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Colleges Enhance Collaboration with Unified Communications

Video-based UC keeps students, professors and staff in touch with one another and fosters valuable collaboration.

Students at the Florida State University College of Medicine spend their first two years taking classes at the main campus in Tallahassee before venturing out to one of the college's six regional campuses or two rural sites — hundreds of miles from one another.

There's a good reason the college depends so heavily on video conferencing: Regional campuses span from Tallahassee up and down the state to Daytona Beach, Fort Pierce, Orlando, Pensacola and Sarasota, while the rural facilities are in Immokalee, closer to Fort Myers and Marianna.

"Video conferencing plays an important role in helping our professors, students and staff stay in touch with one another," says Patrick Sparkman, a media specialist in the medical college's Office of Information Technology.

Sparkman says the college has 30 video conferencing rooms across all locations, and uses video conferencing for remote meetings between professors and staff, and professors and students, including those out for clinical rotations at area hospitals. The college also supports video conferencing for guests as well as standard classroom lectures, and uses video capture technology to record every one.

"Students have the choice of viewing a live video stream or watching the video later at their own convenience," Sparkman says, adding that the recorded videos are used primarily by first- and second-year students whose focus and reliance on classroom work and instruction is greater.

While many organizations tend to tread lightly into the world of unified communications (UC), starting off with presence, instant messaging and voicemail in email, the FSU College of Medicine opted to jump right in with video — an approach well suited to the modern campus lifestyle and spread-out nature of a growing number of campus communities.

Being There

The FSU College of Medicine first started using Cisco Systems TelePresence in 2009, when the college upgraded its network switching and router infrastructure to support the bandwidth required for video conferencing. As other technology evolved, so did the college's requirements. Recognizing that it was running out of rack space, the IT department virtualized the college's servers, added an EMC storage area network (SAN) to handle all video files and upgraded the network to a 10 Gigabit Ethernet backbone.

"We now have more than 2,000 recordings that take up in excess of 2 terabytes of data," Sparkman says. "While virtualizing our UC servers was part of the college's effort to modernize its server infrastructure, adding the SAN gave us the storage capabilities we needed. And, through the server virtualization, we now have the redundancy we didn't have when we started."

Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst for the Enterprise Strategy Group, says the medical community has seen extensive use of video technology for the past several years. "Some of the earliest projects when the Internet exploded were for telemedicine in remote areas," he says. "On the broader UC front, we're also finding that many organizations are using Microsoft Lync for presence and IM."

50% The percentage of cost savings organizations can expect from a UC deployment, from reduced costs on long ­distance, trunking, system maintenance and more

SOURCE: "ZK Research Unified Communications Purchase Intentions Study" (ZK Research, Nov. 2013)

The Missing Lync

At Broward College, also in Florida, IT staff rolled out Microsoft Lync 2010 to about 3,000 users, mainly so professors could attend campuswide meetings via video conference and for video-based professor-student advising sessions.

"We're really trying to get the faculty to participate more in collegewide committee meetings, as well as improve overall collaboration," says Chip DiComo, director of technology services. "Broward College is spread out across four campuses, and it can take up to 45 minutes to drive from one end of the county to the other, so the audio and video conferencing features let the professors attend committee meetings without having to drive to the main campus."

The college recently upgraded to Lync 2013, which DiComo says helped to improve UC services because Lync's HTML5-based web client works well on any computing platform. For now, only staff and faculty have Microsoft Lync installed on their client devices, DiComo says. Students can opt to install the Lync client on their devices, but most access their advising sessions by logging on to the Lync website. Moving forward, college officials are hopeful that Lync's capabilities will continue to expand, so that the college doesn't have to install a new PBX, DiComo says.

"We're at least two years away from having true unified communication where we could have voicemail in email," he says. "For now, our main focus has been putting the conferencing capabilities in the hands of students, faculty and staff."

Mark Wallheiser
May 12 2014