Unified Communications in Education

  Charles Thacker       February 14, 2007      Tutorials Education

One Box to rule them all,
One Box to find them,
One Box to bring them all
and in the network bind them.

Unified Communications (UC) is most definitely becoming, if it hasn’t already become, the buzzword of networking companies talking about an organization’s next step in communication systems. There are few, if any, major networking companies—or even small and medium ones—that are not creating, marketing, selling, re-selling, or implementing unified communications systems. The differences between all of them are in the details, but the overall concept is the same across all vendors and technologies: Combining your multiple communication systems into a single, cohesive and interoperable communications system.

Another term for this is Unified Messaging, which implies the unification of messaging systems specifically. I think Unified Communications is a little broader and prefer it for this discussion, although they can generally be used interchangeably.

What is Unified Communications?

The concept seems simple—all your tools for communicating brought together into a single system. This may be a simple unification of your voice and data systems, often done through an implementation of Voice over IP (VoIP) or IP Telephony—where your data network carries your voice traffic (VoIP has been happening in the big telephone companies for years to reduce operating costs, improve quality of service and increase capacity)—or as complex as combining voice, video and data over your single network with a single ‘box’ for all your voice, video and data communications (voicemail, faxes, e-mail, calendar, contacts, etc…) providing you with access to all of your communications from any other communicating device (computer, phone, PDA, smart phone, etc…).

Adding voice, or video, to your data network creates what is referred to as a converged network. This is often the introductory tool that gets the UC ball rolling. There are several vendors and technologies that provide this solution with Cisco Systems, 3COM and Avaya among the popular proprietary implementations of IP Telephony.

Baby Steps

Let’s talk about a simple unification as a starting point, specifically the use of your data network for voice traffic. Here I’m talking about an end-to-end solution called IP Telephony, which is an end goal of VoIP. The difference between VoIP and IP Telephony is best illustrated by viewing VoIP as the underlying technology of IP Telephony. VoIP allows voice traffic to traverse data networks but generally does not change the end systems. A traditional phone and PBX or key system is still on each end of the phone call. IP Telephony aims to replace existing analog systems with a fully digital, computer based phone/voice implementation.

The basic concept behind this technology is the transformation of analog voice signals, what humans can understand with our ears and brain, into digital signals of ones and zeroes. These packets of data, which now represent your voice, are sent over your data network just like any other data packet. The receiving side takes the digital packets and turns them back into an analog sound signal that a human on the other side of your phone call can understand. An important piece of IP Telephony is the use of Quality of Service (QoS) controls so that the voice packets have priority when traveling along your network where they are sharing bandwidth with your regular data. If the packets representing voice are delayed, so that there is too much time between packet A and packet B being received, or if they arrive at the other end out of order, so that packet B arrives before packet A, then the voice call will be very poor with stuttering, gaps and skipping. It will sound like a very bad cell phone call. To combat this, a network must have some mechanisms in place to make sure that all voice traffic has priority and does not arrive late or out of order.

This packetization of voice has been going on for years for phone calls that were traveling long distances and is now done for calls just across your home town. Now you can get this same technology on your own private network. There are some direct cost benefits to converging your network. If you have a voice network, perhaps represented by a PBX system with dedicated phone lines running to phone handsets, and you have a data network for your computers to communicate, then you must maintain both independently. To improve your data network, you might spend a dollar on it. To improve your phone network you must spend a different dollar on it. With a converged network, every dollar you invest in ‘the network’ benefits both the data and the voice network simultaneously.

You may also, with some solutions, be able to use the same network cable for both your phone and your computer. In our district we use Cisco’s IP Telephony solution and this means that every phone on our network is actually a small switch that allows a computer to be connected to the phone while the phone is connected to the network. The phone helps provide some QoS immediately, and our network switches and routers provide additional QoS. We can now have a single network drop in a room provide both phone and data access simultaneously. No additional cables need to be run for the phone. When a user needs to relocate, the phone and the computer both move to a new room, connect to the network, and they are both ready to be used with no reconfiguration necessary. When a new phone is purchased for a user, they don’t need to have an additional telephone cable run to their room, they can use the existing network connection for their computer.

Management is also easier with this solution. All adds, moves and changes are handled through a web interface. The processing center for all phone calls is a server based software installation. Gone are the days of paying $100/hour for an outside phone vendor to come in and reprogram a PBX or re-punch on a 110 block to move phones or extensions. A few minutes in a web browser and I can completely change any setting on any phone on our network. Changes that used to require a phone call to the vendor, a delay of days (sometimes a week), and a nice little bill to the school district now take minutes for me to complete from my desk, or wherever I happen to be as long as I have network connectivity. I’ve made changes to the system from my home 20 miles away and from the People’s Republic of China 7,500 miles away.

Cisco’s IP Telephony introduces applications at the handset as well, so you can use the phone to perform computer-like tasks. The phone becomes less a phone and more a computing device. The network simply sees the phone as another IP enabled piece of equipment, not specifically a phone. Cisco has also introduced wireless phone handsets that can be used on regular 802.11 wireless networks. Again, the phone is just an IP enabled device on an IP network. With applications built for an IP Telephony solution, you can use the phone, with its built-in screen, to look up phone numbers, news headlines, take attendance from the classroom, and access other outside systems. You are limited only by the creativeness of the software creator, and you might be that software creator!

The Grand Unification Fact

Now let’s introduce some other communications systems and integrate them. The obvious system to discuss next is voicemail. The problems I’ve always had with voicemail are the linear nature of most systems that store it, the difficulty of saving and reviewing messages, and the necessity of using a different interface to access voicemail than what I’m almost always using—my computer. By implementing a fully unified communications system called FirstClass Unified Communications our district has brought all of our communications into one location. Voicemail is now recorded by a server and immediately placed into the same mailbox as a user’s e-mail. Faxes can also be digitized and placed in that same mailbox, or a shared location for multiple users to access and manage. We now have one single location where we can access all of our communications. Additionally, we don’t need to use a computer to access this mailbox. Users can use a phone to have their voicemail played for them, their e-mail read to them and to reply to both.

Managing the historically linear voicemail is now the same as managing e-mail. Each voicemail message is an e-mail with a sound file attached. Anything a user can do with an e-mail, they can do with a voicemail message; forward to another user, file into a folder, or save outside of the system. It may seem like a small thing to be able to play the voicemail in a graphical interface, similar to any other audio file where you have a play-head and start/stop buttons, but it truly changes the entire experience when you can replay a specific part of a message as many times as you wish without listening to the entire message. Missed the phone number at the end of the message? No problem, start playing the message again right at that point.

Example of a voicemail envelope and attached voice message file

Example of a voicemail envelope and attached voice message file.

There are several solutions that offer to put your voicemail into your electronic mailbox, but FirstClass offers a distinct advantage with single mailbox management. When I get a new message in my mailbox there is a sound alert on my computer, a red flag on my mailbox, and a light on my phone. More importantly when I read my messages the flag on my mailbox goes away and the light on my phone goes out, nearly instantaneously. It is not necessary to manage a voicemail and an e-mail inbox, because there is only one box to manage for all communications.

One mailbox to store all my electronic communications, one mailbox to find them, one mailbox to manage and manipulate them—that’s Unified Communications.

The Big Picture

What Unified Communications can do for you is dependant upon your willingness to look around your organization and see the areas where seemingly disparate tasks and data could possibly be integrated into existing or new processes. Unified Communications can improve your workflow if you think outside of your current limitations.

One example that we are investigating is the integration of our SchoolMessenger automated dialer system that calls home to report student absences with our Cisco IP Telephony system. Initially the benefits of this integration appear to be the leveraging of our high capacity PRI lines for outgoing calls. This is helpful, but not as much as giving end users, not just system administrators, the ability to create call lists of their own based on their class rosters and recording their own outgoing messages for parents to receive. Why stop with outgoing voice messages? How about outgoing e-mail as well? What about connecting a student management system with the messaging system to create a dynamic phone and mail list for notifications?

We want to provide a way for our staff to communicate out to the community, but we also want to make sure that the community can communicate with our staff. Our district does not provide a phone in every classroom, but we do provide a computer and a Unified Communications account for all staff. Although not every teacher has a phone on their desk, they all have an extension and any parent can call any teacher and leave a message that they can retrieve from their classroom computer, any school phone, their home computer, any phone in the world, or any Internet connected device.

We have only begun to scratch the surface of what we can do with our Unified Communications, and I personally look forward to pushing the envelope and getting everything out of these tools that we can.

Advantages of Unified Communications in Education

A Unified Communications system can provide many advantages to a school district, and financial savings across several departments can be realized when properly implemented. School districts are constantly walking a fine line between providing the services necessary to educate students and doing so on a limited and often shrinking budget. Opportunities to reduce operating costs should not be overlooked or dismissed lightly.

  1. Reduction in total cost of ownership for communications systems (phone, e-mail, video, etc…)
  2. Centralized management of core systems
  3. Increased responsiveness to user needs (adds, moves, changes)
  4. More dynamic access to vital information in multiple formats
  5. Leverage existing infrastructure for new implementations
  6. Anytime, anywhere access to all your communications

You may not be ready for a full-blown unification of your systems now, but you are almost assuredly using such systems in your personal or professional life, even if you aren’t aware of it as an end user. This technology will be growing in the workplace and the household in coming years. Be prepared for unlimited access.

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