Oct 15 2012

Bringing College Communities Together Through UC

Colleges deploy unified communications technologies to save money and increase collaboration.

Many colleges are deploying unified communications to encourage more collaborative learning and respond to today’s mobile lifestyle.

One good example is Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, which moved in this direction a few years ago by providing every student with a smartphone. According to Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Arthur Brant, a university-developed, web-based mobile app replaces stand-alone clickers in the classroom and lets students respond to polls so professors can benchmark how well students understand the material.

Students also can see all their course information on the smartphone, along with dates for tests and when papers are due. Professors, meanwhile, can take attendance with a mobile app on their smartphone. Once the professor marks a student absent, the app automatically sends an e-mail to the student, who can then respond to the professor with an explanation of why he or she missed class, as well as ask what was covered and where to get the notes.

“What we found was that the attendance app alone spawned a new interaction between faculty and students,” Brant explains. “There’s now communication between professors and students following a missed class that wasn’t there in the past.”

Access to unified communications also changed the way professors can organize their office hours. In the past, faculty members maintained set office hours in a fixed location. But with today’s tools, professors can set up more flexible office hours using Adobe Connect or Google Apps for Higher Education. They can run video chats with students or groups of students, use interactive whiteboards to enhance their points and post additional resources to an online portal they can set up for the class.

“Everything we’re doing is appealing to the Internet-connected generation,” Brant says. “They’re used to having the information at their fingertips. Today, they don’t have to go to a lab or even a notebook to get the information. It doesn’t matter where they are — it’s right on their smartphones.” 

Brent Kelly, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, confirms that mobility is important to many students.

On some campuses, professors have office hours that use a combination of presence and instant messaging, which very often can develop into a web conference. These tools, he explains, “let instructors and students connect even though the student may not physically be on campus.”

Collaboration Is Key

Using collaboration tools to connect professors and students is equally important at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Mark Six, the interim CIO, says the university just transitioned to Google Apps for Higher Education at the beginning of the fall semester. One goal was to save money on e-mail licenses, but a more important reason was to encourage increased collaboration between faculty and students.

“Now, professors and students can share documents with a group, run private chat sessions and even share their storage with people in the groups,” Six explains. “We went live over Labor Day weekend, and it’s been very well received.”

The year Abilene Christian University distributed smartphones to all its students

WVU also operates eCampus, a web-based platform for running an electronic classroom. Six says eCampus can be used for an online course, but many professors use it to supplement the traditional classroom. Students can turn in their homework, keep track of grades and communicate with other classmates online. Professors can use the online tool to upload a syllabus or run online discussion chats throughout the semester.

The university relies on Microsoft SharePoint 2010 as well to share documents for projects, track research grants and conduct job searches. “It’s especially helpful for job searches,” Six says. “Everyone can have access to the latest documents and résumés, and with the Enterprise edition, we can now route documents to the right people, and it will send e-mail alerts with active links.”

Developing a UC Plan for Education and Training

There are so many unified communications technologies to consider today that knowing how or where to get started can be daunting. Brent Kelly, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, suggests the following:

Tip 1: Profile your users and develop use cases. Be judicious in how you distribute the applications. Not everyone needs every communications capability. The organization will save on licensing and operations costs if people get what they need. Ask your providers about bundled solutions for the organization’s different use cases.

Tip 2: Begin with the end in mind. Don’t roll out UC because it’s “cool” or the organization gets it “free” with an enterprise software subscription. Be purposeful in how you use it. Consider how such capabilities might be used to educate students or train staff. Look at what other educational institutions are doing and how they roll out UC capabilities to help people become more engaged learners.

Tip 3: Anticipate that some training will be necessary. Even if the manufacturer or service provider insists the system is intuitive, build in some time to train staff and other users.

Tip 4: Explore how new social networking tools can enhance collaboration. Consider how emerging enterprise social networking solutions, such as IBM Connections, can help your organization. Study the types of information that other organizations are posting on their walls and in other social media applications and determine how such tools can be deployed securely within your organization.

Tip 5: Get stakeholder buy-in. It doesn’t make sense to force technologies and tools on your users. Solicit stakeholder input, and then help people understand the immediate and long-term benefits of the new UC and collaboration tools. For example, explain how video chat will make one-to-one or one-to-many collaboration easier or why using the video capabilities in WebEx from Cisco Systems or Microsoft Lync can make training more efficient.

Tip 6: Decide whether cloud-based UC services are applicable. Does the organization need to have an on-premises solution, or can it be hosted in the cloud? Compelling cloud-based and hybrid UC solutions are available, so do the research to determine what would work best for your organization.