Top Tips for IT Managers in Education for IP Telephony

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1 Top Tips for IT Managers in Education for IP Telephony

2 Keeping pace with modernisation Many UK universities, colleges and schools are under pressure to modernise, not only because of evolutionary changes to the education system, but because of their ongoing need to be more efficient, agile and resourceful in the way they operate. This means the role of the IT manager and IT department in education has taken greater prominence in recent years as halls of learning increasingly grapple with the introduction of an ever growing tidal wave of new and emerging technologies. From a learning perspective, technology now pervades almost every aspect of education as students and staff benefit from the latest developments in hardware and software to assist studies as well as the delivery of them. Equally, there are many new and emerging information and communications technologies available that support the operational delivery of education - including telephony - and this is an area where IT managers and other support staff face acute challenges but also significant opportunities. The telephony challenge facing IT managers in education Unless newly built, most educational establishments in the UK will currently have - or until recently will have had - a traditional telephone system in place. Some of these systems will have originally been purchased and configured several years ago; others will have been bought and installed more recently, but are still historically traditional rather than 21 st Century modern. Many of these telephony systems will have come with an upfront capital outlay, particularly those involving the purchase of an array of customer premises equipment. As they become more outdated, these older systems can begin to cost more money to maintain, take up more resources to manage and cause more technical issues than they are worth. And by keeping them, new opportunities and benefits are being missed by educational establishments because they cannot take advantage of the many new features afforded by more modern systems, such as those offered through Voice over IP (VoIP). Specific challenges Costs Telephony systems that were installed several years ago generally cost more to manage and maintain. The upkeep of an outdated phone system is a drain on money and other resources. Call rates can be high, maintenance charges an ongoing burden and upgrades an unwanted and expensive necessity. 2

3 Cost is often the primary reason why educational establishments consider switching to a more modern set up they are just too inefficient and expensive to keep going, especially when there is a viable alternative such as VoIP. Having made a decision to consider changing, IT managers face several challenges. To begin with, the case must be made to explore other options and this begins with an assessment of the current cost and issues versus the switch to an alternative. Depending on the technical skills and business acumen of the educational establishment, this might either be conducted internally or by employing an external expert. If the assessment reveals that VoIP would be a preferable option, the IT manager must then understand and define the organisation s needs what should the system do aligned to the objectives of the university, college or school? Again, depending on the level of expertise internally, this may be conducted internally or externally in partnership with the help of an expert. The next step is the design, configuration and installation of a suitable VoIP system and this will typically entail finding a provider that has good experience in the education sector and the capability to deliver the right set up. Other decisions also need to be taken, such as whether a maintenance contract is required. Once in place, the cost benefits of a VoIP system can soon be realised. The key cost advantages of VoIP include cheaper calls, lower maintenance charges and there is no need to buy, install and configure a physical PBX. Calls within the user community are often free. Where universities, colleges and schools have large campus sites and significant levels of internal communication, this can be a major cost saving. Moves and changes Another challenge facing IT managers is that many older telephony systems have a technical inflexibility about them which means that universities, colleges and schools must rely heavily on their telecoms provider to conduct moves and changes. Not only can this take more time to perform, it can also cost money if the provider charges for the time and resource. Total reliance on a provider for moves and changes has become an unnecessary and outdated way of running a telephony set up. Ideally universities, colleges and schools should have the option to ask for changes (if they would prefer) or do it themselves. Either way, moves and changes need not be a lengthy and costly process because VoIP can be extremely flexible and easy to use. Furthermore, VoIP requires minimal IT support and administering the system is easy so there is no need for heavy operational back up that costs more money. Peak periods Because of the way they operate, universities, colleges and schools experience especially busy times during the year such as enrolment, exam periods, and start and end of term. These are periods when contact with the outside world and across departments becomes paramount, especially when parent, lecturer / teacher and student communication is at its peak. This is typically the time when the telephony system will be stretched. 3

4 Depending on the size and nature of the educational establishment, its telephony system would have been configured with one or more phone lines, an array of telephone equipment and any number of extensions. Other features may also be present, such as an automated answering system, voice mail and automated routing. During relatively quiet periods, such facilities and features may tick over nicely, but peak periods have been known to test them to their limits and in some instances they completely break. If, for example, a large number of parents are contacting a school at the same time, calls may not be answered promptly or may be routed incorrectly or inefficiently. This can result in miscommunication, over-communication and generally a drain on resources at times when they are most needed for other purposes. If the telephony system is not doing what it should be doing, this can lead to further issues, such as tarnishing the reputation and brand of a school. A modern VoIP set up can play a vitally important role in the ebb and flow of the communications ecosystem, especially during busy periods. Configured correctly, VoIP provides a high level of flexibility so that, for example, calls are answered promptly or routed more efficiently and effectively. This is because it is easy to move, add and change extensions and dial plans easily and quickly through a web interface. And the educational establishment can make these changes rather than relying on a network provider. Supporting the delivery of education Most telephony systems that were originally purchased years ago were only bought for one purpose to enable the university, college or school to interact with the outside world and vice versa. Calls could be made out and they could be received. They were not designed to directly support the delivery of education. In today s modern world, the convergence of technologies means that telephony systems can dually support the operational side as well as the delivery of education - in a classroom, across a campus and remotely. By keeping the telephone system completely separate from the delivery of education, not only are educational establishments doubling up in areas of technology that now overlap, they are missing out on significant features that are beneficial to students, staff and other stakeholders. The remit of many IT managers in education has expanded to include remote learning and working. How can students and staff benefit from modern technology to aid their studies, their working lives and the objectives of the university, college or school? Again, depending on the size and nature of the educational establishment, this may be a highly complex set up or a very simple one. In every instance, the key is understanding how remote learning and working can be built into the IT strategy and then designing a VoIP system around it. 4

5 Embarking on new IP telephony top tips for IT managers in education 1. Reduce costs To reduce costs and keep them low, go for non-proprietary telephony options such as open source Asterisk. In 2013 government mandated a preference for open source for public sector IT implementations. 2. Obtain references Benefit from the experiences of others before you press ahead. By getting references from other educational establishments that may have had similar telephony challenges and requirements, you can learn what worked well and what didn t. Such references are great for sharing best practice, saving you more time and money. 3. Seek economies The convergence of technology means that operational aspects of a university, college or school will overlap with the delivery of education. It s likely that in many cases a single telephony system with unified communications features can concurrently support both functions. 4. Take control Ensure that you choose a telephony provider that can offer you the greatest degree of control over your system. This means that you can make your own changes with your dial plan and call distribution setup. 5. Have support Choose an IP communications provider that can offer professional support when you need to expand or make site moves. 6. Be prepared Map the communications ecosystem so you can plan for your requirements ahead of time. The way that educational establishments interact with learners, applicants and parents is no longer linear; during busy periods such as enrolment or start of term - you may have requirements for more complex IVR menus and call distribution. 7. Future proof IT and communications technologies are increasingly at the heart of education and future proofing has never been more important. Because it is collaborative, open source technology offers more scope for future proofing and it is advisable to choose a trusted open source provider with relevant and up to date accreditation with Asterisk and Kamailio. 5

6 Speed was an important factor. We had four weeks to get everything up and running, and Foehn could deliver to these timescales where the other provider couldn't. It was 50% cheaper and their pricing was more transparent so we knew what to expect if we were to add more functionality in the future Tony Tinnirello - CTO of Espresso Education Within weeks we had our new phone system in place and were ready and prepared to handle the exam results as we would at any normal time. It was clear that their technical staff were completely on the ball and knew exactly what we needed and in what time frame Claire Wright - Deputy Headteacher at Parrs Wood High School We could integrate the phone system with our bespoke school CRM system so we recognise the incoming number and then the corresponding CRM record will pop up on screen, so reception and school staff can deal with the call much more efficiently Tim Dalton from the IT team at Wildern School 6

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