Students have evolved in the way they communicate. They are permanently connected, using multiple media and devices at the same time to create and nurture complex social networks.

As students have become more sophisticated, so too have their expectations for personalisation, integration and immediacy in the delivery and completion of school curriculums, writes Andy Bull, MD for Mitel South Africa.
Profile of next-generation students
Imagine a high school student in the year 2015. She has grown up in a world where learning is as accessible through technologies at home as it is in the classroom, and digital content is as real to her as paper, lab equipment, or textbooks.  
At school, she and her classmates engage in creative problem-solving activities by manipulating simulations in a virtual laboratory or by downloading and analysing visualisations of real-time data from remote sensors.
Away from the classroom, she continues to collaborate with her classmates in virtual environments that allow not only social interaction with each other but also rich connections with a wealth of supplementary content.
Over the next decade, convergence technologies will develop a range of cost-effective applications and devices. These solutions on their own will not meet the requirements of educational institutions and their students.
However, if coupled appropriately with education-centric applications and services, these converged solutions can offer the potential of both very significant cost reductions and dramatic process improvements.
The desired process improvements stem largely from opportunities to communicate more effectively across campus boundaries – to administrative employees where they are working across the campus, to partner organisations and to faculty/students.
Bull believes that over time – just as with the mobile phone or search engine – consumer targeted solutions will drive the “learning curve” in education. That being said, educational institutions have unique requirements not shared with the consumer context.
Some of these requirements are driven by education-related applications and work/teaching patterns (faculty-student interaction; campus-wide, multi-location ring/pickup groups; call centres, and so on), while others (soft phones, wireless VoIP, teleworkers, instant messaging) are “industrial strength” versions of their consumer counterparts (security, control, resiliency).
To realise these opportunities today, educational institutions face two key challenges. The first is the maturity of consumer technologies. The second is how best to meet the institution’s operating requirements with consumer components that address today’s needs and tomorrow’s requirements.
The aim of unifying communications is to provide a consistent user experience whereby everyone can access information and communicate without interruption. The value to an educational institution in unifying communications is to improve productivity and efficiency, ultimately leading to better student outcomes and improved accountability.
The ABCs of service-oriented architectures (SOAs)
Shrinking education budgets are making it increasingly difficult to manage and maintain legacy communications systems that can continue to meet the rapidly evolving demands and needs of today’s more techno-savvy students.
Deployment of unified communications solutions based on service-oriented architectures (SOAs) can help bridge the gap by allowing institutions to migrate to more advanced services using their existing infrastructure.
Loosely coupled IT services are used to support business processes and users. These services are less dependent on dedicated, fixed platforms, and are better able to provide a flexible IT environment that can be adapted to meet an institution’s changing needs – and budget.
Using IP communications platforms and applications as part of a service-oriented architecture supports and enhances an organisation’s ability to sustain growth, drive efficiency gains and enhance the learning experience.
By implementing a long-term vision and migration strategy maximising available funding and budget forecasts, educational institutions can avoid expensive, high risk “fork lift” upgrades and enjoy a range of benefits from more streamlined delivery of educational services and communications with parents, students, administrators and faculty, to improved staff productivity and efficiency, to increased campus security.
Where school districts and campuses have separate voice and data infrastructures, there is an opportunity to improve communications, simplify management and reduce costs by converging voice, video and data on the wide area network (WAN).
IP networking is a more efficient and flexible way to transport voice and data traffic, especially where multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) is employed. MPLS delivers the quality of service (QoS) needed for real-time voice and video. This can be done by swapping out the whole voice infrastructure (big bang), or deploying network gateways (progressive migration).
Making the grade with best-in-class communications
Educational institutions bear unique challenges, not the least of which is the need for well defined and managed communications. Whether across a school district comprised of school buildings or an expansive college campus, the needs of staff and faculty to stay connected across the institutional landscape are vital to maintaining a high degree of service and attention to the end-user: the student.
The need for institutions to enhance the classroom experience in response to the changing face of the “new student”; to seek out new means of operational efficiency despite financial limitations; to ensure a safe and secure environment for students; to maintain optimum performance and communications during a crisis; and to be competitive in order to sustain growth, all speak to the need for enhanced solutions which enable increased collaboration and efficiency at all levels.
The delivery of education and its related services through communications technologies bodes well for the state of education overall and begins to present an optimistic vision for the South African education system within a global paradigm. What better motivation to explore institution-impacting solutions than the opportunity to change the world?