It says a lot about a school district when the top technology person holds the title of chief information and chief digital strategy officer.
Thuan Nguyen, who handles that post for the Kent School District in Washington, says unified communications plays an integral role in the district’s IT strategy.
Faculty and staff at Kent School District all have access to presence, instant messaging and video conferencing functions within Microsoft Lync, which is tied into the district’s Cisco Systems Voice over IP phone system.
“We leverage SharePoint for instruction and business operations, and Lync integrates well into the Microsoft Office suite,” Nguyen says. “We also take advantage of the video features within Lync to hold remote meetings and conduct districtwide training for staff development.”
Nguyen says within any given school building, faculty and staff can use presence and IM. Video conferences are used more often between buildings throughout the district’s property, which spans 75 square miles. “Teachers will IM one another or use presence to see if they are available and set up live calls to share classroom whiteboards or desktops across buildings,” he says.
This school year, Nguyen’s staff will test some of the new mobile features within Microsoft Lync 2013. He says they will look closely at Lync’s ability to seamlessly communicate from a desktop or notebook to a smartphone or tablet with IM and video conferencing.
Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications for IDC, says that, while not all districts may have the resources of Kent School District, he anticipates that the video features within UC will be used more at schools.
“We see a lot of situations where the faculty and staff are using unified communications,” Costello says. “For example, some districts have the staff collaborate on lesson plan development and run video conferences to connect geographically dispersed areas.”
Taking UC a Step Further
At Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, the district has used the presence, instant messaging and video collaboration features within Microsoft Lync for its IT, administrative staff and faculty for the past several years.
Paul Smith, supervisor of network services, and Douglas Galbraith, supervisor of infrastructure and systems support, says the district added Lync as part of its license for Microsoft SharePoint and Exchange for very little additional cost.
“The superintendent holds meetings with the principals over Lync, and instead of inviting all the principals to an auditorium for the superintendent to get his message across the way we used to, the principals can attend the meeting from their desks,” he says.
Smith says this capability makes the staff more efficient in serving the 350,000 students and 50,000 faculty and staff across a 2,000-square-mile area.
Galbraith says the district also plans to take Lync into the classroom. In a pilot project set to launch in late October, the district will use Lync clients as the voice component to run distance learning classes with Florida Virtual School, an online service that offers accredited courses to Florida residents at no charge.
Three high schools will pilot the use of Lync in virtual classes in either computer labs or media centers that can accommodate between 50 and 60 students using desktops. The students will use the softphone feature within Lync with headsets so they can place audio calls to query teachers when they don’t understand the material.
“Eventually we plan to roll out Lync into the classrooms districtwide,” Galbraith says.
Much like many other organizations, Miami-Dade County Public Schools does not use Lync for its core voice infrastructure, say Smith and Galbraith. In most classrooms, teachers use traditional handsets, although they do have the option of using Lync’s voice feature with a headset. Galbraith says as they add Lync into classrooms, in situations where they don’t have the resources to install a traditional phone, they may opt to give the teacher a softphone on a Lync client with a headset.
“The softphone is right there on the machine, so why reinvent the wheel?” Galbraith poses.
UC Project Pointers
Rich Costello, senior research analyst for unified communications for IDC, offers five tips for IT managers looking to deploy UC.
- Find out what people want. With the help of the district’s end users, identify the UC technologies, features and applications that are most appropriate for the school. If needed, educate end users about the technology.
- Decide if outsourcing makes sense. Do a realistic inventory of your internal capabilities and determine which manufacturers and channel partners the district will need for UC installation, support and professional services expertise.
- Set specific use cases. Ask the manufacturer or channel partner for business use cases for education to help ease project justification and deployment concerns. Clear and articulated use cases can help demonstrate potential ROI.
- Consider forming a UC center of excellence. Designate a group that brings together individuals from various areas of the district — such as IT, business applications and customer service — to provide guidance and direction for UC plans, project development and ongoing usage. This group could be formed early on for any UC undertaking or, ideally, once more experience and feedback have been gained from initial projects.
- Decide between premises-based or cloud UC. There are benefits to each. An increasing number of cloud-based UC offerings are available today, and transitioning to the cloud can help schools reduce operating costs, improve application performance and better allocate IT resources. Premises-based solutions offer ownership and typically more control over security, quality of service and application development.