North Carolina Central University (NCCU) is consistently ranked as a top historically Black college or university (HBCU) and Best Regional University in the South by U.S. News & World Report (it ranked 5th among public HBCUs in 2022). Located in Durham, the university offers flagship programs in the sciences, education, law, business, nursing, and the arts, and is committed to diversity in, and access to higher education. In fall of 2021, the school had 7,953 students, with a 16-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, and an average class size of 22.
In 2015, NCCU leaders led by Chief Information Officer (CIO) Leah Kraus decided it was time for a major network overhaul. They wanted to adapt the previous on-site learning model to meet the needs of future students. That meant connecting the campus, including updating lecture halls and classrooms to make them ready for hybrid learning. It also meant ensuring that all students were connected, including those requiring accessibility features. At the same time, security had to be paramount to safeguard student data and experiences. And faculty needed to be supported so they could connect simply and securely and carry out their roles as educators.
Today, educators are reinventing education models in real time. This is true across a range of higher education institutions, from community colleges to research universities to institutions providing secure hybrid learning and services. Since 2020, the rise of distance and hybrid learning has made staff and students more reliant than ever on their institution’s systems. They are adjusting to a mix of new technology needs back in classrooms. Security and privacy are top priorities. At the same time, staff and students need solutions that are simple to use, work together seamlessly, and are backed by world-class support.
One approach that’s on the rise is known as HyFlex. Distinct from online and hybrid, HyFlex models allow students to shift between in-person and remote learning on a course-by-course basis, depending on their learning needs and other life factors. For example, students could choose to do math courses asynchronously, but come to school to participate in science labs and extracurricular activities. Schools and districts could also allow older students to decide whether to attend classes on different days depending on family and work needs instead of set school schedules. A key goal of HyFlex is to make the online and in-person experiences equal for students. While it may seem like a simple concept, HyFlex can be very complex to implement successfully.
In partnership with Cisco, NCCU successfully carried out a huge network upgrade, connecting its campus, allowing students to connect anywhere, integrating its classrooms, and implementing security. This was done through an investment in collaboration technologies and a wireless upgrade. On the security front, Cisco Duo was deployed for multi-factor authentication—a critical defense against common cybercrimes such as phishing—along with Cisco Umbrella for DNS security, which helps combat the more than 90% of malicious activity that involves domains. NCCU’s solution also included Cisco Unified Communications (UC), allowing seamless collaboration in real time, and Cisco Contact Center, along with a partnership with a Learning Management System (LMS) vendor.
Cisco also helped develop a new cybersecurity certificate program for NCCU School of Business. In 2020, Cisco provided $230,000 in support of scholarships and developed a Cybersecurity Lab at NCCU School of Business that opened in October of that year. The lab was designed to give students hands-on training in cybersecurity in direct response to the global need for increased cyber protection. One of the first of its kind within the University of North Carolina System, the lab complements a new program for students interested in pursuing a degree in IT with a concentration in cybersecurity.
These actions build on a partnership between Cisco and NCCU that goes back more than a decade. Cisco has partnered with NCCU through the Cisco Networking Academy, a global IT and cybersecurity education program, and has helped establish a Cisco networking lab. Among Cisco’s investments in the local community, Durham County upgraded its data center network with Cisco ACI to speed new services and applications for county residents, businesses, and employees. And Cisco’s Higher Education Advisory Council—a roundtable of CxOs from about 38 U.S. universities—engages with higher ed leaders to address key challenges they face and how Cisco can help them solve them.
Wins for Educators and Students
The timing of NCCU’s network upgrade could not have been more inspired. Completed two years before the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, it made it easier to support remote learning and to support more augmented technology in class for hybrid learning when the pandemic hit.
It also positioned NCCU for the massive uptake into HyFlex models that came with the growth of the pandemic. Before the pandemic, implementing Hyflex with students was high touch, requiring the school to bring in national researchers and speakers. Subsequently, however, Hyflex gave NCCU faculty flexibility in how they taught, independent of where students were located. The network upgrade also enabled faculty to take advantage of the growing interest in flipped learning, whereby teachers prioritize active learning during class time by assigning students lecture materials and presentations to be viewed at home or outside of class.
Bringing New Faces to the Table
NCCU is one of several HBCUs that Cisco’s Security and Trust organization targets to create and foster a pipeline of students to professional hires. In addition, efforts are in the works to secure additional funding through NSF grants, which could help pay for new equipment to take advantage of optical networking technology at the switch level. With the wind of Cisco’s influence at its back, NCCU is now reaching toward becoming a Carnegie R2 (high research activity) institution and a leader among its peer universities.