Rural states such as Alabama have spent the past several years bolstering their backbone networks so they can offer distance learning sessions that incorporate a broad range of unified communications services — everything from two-way video conferences to web conferences supported by e-mail, instant messaging and chat.
For Alabama, bridging the gap between wealthier urban and suburban districts and rural areas with limited access to academic specialists and advanced placement teachers was a primary goal. “A lot of Alabama school districts are very small and poor, with limited populations and resources,” explains David K. Akridge, executive manager of information technology for the Mobile County Public School System, the state’s largest school system.
That’s why, under former Gov. Bob Riley, the state pursued the Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide (ACCESS) program. Infused with nearly $100 million in funding since 2005, Alabama built a distance learning network that today connects more than 22,720 students statewide.
Over the past three years, Mobile County schools received roughly $40 million in federal E-Rate funding — money that was spent on strengthening MCPSS’ wired and wireless backbone network. “Our goal all along was to build up the network so we could embrace video and unified communications. We knew it was the future,” Akridge says, adding that distance learning is especially useful in his district, which spans more than 1,600 square miles. In the past, he continues, teachers and administrators wasted up to half a day just to attend a meeting.
Now, 85 percent of the district’s 88 schools have access to distance learning. As a result, advanced placement teachers can offer classes to many of the state’s more rural, poorer districts; tech support teachers can attend monthly training sessions remotely; and assistant superintendents can meet regularly with district principals via video conference. The sessions save time and money, making the staff more efficient.
Akridge says a broad range of unified communications facilitate these activities. Teachers and administrators participate in Microsoft PowerPoint and educational video sessions that can be viewed easily on larger displays or on notebook computers even as they exchange e-mails and instant messages. Many of them also conduct video chats using the IP Video Phone E20 from Cisco Systems, which can run a session with up to 12 concurrent users.
“What’s amazing is that much of this has become old hat,” Akridge says. “All the users have to do is dial in, and they can hold classes and meetings and use all these different technologies. It’s all there for them.”
Brent Kelly, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, says once a state builds a backbone network, it becomes much easier to overlay all the features of unified communications.
“We’ve seen a huge need for interactive video,” Kelly says. “Today, teachers can simultaneously reach multiple classrooms, showing many kinds of content and conducting multiway conversations. They also can reach out to underserved rural areas.”
The Future of Communications
The Oxnard Union High School District in Southern California, meanwhile, built up its network over time to support unified communications and a nascent bring-your-own-device program.
According to Director of Information Technology Services Puneet Sharma, OUHSD deployed a 1 Gig-E network a few years ago but upgraded to 10 Gig-E with an 80-gigabits-per-second backplane in October. “The new backbone lets us run video conference calls with teachers and students in other schools in 720p high-definition,” Sharma explains, adding that the upcoming version of Microsoft Lync Server 2012 also will support HD in 1080p.
The district also revamped the telecom network to support Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunking, which allows it to run voice, data and video over a single unified network. OUHSD previously had an individual private branch exchange — with up to 100 phone lines — in each of its nine facilities. The old analog network “was very expensive and inefficient,” Sharma recalls. But today, the district’s annual phone bill is around $60,000, considerably less than the $200,000 it once paid.
Running a unified network with SIP trunking over Microsoft Lync Server has opened up the next generation of communications — what Sharma calls “the new paradigm” — to students, teachers and administrators.
The amount Alabama initially invested in its statewide distance learning network
SOURCE: Alabama State Department of Education
Previously, if a student needed to leave school early, he or she would have to bring a printed note to the teacher and then walk the note over to the school’s front office. Now, when a student presents such a note, the teacher can use the classroom IP phone to text a message to the front office indicating that the student has permission to leave early. “What we’re finding is that the younger generation is very in tune with texting, so the text and chat feature is used quite a bit,” Sharma explains.
The new UC technology also helps the district reduce travel expenses. Department heads from the different high schools can run a group chat or video conference instead of meeting at a central location, for example. Or an English teacher can text an underperforming student’s math teacher to see if the student is having similar problems in math class as well. The two teachers can then text or video chat back and forth, easily sharing documents in the process.
“The whole idea is for the technology to foster more efficient communications and collaboration,” Sharma says. “With our new 10 Gig-E network, the sky is the limit.”
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.