Unified communications brings a whole new dimension to the way students, faculty and staff work at Allen Independent School District in Texas.
“In the past, the superintendent would have to bring all the principals over to the central office for a meeting,” says Brent Goerner, director of technology operations. Now, he uses Microsoft Lync to easily create a video conferencing session, allowing key people at each school to stay on their campuses where they’re needed. “Unlike a telephone conference, all parties can see the speaker’s facial expressions and body language, leading to increased participation and more effective collaboration.”
Subject matter experts use Microsoft Lync to teach lessons for courses ranging from math and science to English and social studies. In many cases, they use the Lync desktop-sharing feature so students at another campus or even those who are homebound can follow the instruction taking place on interactive whiteboards.
“For now, only faculty and staff use Lync daily, but we do let the students make Lync calls to collaborate with students in other Allen ISD schools or other districts,” he says.
Allen ISD has fully committed to the Microsoft platform in just about all aspects of its computing, including use of Hyper-V for virtualization and Microsoft Lync Server for telephony. Although the district looked at other vendors, Goerner says Microsoft’s licensing was very competitive for school districts.
“With Lync, we get instant messaging, presence and unified messaging all rolled into one package,” he notes. “The voicemail transcription in email is great for teachers; they can simply glance at their inbox to receive a message instead of interrupting instruction by taking a phone call.”
Bob Laliberte, senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group, says as awareness of UC spreads, more school districts are tapping the technology. While districts may use video differently, depending on their organizational culture, most take advantage of document-sharing tools for collaboration.
“Now, people can meet online, actually show their colleagues the data and information they are talking about and get people to make decisions as opposed to waiting for a set time to meet at a physical destination,” he says.
Best of Both Worlds
Ron Pleasant, director of project management and technology operations for Muscogee County School District in Georgia, says the district uses a mix of Microsoft and Cisco Systems technology for unified communications.
On the voice front, the district uses Cisco IP telephony and phones, which Pleasant describes as rock-solid. “We can use the onboard address system, so people can look up anybody in the district. Plus, it does three-way calls and lets us use the four-digit dialing pattern internally throughout the district,” he says.
Muscogee County School District moved to the Cisco technology in 2008, long before Cisco introduced Jabber. About two years ago, when people began asking about instant messaging, presence and video conferencing, the district opted for Microsoft Lync for the faculty and staff.
Pleasant says the CIO uses Lync to run video meetings with the principals throughout the district, as does the assistant superintendent. The IT department uses the video call feature to pinpoint problems while walking around with a smartphone, tablet or notebook.
“They can show me if it’s something like a loose wire or a broken data junction box,” he says. “Once I know what the problem is, I can walk them through an issue.”
Lync also speeds up decision-making for the Muscogee County School District.
“For example, when I’m in a Lync meeting, I can IM my subject matter experts quickly and get answers to any questions that might come up, so we can resolve issues faster,” Pleasant says. “I also use Lync to communicate with my staff during board meetings when questions come up — it’s just a great productivity tool.”
3 Questions to Ask Before Moving Forward with UC
Bob Laliberte, senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group, outlines three important points to consider before moving forward with a unified communications system implementation.
IT managers should ask themselves if the UC system will be used internally to run video calls with external users. If important partners will use the system, the organization may want to invest in a higher quality telepresence system.
Determine if the organization wants the UC system for standard meetings where it can run video, share documents and exchange messages. If the organization wants to integrate UC video into its help desk trouble-ticket operation, for example, ask the prospective vendor if it has experience running those kinds of systems.
Try to honestly determine if the staff has the mentality and potential skills to work with the technology effectively. Are there enough people in the organization who can be trained quickly so that those in the organization who aren’t as technically adept can be slowly brought up to speed? If the answer is no, budget appropriate funds for training the staff who will be leaders.
- What is the desired business outcome?
- Will the system run as a stand-alone unified communication system, or will the organization integrate it with existing workflow?
- Is the organization culturally ready for unified communications?