Guest blog post from Gerald Haigh. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft education series of blogs.
The College of North West London (CNWL) is a large further education college with over 12,000 full and part time students. It occupies two main campuses – at Wembley and Willesden — in the London Borough of Brent.
Keeping in touch
The classic single-purpose analogue telephone system that’s served homes and businesses well for many decades struggles to meet the needs of a 21st Century learning institution, with a large, diverse and highly mobile body of both staff and students.
That much was evident to Garod Barker when he arrived at the College as head of IT. The problems were easy to see and the solution seemed obvious.
‘Inadequate voice mail, call charges through the roof, so we decided to go for VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol)’
A partial start was made with provider Mitel. The handsets, though, given the large number needed, were expensive, and when Microsoft Office Communications Server became available as part of the College’s licensing agreement it was decided to use it for the teaching staff in the college.
Moving to Lync
After two years with OCS, the College moved to Lync for teaching staff and then, in early 2013, to Lync 2013 bringing additional functionality and stability.
‘We now have about 400 to 450 teaching staff using Lync across two sites,’ says Garod. ‘Our Wembley Site is completely Lync with about 180 users and 25 Mitel users. And everything is routed through our network to our Willesden site. So no BT or telephone lines are needed at Wembley, which makes for a massive saving to the College as a whole.’
The most obvious gain for staff is that instead of having to share phones and numbers, each staff member now has their own extension number and phone – a USB handset that can be used in staff rooms and classrooms across both sites. Instant messaging is being encouraged as an alternative especially for teachers who don’t like using phones in the classroom. This also give access to a dedicated IT support user account for directly and easily reporting issues within the classroom.
Up to now, the main staff experience of Lync has been as an improved telephone system, though some have used document sharing. Now, the expectation is that staff can be encouraged to do more. One way of promoting this has been through using Lync to make the Principal’s quarterly address to the College more generally accessible by relaying it to screens around the College.
There are considerable savings that cannot easily be quantified, to do with efficiency and better use of time. This kind of cost benefit will obviously gain momentum as the extended features of Lync are increasingly explored and used.
Some impressive figures, though, do stand out, summarised by Garod.
‘The majority of the back end setup is virtualised with high redundancy which wasn’t available in OCS so we made approx. saving of £15k in hardware server costs alone.
Then, after much experimenting we settled on a handset that costs about £50, it’s light and easy to carry around with you. By using this model we made approx. savings of £50k against buying additional handsets for our Mitel system.
We also get free voicemail by linking it in to our on premises Exchange system through the Unified Messaging option.’
‘The next project,’ says Garod, ‘Is to bring Lync into our enrolment process. We’re looking to use it to interview international students in their home countries.’
The College usually takes between one and two hundred students from overseas, and it’s clear that a virtual ‘face to face’ interview with a College staff member will not only help the selection process and encourage prospective students to apply, but will also give the College, and its staff, a virtual presence in educational institutions overseas.
‘We also have a couple of staff who work from home and Lync is used by them,’ says Garod. ‘And we are currently experimenting with using Lync on the go, with a netbook/tablet, a 3G/broadband dongle and the Lync client and handset. So far results are very encouraging.’
Changing the game
Lync, clearly, is one of those technologies that you can use in a relatively straightforward way at first, to help users do what they do already, but more easily and efficiently. Then, once established, and users are comfortable, far more possibilities open up, to the point of changing the way the institution and its people work. Garod’s clearly very aware of this and is going to be leading and encouraging people forward. As he says,
‘With the new Lync client being more user friendly and easier to use we are hoping that the additional functionality will be used more by the staff.’