Unified communications saves money, unites campus

A growing number of college and university IT departments are combining their disparate telecommunications systems in an effort to simplify campus communications. These efforts also have the potential to save schools thousands of dollars in yearly service or line fees, as we’ve experienced at Northcentral Technical College (NTC) in Wausau, Wis.

The term "unified communications" (UC) has been used to describe a wide variety of technologies and solutions in recent years, but according to a new study, the majority of technology professionals agree that UC is an end result–not any one product or solution.  Specifically, UC is the result of integrating technologies that connect people with other people, with data, and with computing applications they need, anywhere they are.

The 2009 CDW-G Unified Communications Tracking Poll reports that the primary drivers behind UC implementations are usually increased productivity and reduced operating costs. Additionally, UC technologies are often considered in conjunction with other organizational changes.

NTC certainly understood those key drivers as the college started its UC deployment in 2003.  Serving 25,000 students on its main campus and six regional campuses in a 10-county area, NTC sought to provide its students with a top-notch curriculum delivered by high-quality instructors–regardless of where the students or faculty were located. Simply stated, distance should not determine learning outcomes, and the college considered an organizational shift that would centralize the flow of information.

NTC’s biggest challenge in reaching its students was outdated technology on its regional campuses, which could not support a move to a UC solution. NTC needed to converge voice, data, and video into one pipeline connected to its main campus in Wausau. By integrating these technologies–some of which were very new–NTC would be able to connect students, faculty, and staff with the computing applications they needed to learn and work from anywhere.

To make the leap to UC, the college realized it needed to make an infrastructure investment and engaged its technology vendors to better understand its options. After considering several solutions, NTC opted to move to voice-over-IP (VoIP)–an alternative that was leading edge in 2003, especially among higher-education institutions. 

The move was not without its challenges, however. Initially, the new technology presented voice quality problems that required echo cancellers on the telephones, and the college had to work through issues with e911, which enables emergency responders to know the exact location of a caller. 

But even with those issues, the benefits of VoIP and UC could not be denied, and within a year, NTC expanded VoIP service to its main campus. Today, the echo cancellers are no longer needed, e911 functions properly, and NTC has moved forward to embrace UC and its education partner–distance learning–using interactive television (ITV) to link professors and students.  Half of the classes at the regional campuses and 20 percent of the classes at the main campus are conducted over ITV.

Northcentral’s ITV solution connects a teacher and students in one classroom with additional students located at the school’s other regional sites or even out-of-state partner schools connected by television. Through television cameras and microphones, the instructors and students can see and hear each other from remote sites around the state.

ITV courses offer students at NTC’s regional campuses and other sites throughout the state the opportunity to take a class together without having to meet in one location. Courses and instructors are the same as those in traditional classrooms. To ensure the integrity of classes, NTC instructors receive special training on how to use the ITV technology so that all students receive the same high-quality instruction.

ITV classes facilitate increased access to NTC classes, improving the opportunity for people to get the education they need, even if they are unable to travel to the main campus.

Unified communications improves efficiency and enhances productivity while enabling NTC to manage the bottom line. With VoIP in place, the college uses an eMail-centric approach with voice mail, eMail, and faxes routing directly to a user’s inbox. The college no longer has a separate PBX; it is saving on long-distance fees; and because faxes go into eMail, NTC has eliminated almost all of its fax lines. 

Additionally, UC has increased NTC’s workforce mobility. Staff members can take their wireless office phone home and, using broadband, can use it to dial anyone on campus. 

NTC uses UC as a recruiting advantage to enable the college to reach beyond the confines of the district, and sometimes even the state, to hire instructors. Because NTC offers flexible classes and delivery methods, its enrollment is increasing, with a 7 to 10 percent increase expected in the next school year. 

The success of UC at NTC is dependent on more than just a solid infrastructure and smart deployment. It greatly benefits from the support of Dr. Lori A. Weyers, the college’s president.  Dr. Weyers heads an executive leadership team, which includes the vice presidents for learning and student services and the CIO, and guides the college’s technology decisions. "Our No. 1 product is education," said Dr. Weyers.  "Given the economy, we need to make smart technology decisions that will enhance our offerings and give our students the training they need to get jobs."

NTC’s UC solution continues to evolve, and the college closely watches trends to understand how cutting-edge technologies can benefit students and better connect them to educational content–whether it’s delivered via smart phones, TiVo, or web browser.

"Our goal is to have a truly virtual college," said Weyers. "We are going to offer everything online, from the library to the bookstore to career counseling. We even own an island in Second Life in preparation for the day when we will offer all classes virtually."

Strebe is the chief information officer at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wis.

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