We’re hearing more and more about the way Microsoft Lync Server 2010 is set to change the nature of working life in universities. At Nottingham Trent University, for example, with 24,000 students on three campuses across the City, Unified Communications Team Leader Thomas Farrand, has made great strides in building links and promoting collaboration with Office Communications Server.
Now he’s busy hatching plans for making use of Lync’s extended functionality, increasing efficiency, reducing carbon emissions and saving time and money for the institution.
Thomas and his team, in fact, are a great example of how an energetic and imaginative IT team can make a real difference to the way things happen within their institution. Not only that, the solutions they come up with can reduce costs both directly, but also in terms of improved efficiency.
One of his examples of what Lync can do shows how important it is to watch for opportunities in every corner of the institution’s work. In this case, it’s all about keeping the University’s basic services up and running with the aid of Lync’s “Location Information” feature.
“When we have a problem on City Campus, for example, and we need a plumber or electrician, we’ll be able to see who is close by, perhaps working in the same building.”
That, of course, is just one example of how adding location to contact details can streamline communication.
Much of Thomas’s enthusiasm for the extra features in Lync comes from the way he and his team have found creative ways of using Office Communication Server since he introduced it during 2009.
For example one university course requires students from around the country each to do a live presentation. Live Meeting makes it possible for them to do this remotely, and also adds the necessary authentication for examination purposes, because the presentation is recorded and time stamped.
“This provides proof of when it was done, and the webcam means we can verify the identity of the student.”
Another project that captured attention across the university was the use of NTU’s Live Meeting equipment and expertise to make a conference at neighbouring University of Nottingham available to NTU undergraduates and staff. The potential savings in travel and conference attendance of this one event alone were considerable.
Lecturer Emily Burton reported afterwards, “We broadcast two major talks which were held during the conference and the feedback was amazing. If we hadn’t done this using Live Meeting, we would have to have sent a coach for the students at a cost of £80 per person not including travel for which the funds were not available. “
At the same time, the NTU environmental team estimate that because 75 people didn’t have to make the trip to the conference, NTU saved the emission of 900kg of CO2.
Showing the potential of IT, and demonstrating the supportive role of the team, is obviously high on Thomas Farrand’s agenda. So, for example, when he wanted to encourage the use of video conferencing with Live Meeting, he set out showcase it to as many people as possible, from all departments.
“Call me annoying or what,” he says. “We used three big lecture theatres in the three campuses. We invited everyone to them, and put on a three way video conference using Live Meeting, a fictitious scenario as if there were three different countries.”
There were questions from the audience, Thomas kept it all together, (“Like Jerry Springer”) and members of his team circulated, asking people how they worked, and how this kind of approach might benefit them, “By doing it this way,” he says, “We reached people from all levels not just senior management.”
Among the most enthusiastic early adopters was the student placement office. Many NTU courses require students to spend a year out on placement, often abroad, with visits from university staff.
“Originally, they were required to have one visit a year,” says Thomas, “But then it changed so that every student had to have three visits.”
Fortunately, only one of the visits is required to be face to face. The others can be remote and so Live Meeting is called into play which is infinitely better than relying on a phone call.
“Quite often it’s not just the student who’s involved; it’s the employer as well. And it’s possible to share documents of course.”
Generating enthusiasm, of course, then raises the question of how much help to provide.
“There’s a fine line between hand-holding and leaving people to work it out,” says Thomas, pointing out that Tesco didn’t run training in online shopping.
What is important, though, is to make sure that a new adopter is using appropriate hardware in the right environment, because failure can be permanently off-putting.
To help with this, Thomas and his team have put together a portable Live Meeting kit, packed in a flight case. It has everything from robot camera, tripod and microphones, to extension leads, gaffer tape and cable ties, all designed to ensure that the planned video experience actually works. “It allows Live Meeting to be used in any location from small meeting rooms to full size lecture theatres.”
Moving to Lync
Thomas Farrand and the team have already made considerable strides with OCU and LiveMeeting. Lync is going to build on that. For example, the announcement of Lync for Mac is particularly welcome.
That’s because the Art and Design department, who are Mac users, are keen to develop new courses which include distance learning, and they’ve been pressing for a solution that supports Mac. So Lync for Mac saves both the cost and complication of having to buy in another product. Thomas describes it as “A big win for us.”
Lync web apps will also make life easier for many users who are in other institutions or simply don’t want to install the client on their machines.
The general theme here is one of reducing complication. It’s something of a mission for Thomas Farrand to make the user’s experience as simple as possible.
‘The aim is for the user to have that single hub of communication with easy access to Messenger, phone calls, email and video. It’s the whole ethos of unified communication where you just want to contact a person without having to know how to do it. Let the system worry about that.” Lync is a significant step towards achieving that.
Conclusion: Painless Evolution
At NTU the move first to OCU and then to Lync was, and continues to be, evolutionary. The position at NTU is probably repeated in other institutions across the country in that their existing communications system was installed at considerable expense relatively recently. So the move to Lync, though it will save money and improve efficiency, has to be done gradually and opportunistically.
For example Thomas is looking at technical ways to ‘dual fork’ phone calls between both systems, perhaps using a border controller. It’s typical of his positive approach that, instead of simply deciding that the move to Lync wasn’t currently possible, he set about finding ways of doing it, by what calls “A staged approach, implementing Lync side by side with the existing environment.”
More information about Lync can be found on our Microsoft Lync microsite.