Chuck Jones, chief of technology at the Jackson-Madison County School System in Jackson, Tenn., has to pinch himself sometimes when he talks about the district’s unified communications system.
“We didn’t even have voicemail five years ago,” he says. “We started by routing work phone numbers to home or cell phones and just grew our UC capabilities from there.”
Today, every teacher in the Jackson-Madison system has a phone in the classroom and a mobile computer that has the “voicemail in e-mail” and softphone features offered by Microsoft Lync. With the latest version of Lync, students, teachers and staff can send and receive instant messages on their mobile devices.
“This really expands the ease in which students and teachers can communicate and collaborate,” Jones says. “Teachers are recording their lesson plans with Lync and posting them to their websites for viewing at a later time or for students that happen to be absent from class.”
The district’s UC evolution follows a similar trend at schools across the country. More and more school districts are extending the reach of UC technology to mobile devices.
Jones says the district also uses Lync’s video conferencing capabilities. He says one of the district’s technicians recently trained six principals on how to use a parental notification system via the video chat feature in Lync. The principals have the option of viewing the session on a desktop computer in the office, a smartphone or a tablet.
“The great thing is that the principal can view the meeting anywhere there is Internet access,” Jones says, adding that with the presence features in Lync, everyone on the district’s network can know a teacher or administrator’s status. And with notebooks, smartphones and tablets, that presence can extend to any location with Internet connectivity.
“UC capabilities such as IM, e-mail, conferencing and click-to-call can be provided and accessed via mobile devices, enabling people to use the same user interface across all devices,” says Blair Pleasant, co-founder of UCStrategies. “Most, if not all, UC manufacturers now offer some type of mobile client, which allows users to access these UC capabilities on their smartphones, tablets and mobile notebooks.”
Laying the Groundwork
The mobile UC trend is exciting, but many districts are finding that the capabilities and features of the technology have outstripped some users’ ability to absorb it, as well as the IT staff’s ability to support many new UC features.
That’s why Carroll County Public Schools in Maryland has taken a deliberate approach to rolling out unified communications over the past decade.
“Our strategy was to slowly build the infrastructure over several years, building out our fiber network and developing a unified directory based on Microsoft Active Directory,” says CIO Gary Davis.
Davis says the district started with UC by pushing out alerts for school emergencies and closings, morning announcements and automated voice attendance calls. This spring, the district plans to pilot an instant messaging feature within the school district’s domain for teachers and students to eventually use on their notebooks, smartphones or tablets.
“Everything we did was to put the district in a position to take advantage of unified communications,” says Davis. But first, he adds, the district had to roll out, stabilize and train people on how to use the basic Microsoft Office 365 applications and the collaboration features of Microsoft SharePoint.
“We’re headed in the direction of adding more UC features,” Davis says, especially as the IT staff gains more experience with Microsoft Lync. “We certainly have features like presence and video chat,” he says. “We’re just waiting to put all the policies and procedures in place before we roll them out.”
4 Tips for Taking UC Mobile
Chris Silva, an industry analyst focusing on mobility at the Altimeter Group, offers four tips for organizations looking to take their unified communications systems mobile.
1: Figure out the business rules. Silva advises organizations to decide how to direct calls to the correct person well before deployment. For example, he suggests that when a help desk call comes in to customer support, the organization route the call to the next available customer support person with expertise in the area of the problem. An organization can route calls to the best available alternative by coding skills and expertise into staff directories or other knowledge bases. Using UC to improve efficiency quickly becomes as much a human capital issue as a tech one.
2: Make critical infrastructure decisions. Many organizations need to upgrade their infrastructures to support UC features such as the capability to locate users. In many cases, standard Wi-Fi networks designed for data access don’t provide the granularity of detail needed for such location services, so organizations should add more density to the Wi-Fi network and deploy a location server to route calls properly.
3: Train the staff. Create awareness across the staff of what UC technology can do and the appropriate uses for it.
4: Choose the right partner. Different providers — from giant IT corporations to smaller firms — offer a variety of options and price points. Research what’s available to find the best fit.