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At Normandale Community College, the phone system just isn't clicking with the faculty, staff and students. At 10 or 12 years old, it's not exactly antique, but it doesn't meet the needs of users — it will need to be replaced down the line.
The Bloomington, Minn., college needed a way to reach students wherever they are, and they're many other places besides at the phone and e-mail, said Matt Dempsey, the director of technology. With campus expansion on the horizon, "It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to put older technology into newer buildings.”
Those factors, combined with funding that the Minnesota State Colleges and University system gave back to the college for enterprise technology and infrastructure, made this a good year to update its systems. So the tech team members decided to unify and improve their internal communications and are in the middle of choosing vendors to help them.
A number of colleges, school districts and other U.S. organizations are following suit, according to the CDW-G 2010 Unified Communications Tracking Poll.*
Of the 915 information technology professionals that answered the poll, 67 percent have prepared a business case or strategic plan to unite their communications, up 12 percentage points from 2009. The majority of them reported that the top benefit of changing the way they communicate is reducing operating costs.
In spring 2009, the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation finished its year-long process of providing teachers with an updated method of communication so they could provide better service to parents and students. Instead of waiting in line for the one phone in the teacher's lounge, they received wireless IP phones they can take with them.
“We realized that unified communications would provide us and our staffs with the kind of modern communication they needed to reach out to parents and to others in the community,” said Mike Russ, the chief technology officer.
Now teachers receive voice mails in their e-mail, network with other educators through video and audio chats on the computer, and accept important public announcements "quietly."
When a building is locked down, you want to be able to tell teachers what's going on without getting on the public announcement system and scaring everyone, he said. The same goes for letting students out early because of bad weather. Now that they have InformaCast Software, administrators have sent groups of teachers messages that make a sound and scroll across the LCD display on their phones.
“Luckily it’s something you don’t have to use a lot," he said, "but when you have to, you’re really glad.”
Emergency notification is a key benefit of uniting communications, according to the K-12 officials who responded to the poll.
Before the district unified its communications, the tech squad upgraded the infrastructure, installed equipment and learned how everything worked. A solid foundation allowed the staff to build other pieces such as unified communications and netbooks on top of it.
Back in Minnesota, Normandale Community College expanded its focus outside of just making the phone system more efficient.
“It started off as all about the phones, but the more we had discussions with vendors and actually had some internal discussions," Dempsey said, "we realized that it really goes beyond that thing with the 10 numbers on it that you dial a phone number with."
They'll be tying together phones, e-mail, instant messanger services and online meeting tools so communication will become more effective. That will allow faculty and students to show selected people when and where they are available to talk.
The campus is also looking to move toward Microsoft Live@edu, which students can use to collaborate by sharing calendars, documents and other information.
Now that you've seen what these schools are doing, is your school communicating effectively?
* Margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percent at a 95 percent confidence level. Professionals from businesses, government agencies, healthcare organizations, 161 higher education institutions and 150 K-12 public school districts (new this year) participated in the survey.
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