As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep through New Jersey in March, colleges and universities here faced the herculean task of rapidly pivoting toward both remote learning and remote institutional administration; the entity NJEdge, Inc. (aka “Edge”) has been helping facilitate this in matters ranging from ongoing cybersecurity expertise and computer networking, to online teaching tutorials, for example.
As the nearly two-decades’-old brainchild of the New Jersey Presidents’ Council, Edge has a longstanding array of products including an evolving optical technical network serving higher education, K-12, healthcare and – more recently – local governments. Now in its fifth generation, the network is today comprised of a world-class Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) circuit using optical fiber infrastructure at 400 gigabyte rates. Higher education institutions have leveraged this network for administrative computing and, additionally, for transmitting/sharing enormous volumes of research data, for example.
The fact that Edge’s products/services are robust and flexible is arguably fitting within the fluid context of the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Edge recently increased its digital asset management capacity as higher education institutions moved instruction online, with the latter groups requiring storage for recorded video lectures.
Edge additionally made a new learning management system available, and, separately, has been leveraging its videoconferencing expertise and technologies, including selling large numbers of Zoom licenses at discounted prices.
Of the coronavirus’ impact overall, NJEdge’s President and CEO Samuel Conn, Ph.D., says, “It is a two-sided equation of having to learn how to teach and support students online. That has been a pretty heavy lift: Just as importantly, [people have had to learn how to] remotely provide student services; that’s where I think we have been challenged as a state.”
And while the entity’s name remains “NJEdge, Inc.” (NJEdge.net) its marketing materials and website often use the term “Edge” – a shift Conn says unifies NJEdge’s identity, since its sub-branding includes, for example: its technical network, EdgeNet; its professional services offerings, EdgePro; EdgeMarket e-procurement; EdgeSecure cybersecurity offerings; and EdgeCloud cloud services.
Meanwhile, EdgeXchange is a digital community platform that Conn explains “is a way [for people] to stay connected and do threaded discussions, have document sharing, and actually create levels of engagement, remotely, [for students’] classes and other, interested parties.”
Edge also has been offering overall remote “help desk” technical support, with Conn adding, “Of course, as everybody moved remote and got off campus outside of their secure networks [during the pandemic], [cybersecurity also] became a big issue.”
The coronavirus has impacted colleges and universities in different ways: Sharon Blanton, vice president of information technology and campus safety at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) and an Edge board member, says that while her institution has had to make changes to its Virtual Private Network (VPN) to accommodate increased connections, it did not need to make additional changes to its overall network bandwidth.
She explains, “The interesting thing is that [the coronavirus pandemic] really has zero impact on our network, because nobody is [on campus]. Everybody is off campus, and pretty much all the tools we use are in the cloud.”
Blanton showcases how Edge offers a “platform and community” for chief information officers not only in New Jersey, but that it is also reaching across the northeast and into the mid-Atlantic region.
She adds, “The folks at Edge are partners, and really kind of an extension of our college IT teams. When we have any kind of issue at all, we can turn to this community of practice. But, we can also turn to the experts at Edge, and they help us either solve problems or find the right people to help us solve the problems.”
Blanton says that pre-pandemic, TCNJ worked to fine-tune its network via Edge, as well as obtain advice regarding what routers and switches, for example, should be operating on the college’s network.
During the pandemic, Blanton now speaks about the college’s older telephone system, which forces staff to use their cell or home phones to dial into TCNJ’s system to retrieve voicemail messages.
“We are deep in discussions with [Edge] about how to help facilitate moving us to cloud telephony products and solutions very, very quickly,” Blanton says.
Candice C. Fleming, CIO and vice president-information technology at Montclair State University, describes recently moving 3,700 traditional and hybrid classes fully online within two weeks as the coronavirus pandemic took hold; she also details moving to an enterprise Zoom license and educating all faculty, staff and students on how to use it. Yet another recent task consisted of making all of the university’s call centers and administrative functions remote.
Beyond the pandemic, Fleming details at least seven benefits Edge offers, ranging, for example, from its network connections and consortium pricing for tools/services, to email phishing educational tools and Edge’s investment in detecting and mitigating denial-of-service attacks, which had once been a top-of-mind concern for higher education institutions and the business community alike.
While this article has focused on higher education, Edge’s Conn details the needs of the various groups Edge serves, again, ranging from municipalities’ desires for online meetings and healthcare institutions’ telemedicine requirements, to focuses surrounding the “lifecycle of the student” within the ecosystems of higher education and K-12, for example.
“It is something that will take a while, but the demand is there: People want to live their lives from a mobile device,” Conn concludes. “Somehow, all these foundations of our society – healthcare, education, government – all have to come in concert with that.”
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