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Communication and collaboration solutions save money, boost productivity

Sponsor: Microsoft

Districts streamline communication and information access with unified solutions from Microsoft

Hoover City Schools in Alabama is a mid-size district with 17 schools. Miami-Dade County Public Schools is the nation’s fourth largest district, with 392 schools. Despite the difference in size, both districts were facing a challenge familiar to all K12 administrators: how best to increase communication and collaboration capabilities in an environment of shrinking budgets.

The two districts ultimately used different tactics to meet their challenges, but they both used the same strategy: a solution from Microsoft.

In Hoover City Schools, streamlining the communications system began with addressing the voicemail system, according to Keith Price, the chief technology officer. It was a traditional system that required users to access their messages from a telephone and listen to them sequentially.

“This presented problems for our administrators, who often were away from their desks and their phones, and for teachers, who do not have telephones in their classrooms,” Price said.

The solution was unified messaging, where voicemail messages and other communications are centralized on users’ email inboxes and computer desktops. “All our administrators and teachers were using email, and everyone has access to email in their offices and classrooms,” Price said. “Our administrators even had access to their email from their mobile phones. It just made sense to integrate voice and other messaging with a system everyone was already using.”

The district worked with Microsoft and its Gold Partner Teklinks to implement the unified messaging features of Microsoft(r) Exchange Server 2007. In addition, the district adopted Microsoft Office Communications Server to provide a dedicated internal instant messaging and video conferencing platform into the system. “By using our own IM and video conferencing system, instead of web-based services as we had been doing, we are saving money on bandwidth,” Price explained.

In fact, the district is saving money in other areas as well, including $150,000 in maintenance costs associated with supporting the old voicemail system, Price said. He added that the benefits of the unified messaging system have extended to the classroom, where teachers and students are using a videoconferencing feature for collaborative learning projects.

“It’s evolved into a lot more than voicemail in our inboxes,” Price said. “Students are engaging with other students around the district.”

In Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the communications challenge was somewhat different. Administrators there wanted a platform that would help them communicate and share information with different constituencies, recalls Deborah Karcher, the district’s chief information officer. She explained that administrators, teachers, parents and students found themselves obtaining information from the district’s data warehouses through a variety of access points, each of which required a different log-on and password combination.

“Staff would log on in one place for their benefits information and another for access to student test scores,” she said. “Students and parents would use yet another entry point for grades, homework and library resources.”

District leaders decided to adopt a unified portal that would direct users to all the information they needed, all from a single home page and with a single user ID . To do that, Miami-Dade turned to Microsoft, with which it had a longstanding partnership. “The pricing was great and the ongoing support has been outstanding,” Karcher said of the relationship with Microsoft.

The unified portal was rolled out over three years, and has grown from about 8,000 users to almost half a million this year. In that time, its use has expanded beyond a unified gateway to information to a platform for communication and collaboration. “For a school district it was a way for us to really provide document storage and discussion boards and personal web pages to all our employees in a very secure environment,” Karcher said.

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