Unified Communications In The Age Of Global Pandemic – An Educational Story

This post first appeared on the Microsoft News Centre website – I encourage you to check it out entirely here.

More than 100 years ago, legendary New Zealander Sir Ernest Rutherford pioneered with radio waves. At his former school, Nelson College, the pioneering spirit is still going strong. Its latest technical innovation enables teachers, students and the school community to communicate seamlessly without wires – or even phones. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the College’s cloud-based Microsoft Teams platform kept calls getting through no matter where their recipients were working, enabled students to learn and collaborate, and even allowed teachers to continue their professional development.

Nelson College logoI’ve worked with the team at both Nelson Boys College and Telesmart off and on for a couple of years now and have always been super impressed with their innovation and eye for an opportunity. Therefore, it really was not especially surprising to me that they identified the value of Microsoft Teams as a unified communications platform for use both in the classroom and from a school administrative perspective.

The COVID19 global pandemic has certainly caused an acceleration of digital technologies in the education sector and one eLearning Leader I spoke with suggested it had propelled their school 2-3yrs ahead of their predicted adoption scale. Back to the case study:

As the oldest state secondary school in New Zealand, Nelson College has an impressive heritage. However, it was also dealing with a heritage phone system based on outdated on-site infrastructure with complex technical support requirements.

NelsonCollege-44With a student body approaching 1,100, as well as a preparatory school for Years 7-8, the College phone systems were under a lot of pressure from parents calling in to report absences, and enquiries from prospective families. While the College had switched from the old copper phone wires to an internet-based phone system (Skype for Business) in 2016, changing security requirements meant its existing on-site systems would soon become out of date. IT Systems Engineer Bob Casey was also spending a significant amount of time managing the school’s on-premise servers, which requires specialist knowledge.

An upgrade was urgently needed. But simply installing new phones and servers at the school would only create the same problems down the track. After reaching out to telephony specialists Telesmart, the College quickly realised a more pioneering approach was needed, as befits its history. It decided to do away with phones completely, switching the entire communication system to the cloud: Cloud Calling for Microsoft Teams.

“With wires, you’re very much tied to your building, whereas Teams provides much more mobility. It’s more than just the next step in the communication evolution,” Casey says. “It’s your teaching environment, it’s your meeting environment. Many people still think of a phone as a handset on a desk, but this pulls everything together in one place.”

When a global pandemic closed the school for more than a month, the genius of this solution became clear.

Modern unified communications platforms fundamentally change the way people choose to engage with each other, something that Bob Casey, IT Manager at Nelson College, identified:

  1. “One said to me they’re still using Teams and loving it, even now lockdown is over. The staff chat functions are always busy and we’re moving away from emails towards messaging each other on Teams. In a school environment, messaging is very important because you can’t call teachers when they’re teaching in the classroom. Now you can send a Teams message and they can see it instantly,” he says.
  2. “Extension numbers are a thing of the past too. You can call people by their name, which is so much easier than remembering a number or looking it up in a directory. Landlines in the community are fast disappearing. Soon we’ll all be communicating through an app – and Nelson College is already making it easier for parents and teachers to do that.”

I see the above in my role as well – leveraging Microsoft Teams across my laptop and mobile phone means those important communications are always with me and a simple touch of a button takes the conversation from a text message exchange, to a voice call to a video call when you really need to see and understand what the other person is saying. I’ve lost count the number of times this has led to ‘looping in’ another colleague to the video call who has knowledge, experience or different viewpoints to enhance the learning taking place.

With the added ability to use all of the above forms of chat with both internal and external users, along with the dialing ability to land lines and mobile phones all from within the same application, schools are realizing just how powerful Microsoft Teams is as a unified communications platform.

Again, I encourage you to read the entire case study here to fully understand how Nelson College used Microsoft Teams both during (and now after) the COVID19 lockdown to maintain connections across the entire College community.

I am always keen to discuss what I've written and hear your ideas so leave a reply here...