At Butler Community College, Christina Byram, Deputy CIO and Director of Unified Communications, and Bill Young, CIO and Vice President of Digital Transformation, chose the Microsoft Teams cloud-based communication platform for its mobility and easy collaboration tools.

Sep 01 2022

Colleges Move Communications to the Cloud

Higher education boosts productivity and collaboration with communication solutions that include cloud-based phone services.

In early 2021, Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., needed to upgrade its phone system, so it began exploring new solutions.

At the time, its 10-year-old, on-premises IP phone system was a workhorse, but to continue to use it, the IT department needed to switch to a new licensing model, upgrade to a new version of the software and replace 615 aging desk phones, which was a big investment.

Couple that with the college’s difficulty in delivering phone service to staffers when they worked from home early in the pandemic, and it was a good time to examine cloud-based alternatives, says Bill Young, the college’s CIO and vice president of digital transformation.

After considering several options, Butler standardized on Microsoft Teams, cloud-based software that allows employees to communicate through voice, video or instant messages on their computers or smartphones.

“The softphone technology allows for more mobility and better collaboration,” Young says.

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Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) tools, which combine phone services, videoconferencing, messaging and other collaboration features on a single cloud-based app, have become a necessity in higher education.

When the pandemic initially hit, colleges and universities relied on videoconferencing from the likes of CiscoMicrosoftRingCentral and Zoom to continue operations as faculty and staff taught and worked remotely.

Now, an increasing number of institutions are taking full advantage of UCaaS tools and replacing their on-premises phone systems with cloud-based telephony to support remote learning and an increasingly mobile workforce. Some schools have expanded flexible work arrangements and allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time.

The cloud-based software fosters better communication and collaboration and improves worker productivity and student engagement, while enabling operational efficiencies and giving colleges the agility to respond to changing business demands, says Denise Lund, IDC’s research vice president of worldwide telecom and unified communications.

“Mobile features and the ability to use whatever communication makes sense at the time — be it telephony, email or video — fits well with hybrid workforce needs,” she says.

Click the image to learn more about one college's transition to cloud collaboration.

Butler Community College Turns to Microsoft for Phone Service

Butler Community College, which educates 13,000 students across two campuses and eight remote sites, switched to Microsoft Teams for its phone service because of its collaboration features and because the college previously standardized on Microsoft 365 for cloud-based email and office productivity, says Christina Byram, the college’s deputy CIO and director of unified communications.

Now, teachers are more accessible. Students can call, message or email their professors, depending on faculty members’ preferences. They can also hold group chats.

“What drove the Teams decision is that it’s more than just a phone system; it’s a collaboration suite,” she says. “It makes it so easy for students to communicate with their professors or their classmates.”

Furthermore, making Teams available on the Microsoft 365 suite is another way Butler Community College is bridging the digital divide while empowering its students on the path to digital literacy, Young says.

READ MORE: Cloud computing degree programs help fill workforce gaps.

Teams is also more cost-effective and easier to manage than the previous on-premises solution, and on days employees work from home, they can easily make and receive work calls as if they were on campus.

“The ability to pick up a laptop and work anywhere if needed is extremely valuable to us,” Byram says.

That’s a far cry from the early days of the pandemic. To access the campus phone system when the college went remote, the IT staff created a workaround for key departments, such as the admissions office and the IT help desk. Those employees got phone access by using a softphone and VPN connection. But most employees lost phone service during the temporary COVID-19 lockdown, she says.


The average number of calls Texas Christian University makes and receives on RingCentral’s cloud-based phone service every month

Source: Texas Christian University

Butler’s IT department took a phased approach to implement the Teams cloud-based phone system by gradually moving the college’s 1,200 employees to Teams over a 2 1/2 month period from late 2021 to early 2022.

The migration took a lot of hard work. Each day, the college trained 30 to 35 users; at night, Byram migrated them over. An engineer from CDW•G assisted with the design, configuration and testing of the Teams implementation. Additionally, CDW•G provided the Butler team with additional support, training and knowledge transfer.

“There’s a lot of configuration work that goes into moving a phone system,” she says.

Today, nearly all employees use the Teams app on their computers or smartphones to access the phone system. Instead of buying 615 new desk phones, the IT department purchased just 75 new Poly and Yealink Microsoft Teams desk phones for common office areas on campus, Young says.

Overall, Teams has empowered employees to become more productive, he says. They can seamlessly turn a phone call into a videoconference and share screens and Microsoft files.

“What makes Microsoft Teams a differentiator is that it’s not just one single piece of software. It’s an ecosystem where everything is interconnected,” Byram says.

LEARN MORE: The benefits of standardizing collaboration tools in higher education.

Western Iowa Tech Community College Goes All-In on Zoom

In Sioux City, Iowa, Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) was fully prepared to go remote when the COVID-19 outbreak began. Since 2015, the IT department has equipped its 5,600 full-time students and faculty with MacBooks. Teachers were also experienced with using Zoom to teach.

For years, the college had utilized Zoom Rooms in their classrooms, enabling a hybrid learning model in which teachers taught students in class, but simultaneously allowed remote students to videoconference in if they couldn’t make it to campus that day. What was missing when staff worked from home during the lockdown was access to the campus IP phone system.

“The faculty said, ‘Our phones are sitting at our desks,’” recalls Mike Logan, WITCC’s dean of IT.

Employees could retrieve voicemails over email, but they couldn’t answer the calls live. So, Logan immediately sought a fix and researched cloud-based phone solutions. Because the college already used Zoom, he inked a deal to use Zoom Phone, which went live that summer.

The migration was easy. Through Zoom, the IT department gave employees new direct-dial phone numbers. Zoom worked with WITCC’s phone company to port over the old numbers, then Zoom tied the employees’ old extensions with their new numbers, so staff could be reachable through both numbers, Logan says.

“Zoom put it all together. It was the smoothest rollout I’ve ever seen. There was no downtime,” he says.

The IT staff eliminated every desk phone and requires employees to use the Zoom app instead. Employees are familiar with the Zoom app, so no training was needed. The only change was that a phone icon popped up on the app, Logan says.

Now, employees have the flexibility to make phone calls, launch videoconferences or message their colleagues or students. Zoom Phone also allows faculty members to communicate with students via SMS texting, a popular feature. Logan equipped every staff member with Apple AirPods to serve as headsets.

“Staff can toggle back and forth between the communication options,” Logan says. “It’s true collaboration.”

Texas Christian University Calls on RingCentral for Cloud Phone Service

Down south, Texas Christian University, a private university with 12,000 students in Fort Worth, Texas, recently migrated to RingCentral’s cloud-based phone service, which has improved communications on and off campus, its IT leaders say.

About three years ago, TCU’s maintenance contract for its traditional phone system was up for renewal. TCU CTO Bryan Lucas noticed a trend among customer premises equipment-based phone vendors where more of their research and development was being spent on their cloud-based solutions.

TCU’s existing phone system was an antiquated mix of analog and digital phones. So, to modernize phone communications, Lucas and his team explored cloud-based options and chose RingCentral.

The migration of 5,000 user and campus phone numbers took meticulous planning. They implemented the project in 14 phases, installing between 500 to 1,000 phone lines in multiple buildings at a time, with each phase taking two months to complete, says Joshua Tooley, TCU’s director of IT support.

First, they took inventory of each building’s phone lines and office business processes. Then they contacted their phone company to port the numbers over to RingCentral. While that was in progress, TCU’s IT infrastructure team installed switches and network jacks in the areas that needed ports in preparation for the phone transition.

They then trained employees on the new system, deployed new Poly VVX phones, and after migrating phone service to RingCentral, they provided tech support to make sure numbers transferred successfully, Tooley says.

The IT team completed the user migration in spring 2021, about 2 1/2 years after the project began. “It’s a very comprehensive, coordinated effort,” says Travis Cook, the university’s executive director of telecommunications and distributed antenna systems.

Today, about 90 percent of employees just use RingCentral for its phone and voicemail services. The other 10 percent take advantage of RingCentral’s other features, including SMS texting and faxing, Tooley says.

Texting is an important new feature. TCU faculty members can now communicate with students through texts without having to give out their personal mobile phone numbers, Tooley says. Remote phone access is also important and has made a big impact on TCU’s out-of-state recruiters, for example.

Instead of using a mobile number that might show the recruiters’ names, they can now call or text students on the RingCentral app, and the caller ID will show a TCU number, which increases the chances of students answering the call.

“The biggest change is that we’re no longer restricted to being on campus, and it allows employees to be anywhere in the world, and they can take their work phone with them,” Tooley says.

Photography by Dan Videtich

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