As education leaders strive to address unprecedented challenges along with ongoing trends, they are grappling with outdated, unwieldy and disjointed communications systems; inadequate collaboration platforms.
School districts and institutions of higher learning have a core mission to educate students while also ensuring their safety and well-being. That’s never been more important—or more difficult—given the disruptions of the past year. As education leaders strive to address unprecedented challenges along with ongoing trends, they are grappling with outdated, unwieldy and disjointed communications systems; inadequate collaboration platforms; and the pervasive use of mobile devices within their learning organizations.
To succeed in the “new normal” and prepare for an uncertain future, educational institutions are adopting unified communications (UC) solutions to improve communications, collaboration and crisis management.
UC solutions integrate multiple communications channels onto a single platform, allowing users to easily access voice, video, email, text, instant messaging, conferencing and other features from any location and on any device. UC solutions also provide the flexibility, scalability and reliability required to support an array of use cases, including remote learning, campus safety and contact tracing.
While virtual schools and online courses had already gained a foothold prior to the pandemic, remote learning or hybrid scenarios have now become the primary platform for many institutions. They will likely become a permanent fixture even after the pandemic subsides.
The coronavirus forced thousands of schools across the country to send students home with little or no warning. Unified communications helped ease that transition for some institutions. St. John’s Lutheran School just outside Chicago, for example, used a UC platform to successfully transition to an immersive online learning environment within one week of Illinois’ orders to shelter in place. Students, teachers and administrators can use any device to access each learning space, where teachers can conduct classes, share assignments and chat easily with students.1
Unified communications make remote learning more accessible, user-friendly and effective. In addition to using a UC platform for video-conferenced classes, whiteboard sharing and content delivery, schools can integrate learning management systems, student information systems, performative analysis and other tools to personalize, track and enhance the student journey—and improve achievement outcomes. Students can attend virtual field trips, receive personal tutoring, collaborate with their classmates online and easily complete daily assignments from whatever connected device they’re using. Finally, a cloud-based UC solution enables organizations to quickly, flexibly and cost-effectively scale up or down as the need for remote learning fluctuates.
Unified communications solutions enable multi-channel engagement (including via radios, landlines, mobile devices, text messages and personal computers) so that campus personnel and first responders can quickly coordinate an effective response when an emergency occurs. Schools can bring together the emergency location information from teachers’ and staffs’ phones—along with data from cameras, electronic door lock systems, sensors (such as gunshot and gun caliber detectors) and other devices—to gather information and automate their communications and response.
Placerville Union School District in Placerville, Calif., is using an integrated, multifaceted communications solution to streamline emergency response for its two elementary schools and one middle school. Using the solution, staff can flip a switch under any office desk to trigger alert announcements, send an automated call to emergency personnel or activate a lockdown bell.2
When tied into a next-generation 911 (NG911) system, a UC platform allows responders to identify a caller’s identity and location, and then coordinate that information with maps, building plans, occupancy and other data. At Texas Tech University, officials have leveraged their UC platform to connect 7,500 endpoints across multiple campuses and cities to their NG911 system. When an emergency occurs on campus, responders can zero in on a specific building, floor and even a particular room to see the devices located or managed in that area.3 UC capabilities also enable other multimedia information such as IP camera feeds, hazardous materials warnings, and interactive floors plans with markers for AEDs, fire extinguishers and utility controls.
As brick-and-mortar classrooms reopen, school officials must monitor student and staff health and establish mechanisms for informing others of potential exposure to COVID-19 or other communicable diseases. By leveraging unified communications for contact tracing, institutions can integrate contact information in databases with voice, text messages, chatbots, email, video and other communication channels to automatically notify students, staff and community members who may have been infected. Natural language processing and other AI tools can help determine which contacts may require more intensive in-person support or additional information. These capabilities alleviate the burden on call center staff, and they help slow the spread of COVID-19 by informing potential contacts within hours rather than days or weeks. In addition, text messaging and other integrated technologies increase response rates compared to unsolicited phone calls.
Schools today must take a comprehensive approach to student learning, safety and health. Unified communications provide a robust foundation for that approach. But in an era of constrained budgets, organizations will need to be creative and resourceful as they seek to adopt UC platforms. That includes repurposing existing solutions—for example by adapting a contact tracing solution to use for other purposes, or using an existing public safety notification system to inform the campus community of day-to-day events.
It also includes looking at funding in new ways. Many UC solutions are cloud-based, giving organizations the opportunity to offload operating-expense costs, compensate for IT staffing shortages, avoid technology obsolescence and take advantage of the cloud’s scale and integration capabilities. However, funding for education projects often comes from bonds and other vehicles that focus on specific, one-time capital investments. These vehicles may not easily allow for the longer-term, ongoing structure of cloud solutions. School districts and university systems may need to work closely with their jurisdictions to change funding models so that they align more closely with cloud-based consumption.
Doing so will help schools modernize communications more cost-effectively, budget more predictably and move more agilely into the future. That empowers students not only to manage through the disruptions of the current environment, but to thrive.
1 Avaya Case Study. “St. John’s Lutheran School Maintains 100 Percent Enrollment Using Avaya Spaces.” September 2020.
2 Avaya. “Avaya Helps Make Smart Schools Safer and Smarter.” November 2017.
3 Avaya. “Avaya Professionals at Texas Tech Improve Campus Safety.” December 2019.
This content is made possible by our sponsors; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of e.Republic’s editorial staff.