Oct 31 2006

School Districts Use Voice Over Internet Protocol To Enhance Communication And Save Money

A growing number of school districts are migrating their phone systems to Voice over Internet Protocol technology to save money and improve communications with teachers and parents.

Bob Moore wants to put a telephone in every classroom. The way he sees it, connecting teachers and parents can only do good things for learning.

And these days, the executive director of IT services for Blue Valley Unified School District 229 in Overland Park, Kan., is using Internet Protocol (IP) telephony to ring in a new era of parental involvement. Not only can teachers make phone calls directly from their classrooms, “parents have voice mail boxes that are set up to receive school messages,” Moore explains.

In 2001, Blue Valley migrated from a conventional phone system to Voice over IP (VoIP), installing 2,200 handsets in classrooms and offices spread across 30 schools and three administrative buildings. Moore says the school district will recoup the $2.3 million investment by 2006, mostly through lower operational costs. Equally important, he says, is that VoIP “is helping us improve the educational environment by keeping teachers, parents and students in the loop.”

Blue Valley is among a growing wave of districts that are migrating to VoIP. “If a school has the necessary technology foundation, including the bandwidth to support IP telephony, it’s a winning proposition,” states E. Brent Kelly, a senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, a Boston-based consulting firm that specializes in rich media communications. “Voice over IP can cut costs and add powerful new features.”

The list of capabilities that VoIP enables includes voice messaging, enhanced data services, number portability, Emergency 911 and—with a wireless network in place—untethered roaming within a school or district. In addition, by converging both phone and data onto a single network, it’s possible to simplify system administration and lower operational costs.

As a result, “it is quickly becoming a mainstream tool,” says Ivan Sindell, president of Global Communications Systems Research, an Alexandria, Va., education technology consulting firm.

Achieving solid results is not as simple as swapping out a legacy PBX system and plopping down IP phones, however. VoIP requires a solid and dependable network infrastructure that’s properly designed.

For districts and schools that deploy the technology effectively, it is possible to take a huge step forward and embrace the potential of the digital age. “Voice over IP is an extremely attractive solution that can help districts contain or reduce costs while achieving strategic gains,” Wainhouse Research’s Kelly explains.

Getting the Message

Although Voice over IP isn’t a new technology—it has been around since the late 1990s—it is now hitting full stride in the educational setting. For one thing, a growing number of districts are building out the wide bandwidth local area networks and wide area networks that are required for VoIP, including Gigabit Ethernet. For another, VoIP has matured to the point at which sound quality and performance are outstanding—as long as an organization pays attention to quality of service issues, explains Sindell of Global Communications.

The main appeal of VoIP isn’t swapping out a standard phone line for an IP-based line—although schools can save money by reducing toll calls within their network. It’s the array of functions schools gain.

For example, at Blue Valley, the VoIP system allows parents and students to call teachers at any time, but classroom phones ring only during nonclassroom hours. If a call comes in during the school day, the system automatically routes the message to voice mail.

In addition, teachers can use the voice mail system to broadcast their messages to families. In the coming months, the district may decide to install a unified messaging system that would make it easy for staff and teachers to consolidate e-mail, voice mail and faxes in a single inbox. The same system would allow teachers to listen to phone messages on a PC or pick up e-mail messages over the phone.

Moore doesn’t plan to stop there. The district is hoping to introduce enhanced data services on the IP phones. That would allow administrators or the IT department to send short messages to teachers and other staff. For example, a principal could remind teachers to make an important announcement, or IT could let them know if a server was down. That way, “We don’t wind up with 500 people calling the help desk at the same time and draining IT resources,” he says.

Other school districts are connecting to VoIP as well. At Consolidated High School District 230 in Orland Park, Ill., IP technology is ushering in a new era of efficiency. In 2001, the district installed 445 VoIP phones at its three high schools and an administration building.

In addition, it opted to go wireless and deploy handsets to deans, athletic directors, trainers, division chairs and tech support staff. “In the past, it was extremely difficult to reach these people,” says Darrell Walery, director of technology. “Walkie-talkies are loud, and they are inappropriate for many situations.”

By employing the wireless IP phones, administrators can reach key staff, regardless of whether they’re walking down a hallway or out on the playing field. In addition, the schools can wheel IP phones into classrooms so that students can do their research in the classroom.

Finally, every teacher now has a voice mail box, which makes it easier to stay in touch with parents. The net effect? The district, with 8,440 students spread across a 10-mile radius, has trimmed its phone bills and operating costs—including the $100-per-hour fee that it previously paid consultants to constantly reconfigure the PBX. “It is a giant step forward,” Walery says.

Lessons Learned

Putting a VoIP system in place and ensuring that it works effectively requires up-front planning. IT administrators must prioritize IP voice traffic to provide seamless communication across the network.

It’s essential to configure routers, switches and phones so that teachers and staff can use the phones without encountering startup headaches and intermittent problems.

In addition, a district or school must determine where to place phones and how to use them. “One of the biggest opportunities and challenges for schools,” Wainhouse’s Kelly says, “is training educators to take advantage of the new feature sets an IP telephony system can enable.”

That’s a concept that Steve Zsiray understands well. Zsiray, the associate superintendent of Cache County School District in North Logan, Utah, turned to a VoIP system in January 2005.

During the next three years, the district will roll out the technology at 22 of its facilities, including all schools.

During the first few months, the network saved $1,500 on phone lines and trimmed phone bills. And VoIP’s advanced features, including unified messaging, simplified work for employees.

“To date, it has proven extremely dependable and cost-efficient,” says Zsiray.

According to Global Communications’ Sindell, most schools achieve a return on investment within three to five years. Though installing, integrating and operating VoIP presents challenges, its advantages are clear.

“VoIP is bringing the telephone into the computer age and is helping schools achieve remarkable cost savings,” Sindell concludes.

Samuel Greengard is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Burbank, Calif.

5 Steps to VoIP Success

1. Build a solid network. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) demands quality of service, so a robust network with abundant bandwidth is essential.

2. Roll out IP phones in phases. Deploy VoIP and IP phones in departments or at a single school before introducing the technology districtwide. This will allow you to get rid of the bugs, and it will smooth the adjustment period for teachers, administrators and staff.

3. Provide training and instruction. To maximize the value of VoIP, provide training on features and ensure that employees understand how to use virtual mailboxes, unified messaging and other tools.

4. Look for opportunities to use the phones in new ways. VoIP can serve as more than a voice conduit. For example, wireless VoIP lets staff stay in touch while roaming. Enhanced data capabilities—visible on the phone’s LCD— can provide news, updates and information.

5. Keep a few conventional phone lines for emergency situations. Without a battery backup, VoIP goes down when the network goes down. So plan for emergencies and keep a few conventional phone lines in key locations.