps are popular solutions, they also come with major drawbacks and privacy concerns. Apps are reliant on user compliance and the quality of the data submitted. If a large portion of the student body doesn’t want to submit this personal health information or misuses the platform, the overall utility is significantly diminished. Many people are not onboard with submitting their personal privacy and location data.

Rather than urging students and staff to download an app they may not want or will not use appropriately, other universities are maximizing their existing networks to enhance public safety.

The University of Louisville, for example, is leveraging its existing technical infrastructure and making the most of it.

Throughout campus, there are numerous devices in constant communication with the university’s networks. Based on this, information the university can then more aptly estimate the number of devices and thus, people in a given area. As an added benefit, the information is also inherently anonymized as the university does not know who a given device belongs to.

Next, the university hopes to apply machine learning to the approach to pull some of the noise of the dataset. This information could then be used to schedule regular cleaning of high traffic areas or rearrange layouts in high-density areas to encourage social distancing.

SEE: UofL using IT know-how and lots of tech to prep campus for the fall amid pandemic (TechRepublic)

Digital scheduling systems

The pandemic is also highlighting the importance of smarter scheduling solutions. Throughout campus, many students and staff regularly need to reserve spaces in conference rooms, media labs, many systems rely on classic pencil and paper signups or perhaps clunky spreadsheets.

The scheduling software company, Robin, enables students and staff to digitally reserve a given space at a certain time and system administrators can adjust settings to limit the number of occupants allowed in a room. The paired app allows users to look at a digital twin of a given area and then select a space.

“You can basically see a map of the building you’re in, see what’s available, and grab a seat wherever you need to, and then cycle those spaces out to be cleaned afterward. So that way you can not only keep tabs of which spaces are used, but also which spaces need to be cleaned before they can be used again,” said Sam Dunn CEO of Robin.

It’s important to note that this system is not available for use in classrooms, as there is a risk for the technology to be used as an “attendance tool.” So far, Robin has rolled out its scheduling systems with partners at the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon, and Rutgers.

Creating healthier building environments

In May, Honeywell introduced a series of Healthy Building platforms to help organizations meet new social distancing guidelines and better understand their real-time operations via a digital dashboard. In one such package, staff members can oversee and manage their indoor air quality. This could involve controlling UV sterilization in HVAC filtration systems or adjusting the ventilation and pressurization of these systems for optimal airflow in indoor environments. 

Other packages allow companies to more aptly monitor and manage traffic flows inside of buildings, ensure social distancing protocols are being followed, and enable contact tracing if necessary. Overall, these solutions provide organizations with a Healthy Building score which helps organizations gauge areas where these systems could be improved to reduce exposure risks.

“First, we can come in and do an assessment to help you figure out what are the gaps between where you might want to be and where you are today. Second is we provide a package to upgrade existing infrastructure without requiring a rip and replace to add sensors, to add filters, to add UV, to add thermal screening, that basically upgrades the capability to be more ready for the scenarios of buildings opening,” said Himanshu Khurana, VP and CTO of Honeywell Building Solutions.

SEE: The new normal: What work will look like post-pandemic (TechRepublic Premium)

Following guidance and planning for the future

In recent weeks, lockdown measures have lifted and businesses have reopened for operations amid a strange new normal. There remains no vaccine or cocktail of treatments for the coronavirus. While many universities and schools are planning for in-class learning in the fall, nothing is certain at the moment. For the time being, preparation is imperative as we plan for an unknowable future.

“Whenever organizations incorporate technology early into that process and that thinking, we find that we can all work together and find a solution in a timely manner. If we think about technology as [an] add on or something later in the process, it tends to be a little bit slower to figure out how an element fits in,” said Khurana.

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