5 Essential UC Tools for Schools

nec-uc-educationUnified Communications (UC) solutions are not a single product or component, but an integrated set of features. Wikipedia defines UC as the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence, IP telephony, video conferencing, data sharing (including Interactive White Boards), and call control with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax), but there are dozens of additional features available, and it seems like more are being added every day.
How can your school district sort through the myriad of options and know which ones are the most essential, process-changing features they should focus on? Working with districts around the country, we’ve identified the 5 essential tools for schools that every UC implementation should include:

1) Enhanced 911 (E911)
By law, school districts are required to provide location information to their Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) when a 911 call is placed. Providing that information is indeed essential, but it only scratches the surface of what your UC E911 service should provide. In addition to automatically updating the PSAP, E911 should also provide your emergency response team and internal designees with capabilities that allow your staff to assist first responders and address potential emergencies in real time.

  • Instant screen-pop notifications: Whenever a 911 call is placed, notification messages should “pop up” on the appropriate administration or resource officer screens. These messages can identify the exact time, location, current duration of the call, and offer additional options for response.
  • Listen and Barge-in: After being alerted of an in-progress 911 call, this feature allows designated District staff to listen to the call and can even choose to “barge in” and assist the conversation directly. 

2) Voice Recording
Recording of incoming lines is another important part of a school district’s complete UC solution. Recording can be implemented in a variety of ways across schools for administration and support staff usage. The most flexible systems use concurrent licensing to allow for more economical and easier configuration, and these recording features can be applied to entire trunks, individual lines, or across the entire system for on-demand recording and playback. The two major impacts to your district are in security and internal management.

  • Security: With recording of all district and school office incoming calls either by default or on-demand, any threats or incidents that occur utilizing the phone system will be captured and available for incident management and post-incident review. Combining recording features with your E911 functionality to automatically record every 911 call adds another layer of emergency response capability to your system.
  • Staff and Parent Management: Allowing for on-demand or constant recording for staff and district offices means that any situations involving a parent, student, or staff members can be quickly evaluated and shared internally with appropriate individuals. Dealing with angry parents, addressing staff learning and management issues can all be easier when you have the actual conversations recorded and available.

3) Conferencing
While there’s a lot of talk about integrating video and web conferencing for distance learning, asynchronous teaching and other pedagogy and matriculation related situations, even a basic audio conference bridge included now in most UC systems has tremendous potential to impact your school’s communications and security. Districts’ Emergency Response Teams (ERT’s) are using simple conference bridges to set up non-public DID numbers specifically for incident communication. Those numbers are shared only with the ERT, designated staff, and local first responders as part of their school emergency preparedness policies and manuals. When an incident occurs, no one is left scrambling to get the right people on the phone or calling out to individuals such as the Chief of Police or Fire Marshall; they are ready and available on a custom and secure conference bridge to keep everyone up-to-date. Adding web and video capabilities means that physical plant information, floor plans, and even live video feed can be shared instantly and easily as well.

4) Single Number Reach
“User-centric communication” sounds like just another buzzword phrase, until you start thinking about the implications within your school. Trying to get an important call through to a specific teacher or staff member can be an exercise in frustration when you must consider schedules, room assignments, time of day, and other factors. With single number reach, the control of contact management is put into the system and the user’s hands; electronic staff directories with a single phone number per user will connect regardless of the class schedule using cell phones, desk phones, softphone on the PC or tablet, and can even ring home or other numbers – whatever the staff member and your telecom department allow for configuration. Adjusting contact endpoints based on time of day, room schedules, vacations, or even who it is that is calling is all possible with current UC technology, as is ringing several lines simultaneously. This can be combined with presence (allowing others to see scheduled status and location) and unified messaging (delivering voicemails to your email or other messaging software) for even more productivity and process gains.

5) Call Reporting
A component of UC that is often overlooked or minimized is the ability to generate call reports. Having an easy to use tool that allows comprehensive call management can make reporting an essential part of managing your telecom system. Call occurrence, quality, duration, full path (was it forwarded or transferred?) and other key metrics can all be used to reduce costs and manage usage. Reporting can provide detail about the operation of your system, can be organized and sorted by location or staff function, and can be a great way to manage expenses. Identifying over-usage of 411 calls, reporting on extended or repeat number dials, and highlighting long distance usage can all be used to assist in makeing administrative decisions. In one recent case, a faulty fax machine was found to be making repeat dials at all hours, costing the district thousands of dollars a year (and presumably untold frustration to the unlucky recipients)!

We understand that the number of available features and functions in modern Unified Communications (UC) systems can be daunting, but we hope this list can be of help when it comes time to make a decision about which system is best for you. In the meantime, an Education Subject Matter Expert is available to answer questions, perform webinars and consult directly with your team. If you’d like to explore more ways your district can enhance or extend communications and security in schools, email michael.kastler@necam.com to schedule a call.

3 Tips to Leverage Your Existing Communications Investment

nec-leverage-existing-investment-ucInformation speed is faster than ever – and continuously accelerating. Your communication stream needs to be able to keep up. Voice, data, chat, video, messaging, email; everything should be synchronized and easily available. Are you not reaping the full benefits of your investment because cost is a concern? We’ve put a few tips together to help you keep your technology current and your capital costs in check.

  • Reuse existing PBX with SIP

If you’ve never toyed with the idea of using tie lines or trunking to connect with your existing PBX infrastructure, consider the savings.   SIP trunking offers significant savings in reduced administration and infrastructure costs. It also allows you to leverage your current investment in gateways and other equipment purchases while extending your communications capabilities.  Technologies that connect to your existing PBX allow you to add video/web/audio collaboration and mass notification services without replacing your voice systems. You can leverage the telecom lines you already pay for, and reduce conferencing costs dramatically compared to engaging a hosted provider.

SIP trunking also gives you an opportunity to vary your communications.  Just because you’ve invested in a particular provider’s technology, does not mean you have to put all of your “eggs into one basket” when it comes to features or security within your organization. For example, if you’ve chosen Provider A for a solution but they don’t meet your desire for redundancy and security in times of crisis, you can implement a secondary provider’s solution – one that integrates seamlessly into your existing solution – for that extra layer of security.

  • Collaboration

With business impacts such as immediacy, simplicity and interoperability, collaboration is almost essential in any business environment. All departments and levels in a corporation interact regularly with one another to collaborate toward common goals, but utilizing WebEx or other hosted solutions for your conferencing needs can be costly. By using your existing lines for collaboration and notifications, you can eliminate ongoing service and connection costs. Since you are already paying for the lines, you might as well leverage all of their capabilities. Increased savings isn’t the only benefit – integrating collaboration tools into your existing infrastructure and communications workspace makes them easier to use and more effective.

There is a place for collaboration within every group of your business. For example, some organizations utilize in-house collaboration in the Human Resources hiring process to cut costs when it comes to fly-in interviews vs. video conferencing interviews. Hospitals and doctors use collaboration tools to increase the speed of consultations. Sales organizations use video collaboration tools to reduce the costs of travel and meeting space. In what ways can your organization use collaboration tools more wisely and effectively today?


  • Add functionality with UC

Unified Communications (UC) gives you the flexibility to customize your solution options, along with the ability to add additional features to meet specific needs, ensuring that you’re delivering a service that’s valued by the entire organization. Traditional UC elements typically consist of Unified Messaging/Voicemail/Fax, Text Chat/IM, Audio/Web Collaboration, and Video Conferencing. Each of these capabilities enables you to add functionality within your existing system so you can increase productivity without drastically increasing cost.

Video conferencing plays a vital role in the collaboration aspect mentioned earlier. A significant change we’ve noticed in recent years is the downturn in the economy and its effect on company budgets, and as a result, a greater emphasis being placed on the importance of expense management. This is of particular importance to the small and medium-sized business sector, and has contributed to the rise in digital alternatives over face-to-face meetings. A reported 45 percent of medium-sized businesses utilize some form of technology to conference in a virtual environment.

In addition to the cost savings, reduced travel results in making better use of staff time. By allowing executives and personnel at all levels to coordinate and actively participate in meetings around the world, you’re able to better maintain executive control and make critical decisions in a timely manner.

If you’re ready to leverage your existing communications investment, NEC’s Meeting Center can help. To see how NEC is helping businesses become more efficient and productive by leveraging their existing PBX, download the info below. For an in-depth look into the system configuration, mass notification settings and reports, check out the demo presentations below.



Secure Your Data, Not Your Devices

nec-byod-secure-dataThe increasing prevalence of mobile data has resulted in great security concerns for enterprises operating on multi-device systems, or with a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy in place. It is challenging for businesses to decide whether the greatest value is in securing the devices that data is delivered to, or securing the data itself through methods such as Mobile Device Management (MDM). Mobile devices usage is highly favorable to end users in terms of access and convenience, but IT managers and CIOs cringe at the thought of the security risks associated with mobility and allowing sensitive data to be retrieved from virtually anywhere, any time. According to the Cibecs/IDG Connect 2012 Business Data Loss Survey, 60% of IT and executive management professionals do not feel their data is completely secure. Whereas existing security measures may suffice for company-owned and controlled devices, it is in the company’s best interests to implement new levels of control on employee devices not controlled by IT to ensure maximum data protection as opposed to device protection.

If you’ve heard that securely controlling data transmission is not possible without enterprise ownership of the device, we’d like to show you otherwise. The following examples of mobile data security best practices can give you an idea of what protocol to follow in securing data across your network and devices.

Thin Client

Thin client policies apply to both smartphones as well as tablets, and include OS streaming, hosted desktop virtualization and workplace virtualization. Sensitive information is processed centrally and remote devices can access this data through thin-client terminal applications using network access only. A major benefit of thin-client operation is that information does not leave the server and can only be accessed by an authorized end user. If the authorized user becomes restricted for any reason, access is immediately revoked, with the potential for a remote wipe of the entire device if company policy dictates. This strategy can ensure further security by implementing strong authentication policies, which limit actions such as host copy-and-paste operations and screen capture in addition to controlling data and file transfers. Internal and client contact data may not always be considered eligible for company security policies. In cases such as this, a thin-client data source with applied security is an ideal solution, as it ensures a contact database stays with the company rather than the phone when the end-user leaves the organization.

Mobile Thin Client Management

Mobile thin client management allows users to control which devices are permissible for company use, thereby restricting data access points. Perhaps the most beneficial feature of this strategy is that thin devices can be remotely wiped. Smartphones and similar devices may have limiting features, such as size, processing power and storage capacity, whereby only restricted data processing can occur. Where thin devices can only keep limited amounts of data, they have the unique capability to replicate data and store master copies within specified datacenters.

When implementing the thin device strategy, companies can still control security of these devices by employing mobile device platforms or other management applications, enabling security policies regarding backup and compulsory data encryption.

Protected Data

The aforementioned strategies focus on protecting data processing environments, but how can you protect your data directly? The Protected Data method guards the data at the source rather than the endpoint, ensuring the safety of data regardless of its location. Enterprise rights management and other such technologies directly embed access rules into documents by way of cryptography. With this method, the rules are applicable to documents regardless of location or device, allowing effective security measures for multi device environments.

This pattern also allows for “detecting, logging, and blocking” data that leaves enterprise premises. Having the capability to follow the transmission of sensitive data provides the benefit of understanding the speed and direction of information transfer and flow.

In addition to applying these strategies to mobile device environments, make sure users are aware of potential security threats and how to avoid them. In addition to securing information, users should be sure to secure the many popular applications that smartphones have. Educating users and emphasizing the security risks on their personal mobile devices can make corporate policies much more effective; by demonstrating that there is a significant and known threat to users’ personal information as well as company information, users are more likely to adhere to corporate controls. This provides a win-win scenario, protecting users’ personal info while also protecting your corporate data.

Solving the BYOD Dilemma in Education – Part 2

Part 2-Defining Devices

nec-education-devicesNow that we’ve identified users, let’s take a look at available devices and best application practices. It is critical to keep in mind the differences in the way each of these devices are used.

Laptops: Laptops can be relatively easy to incorporate, as they offer standardized network and Internet access. But are the benefits greater than the risks? Laptops are easy to turn off, and easy to detect on your network. In an educational setting, teachers can clearly monitor laptop usage and if you are designing access to your student portal, creating a website accessible by all operating systems and most browsers is a relatively simple task. On the risk side, however, laptops can be easy vectors for malware and viruses. If left unchecked, these viruses can spread throughout your school infrastructure and affect anyone who is connected.

Smart phones: While voice usage of phones is decreasing sharply among youth, data and text usage is rising – and fast. Take a look here to see how dramatically data services usage is increasing among teens and young adults. Have your schools faced this issue yet? If not, it is likely they will soon, how will you prepare for this?

Smart phones can be difficult to manage on campus due to the fact that there are so many different capabilities and operating systems associated with them. Designing an app for the Apple OS and Blackberry may make most of your staff happy, but what about the percentage who favor Android? Websites, even those designed for mobile devices, have also caused more issues than they resolve for even the most common devices.

Tablets: Similar to laptops, these multi-tasking devices allow for document management, communication and collaboration. Tablets can run a wide range of applications and software, whether it is for educational purposes, general productivity or for entertainment and personal use. Although similar to laptops, tablets tend to be more secure from a virus and malware standpoint, and less useful for writing and collaboration without accessories such as a keyboard. Tablets are associated with a more narrow set of operating systems (e.g., Apple OS or Android), but with Microsoft’s foray into the arena in 2012, and various other vendors such as HP and RIM continuing to fine-tune their own offerings, this may not be the case for much longer.

So where will you go from here? You can see that there’s a lot to consider before moving ahead, and as is the case with most major projects, the more preparation and greater understanding of adapting to your user needs, the better your chances at successful implementation.

Solving the Bring your own device (BYOD) Dilemma in Education

BYOD Part 1-Defining Users

nec-education-communicationsDo you manage IT for an elementary school district, or a college or university? If so, you are undoubtedly seeing more frequent use of personal devices. There is business value in this rapidly growing practice of users wanting to gain access to your network using their device of choice – are you prepared?

When contemplating a solution set or policy switch to a personal device such as a tablet or smartphone, there are some key things to remember. Before you make a decision on what infrastructure to invest in, first look deeper at your users, the devices and available solutions, and then weigh both the benefits and obstacles you will encounter. Keep in mind that each user will require different access, use different devices, and generate their own sets of issues and benefits.

We’ve divided these users into three categories, let’s take a look:

Students: This group will be more invested in new technologies and less willing to use second-rate or “borrowed” tech in the classroom. They also have a deeper desire to be connected and collaborate electronically. The user set within this group varies greatly; for example, middle school students require different solutions and access than high school students. In a university or college setting, graduate students may have different tools available to them than their undergraduate counterparts.

Teachers: Teachers are bringing their own devices into the classroom, and not just for personal use. Tablet and smartphone use to run presentations and manage in-class participation are practically required by some schools. This trend is likely to grow, and determining your teachers’ needs and capabilities is paramount to a successful implementation.

The good news here is that teachers using their own devices can not only save your institution money, but can enhance the educational process for your students. Advanced presentation styles, greater sense of ownership, and “always-on” connectivity with students can help your teachers make a profound connection with their learning community.

Staff: Your administrative staff can be the most vocal and have the most to gain in accessing school systems through personal devices. Allowing access to student data records, attendance charts, personnel forms and other information needed on an ad hoc basis can increase productivity and efficiency tremendously, which can result in less training and more usage with reduced capital investment.

Remember to also include your maintenance and other support teams in this category. Rather than supplying cell phones and paying for usage, why not allow staff to use their own cell phones, or even connect seamlessly with Wi-Fi to your internal PBX, thus saving you mobile charges altogether.

Each of the user types in your environment are unique and should be treated as such. Identifying who will be granted access to your network, and the scope of that access before you make deployment decisions is critical in preventing unnecessary network tampering and security risks. Now that we’ve identified users, the next post will take a look at available devices and best application practices.