DeVry created a VoIP lab so that students could learn by using the tools they were studying, says Dr. Ted Mikell, director of the university’s network and communications management program.

Feb 18 2008

Virtual Classroom

DeVry students attend hands-on Voice over IP lab from anywhere, applying the technology as they learn to manage it.

DeVry students attend hands-on Voice over IP lab from anywhere, applying the technology as they learn to manage it.

Get in there and play with the technology: That’s the hands-on learning approach that DeVry University likes to create for its students.

It’s a style that makes sense in an age of fast-paced technology use and development and one in which students now expect access and learning to happen at any time and from any location, says Dr. Ted Mikell, director of the network and communications management program for the university, which has its parent company headquarters just outside Chicago. To that end, Mikell, who works in Texas, and a team from the university created a Voice over IP curriculum and platform that gives students access to a hands-on VoIP lab from virtually anywhere through a broadband connection.

Claire Schooley, an analyst who covers distance-learning technologies for Forrester Research, agrees. “In the Internet era, students are less and less interested in lectures, and are demanding an interactive experience in a real-world environment,” Schooley says. “To them, lectures can be recorded and accessed asynchronously as a reference. This virtual VoIP lab is an example of how the distance-learning environment is getting richer and richer as technology evolves. It’s not PowerPoint-based e-learning, which can be kind of flat.”

There’s nothing theoretical about the DeVry VoIP curriculum. Centralized Citrix servers deliver the course software to widely distributed students. Students experience the same lab environment whether they are at one of the DeVry campuses or online. Operating the lab is quite simple; no special equipment is required in the classrooms or at remote student locations.

“We can now offer a networking degree online,” Mikell says. “We could never do that before because there was no way students could attend the lab online.”

“Before” was about two years ago, when DeVry — which has grown in part by acquisition — had a mix of traditional voice equipment at its many campuses. The gradual migration to IP telephony then sparked the development of new courseware that would help meet the growing demand for online attendance and network professionals skilled in VoIP management and administration.

“For the VoIP course, the challenge was to create a consistent lab environment across brick-and-mortar classrooms and online access, and to do so cost effectively,” says Guy Clinch, Avaya’s education solutions director.

Check, Please

DeVry put together a lab committee consisting of Mikell and several network experts. They rounded up major telephony vendors, rigorously testing gear in a lab environment using a requirements checklist:

  • real-world applicability;
  • cost-effectiveness;
  • hardware and bandwidth efficiency;
  • support for simultaneous multiuser access by remote students and classes;
  • availability of vendor support and training;
  • amount of custom development required;
  • ease of use;
  • reasonable learning curve for professors and students.

“Of every five pieces of software we tested, four would fail to meet our requirements,” Mikell recalls. “And the pilots also gave us an opportunity to evaluate the quality of support.”

At the end of the exhaustive trials, Avaya’s IP Office software was the only candidate still standing.

“VoIP was one of the more difficult labs to implement, and we soon found that most of the IP telephony platforms came up short on some of our criteria,” Mikell says. They required special hardware at each campus location, which would shortchange students attending the lab online. Ultimately, Mikell’s team was able to use IP Office software extensions to develop the VoIP learning-lab courseware.

Citrix has long been used by businesses to deliver applications to remote users cost effectively. All Windows applications and other software processes run on the centralized Citrix servers that sit in a hardened data center in Dallas. Each remote user has a separate virtual workspace in the Citrix server, and the remote PCs simply function as displays. The client is a standard Web browser (primarily Internet Explorer at DeVry) that looks like a Windows desktop.

The client hardware and software does not have to be standardized, maintained and updated, assignments submitted by students are always in the appropriate format, and troubleshooting can be handled by shadowing the student’s virtual workspace in the central server facility.

During the evaluation phase no one knew for sure that Avaya’s IP Office software was Citrix-compatible. Mikell’s team had to verify that, and make sure the combination could support enough multiple users simultaneously. There are now 100 to 200 students taking the course at any given time, about half of them online, and a farm of six Citrix servers has had no trouble handling the load.

DeVry can now offer the course in a classroom at any DeVry campus that suddenly has a local demand for it. “It’s what we call radical simplicity,” says Ira Kucheck, the Avaya territory sales manager who configured the Avaya software for DeVry.

Lab Satisfies Students

The institution began offering the VoIP lab based on IP Office in early 2006, and the feedback from students was “positive from the outset,” Mikell reports. Students simply log in to the IP Office lab environment and launch the Citrix presentation application.

IP Office provides a versatile training environment; it can function as a traditional public branch exchange, a hybrid Time Division Multiplexing/VoIP system, or a pure IP-based telephony platform. IP Office offers enterprise-level functionality but can scale down to provide a cost-effective environment even for small sites and organizations.

Features and applications include integrated voice and data messaging, three levels of call management, a conference bridge, call-center capabilities, support for IP handsets and softphones and traditional phones, computer-telephony integration applications for outbound dialing and inbound screen-pops, and the ability to link multiple sites through an existing data network.

Students learn both why particular VoIP functions are important and how to implement them. They are given scenarios for various office phone systems, and learn to set them up step by step. When assignments are completed, they can print out the remote screens and submit them to the professor.

The courseware had to be simple and user-friendly. “That was the big challenge — the students had to be able to learn enough from the software to meet course objectives,” says Mikell.

The cost of the solution is minimal. DeVry pays a nominal fee for the CDs with IP Office, and the vendor gets exposure for its product while building a base of network professionals skilled in managing and maintaining it.

The Lab Lowdown

  • Avaya IP Office, an integrated, business-quality voice platform including an IP PBX, three tiers of voice management, voice and data messaging, call center capabilities and a conference bridge
  • A centralized Citrix server farm running the DeVry-developed virtual lab and providing virtual Windows machines for classroom-based and remote students
  • PC clients running standard Web browsers, with a high-speed connection to the Citrix servers
  • The eCollege distance-learning environment

DeVry at a Glance

Location: Headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.

Founded: 1931, when Dr. Herman DeVry established DeForest Training School in Chicago to prepare students for technical work in electronics, motion pictures and radio

Enrollment: 57,000 students at 89 locations in 26 states and Canada, and through DeVry University Online

Specialties: Associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in information technology, health-care technology, business and management