The need to replace aging phone systems at the University of Houston is turning into an opportunity to increase access to unified communications-enabled devices.
“When you start moving those dedicated wires, all that copper, it just doesn’t make sense,” says David W. Johnson, Houston’s executive director of technology services and support. “It was time to make the commitment to go to some other platform.”
Increasingly, that “other platform” of unified communications (UC) — a system that integrates text messaging, voice, video, email and presence information across multiple devices — is running on smartphones and tablets right along with computers. Both Cisco Jabber and Microsoft Lync offer the ability to tie mobile devices into a university’s UC system, allowing users to connect with colleagues while on the go.
“With my techs, I call their office phone, and they may pick up while out and about on their cell phone,” says Dan Thames, a telecommunications team lead at Illinois State University. “If they’re in the basement, their cell phone isn’t going to get good coverage, but they can take the call on their tablet. It’s nice.”
At Illinois State, as at many universities, it’s still mainly staffers who are plugging into UC with their mobile devices, Thames says. But he and others think more students and faculty members will soon be using mobile UC to connect and collaborate.
“We’re very likely to have all students on UC, probably in the next year and a half to two years,” Johnson says. “If the instructor and students all logged in to the UC environment, they would be able to share from their laptops [or other devices] and have it show up on screen. You can basically present from any seat.”
Johnson also predicts that the presence features will be popular with students because of the ability to see which friends and classmates are available. Students, he says, will likely use UC to collaborate on group projects and attend virtual tutoring sessions and office hours with professors.
Thames says it’s not feasible for Illinois State to give each of its 20,000-plus students a directory number for the school’s UC system, but officials are exploring the possibility of opening up the UC platform to students for instant messaging. The university is testing UC instant messaging with some of its student workers, who can now use mobile devices to ask for help instantly and know who’s available, rather than calling several supervisors until someone can be reached, Thames says.
If instant messaging is opened up to all students, professors could assign virtual group discussions. Students typically prefer texting over sending an email, Thames says, so they may be more likely to communicate and collaborate once they’re able to use their phones to instant message with peers.
“I think the critical factor is going to be when we can integrate it into our e-learning system,” says Dan Smith, deputy chief information officer at Marquette University. “I think it’s really going to take off with students at that point.”
Marquette uses Desire2Learn, which has its own embedded IM function but isn’t tied in to the university’s UC network. If and when that happens, Smith says, apps on students’ smartphones will enable them to instantly see professors’ and peers’ presence status and communicate with them about class.
“Hooking into e-learning, I think, is going to be the killer app that connects the faculty and students and really opens up collaboration,” Smith says.