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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many universities have been forced to switch their entire educational models online on short notice. Aside from these logistical challenges, higher learning institutions are also facing economic uncertainty due to the pandemic. Many students are considering a gap year when forced to choose between online higher education or traditional in-person college courses during the pandemic. One think tank analyst estimates residential colleges could see a nearly 20% drop in revenue this fall if these institutions do not offer traditional on-campus classes.

To help safely bring students back to the classroom amid a modern plague, universities around the globe are using a host of technologies and lots of data. We recently spoke with the University of Louisville’s executive director of IT operations, Katherine Talia Stevenson, to learn more about the school’s tech-savvy plans for the fall.

Pandemic tech and data privacy

In recent weeks, organizations across industries have incorporated state-of-the-art technologies to combat the spread of the coronavirus. This includes leveraging a full suite of solutions ranging from facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence to thermal imaging software.

These systems can monitor crowds to ensure mask compliance and social distancing protocols are being followed. However, these platforms also come with a slew of privacy concerns. At the moment, there’s certainly no shortage of suitors willing to entice universities with these offerings.

“I’m finding lots and lots of solutions that would make absolutely perfect sense if I were a private sector employer, but become a little more problematic when I am a public sector institution of higher ed with a strong position on privacy and individual rights,” said Stevenson. “So one of the most challenging things is, in my opinion, is asking someone to give me the ability to track them in real time to a really fine level of detail throughout the day, because that’s a lot of data. There are lots of ways that could conceivably be misused.”

Third-party development and privacy concerns

Earlier this month, the University of Alabama announced that it had developed an app in partnership with the state health officials. Students across its three college campuses have been encouraged to use the app this fall, according to local reports. Depending on development, these apps often bring third-parties into the fold, placing university partners and students in a precarious privacy situation.

“It’s very, very easy in putting together one of these tracking apps to accidentally share very sensitive end user data like their location throughout the day with third parties that you might not have intended to share their data with or even realized you were doing it,” Stevenson said.

“So we’ve been very cautious about hanging our virtual hats on any application which relied too strongly on being able to say that Katherine Stevenson was on the first floor of Grawemeyer Hall at 10 AM on Tuesday, then she went upstairs to Room 201, and that sort of thing, the privacy implications of holding on to all of that data where it’s a little more than we wanted to bite off on,” Stevenson continued.

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

Coronavirus apps and compliance

The utility of a coronavirus app is wholly hinged on user data and compliance. The output information is only as good as the data these systems are capable of leveraging and not everyone is on board with serving up their private information on a silver platter. In fact, according to a recent survey, more than 70% of respondents said they would not download a contact tracing app with privacy being the predominant concern.

“Given the public opinion seems to be very mistrustful of these sort of location tracking apps, at least in the hands of an entity like ours, we’re not convinced that that’s a good investment for us to make in light of the limited funds we have available to pursue this,” Stevenson said.

Even if the university developed an app, the institution does not believe it would have a high rate of compliance based on public polling and university internal polling, according to Stevenson. Instead, the university is taking an innovative approach to on-campus public safety this fall. Rather than inventing a new application from the ground-up, the university is utilizing the full potential of its existing technical systems without compromising users’ privacy.

“Our campus wireless network already has a great deal of data on all the devices that are communicating with it. I don’t know who those devices belong to, but I know roughly how many are in a given volume of space for how long. And I can track a given hardware ID as it travels around campus, I just don’t know who that hardware ID belongs to,” Stevenson said.

Next, the university is considering adding machine learning to refine the model and further maximize this data. These adjustments will clarify some of the noise in the data and paint a clearer picture of real-time events.

“When I’m walking around campus, I probably have at least three different device IDs on me, sometimes more. So we’re having to do a little bit of normalizing to account for the fact that, OK, there’s three devices that are sitting within the same cubic meter of space. That’s likely only one person. That’s part of what we’re doing with the algorithm training right now, is trying to get a better understanding of how to collapse that into a more realistic figure,” Stevenson said.

This could help identify high-density hot spots or congregation points across campus. If an area amasses large numbers of students at given times of the day, staff members can restructure the layout of the room to affect social distancing parameters. This data could provide insights into more efficient cleaning schedules for frequently used areas.

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

A cautious approach with flexibility at its core

In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus has completely reshaped the way we work, learn, interact and more. While lockdown-in-place measures have slowly lifted and companies have reopened for business in a surreal new normal, there’s no telling what the next few months will bring. If coronavirus cases surge in the fall, everything could change at a moment’s notice. The university is using the lessons learned in the spring with an eye toward an unknowable future.

“I know our teaching and learning people have been furiously working with faculty to help them design a hybrid learning curriculum in order to be able to pivot a lot more seamlessly as situations change,” Stevenson said. “We know our students want to be on campus and want to interact with their faculty, and we want to make certain that should that no longer be possible at some point in the fall, we have a lot more well-planned and thought out transition to more online learning than we were able to do in the spring during the emergency.”