A hybrid unified communication solution embracing Skype for Business and Avaya’s IP Office platform has earned Pennine top marks from Ashton Sixth Form College.
The college is benefiting from greater flexibility, functionality, efficiency and resilience after calling in the Bury-headquartered specialist to replace its existing and “archaic” telephone system.
Whilst the upgrade was driven by necessity, Head of IT and Learning Resources, John Haigh, also saw an opportunity to introduce cutting edge unified communications functions to the college.
“We had an old, on-premise NEC telephone system that was very archaic, difficult to administer and out of warranty,” he says. “It needed replacing. We wanted more flexibility, the ability to hot desk and unified communications which would enable messaging, conferencing and things like that.”
Knowing what he wanted but not necessarily how it should be best delivered, Haigh invited interested parties to tender solutions through the educational community’s Janet network. This is a membership organisation which as well as operating a shared digital infrastructure incorporating a superfast, reliable and high bandwidth network, also delivers procurement savings to UK universities and colleges. The latter includes access to sector-wide deals offering beneficial terms for services and software such as Microsoft Office 365.
Ashton College’s tender attracted six bids, some of which were rejected for being licence or cloud-based, others for not offering sufficient flexibility through effectively integrated UC capabilities.
… Pennine’s understanding of the education market was a big plus in terms of choosing them through the tender.
JOHN HAIGH, HEAD OF IT AND LEARNING RESOURCES, ASHTON SIXTH FORM COLLEGE
After careful consideration, Haigh opted for Pennine’s solution. This offered the best of both worlds by embracing the two market-leading telephony and UC technologies: a hybrid unified communication solution utilising Avaya’s IP Office and Microsoft’s Skype for Business.
Powerful hybrid unified communication solution
Pennine recommended installing this powerful hybrid solution within the college’s virtual environment. Not only would this avoid the need for costly investment in hardware, but it would be easier for Haigh’s team to manage.
The integrated Avaya-Skype for Business proposal was therefore attractive on a number of levels, from cost through to functionality and user-friendliness.
Pennine also won out on the basis of its expertise and experience within the educational sector
“Pennine’s understanding of the education market was a big plus in terms of choosing them through the tender,” confirms Haigh. “They understand the academic cycles, that at certain times of the year you’re going to need the phone system to cope with particular demands.”
He liked too that the company did not try and sell something the college didn’t need, instead putting forward a proposition that would make use of an existing resource.
“Other solutions put forward incorporated an additional client which we obviously would have had to pay for,” he explains. In contrast Pennine had recommended exploiting Skype for Business as the UC client, integrating it with IP Office via an Avaya plug-in.
Increased productivity & user adoption
“We’ve got Office 365 licensing and so already had Skype for Business on premise which meant no additional financial lay out. Also, a lot of people use Skype at home so we knew it would be easier to integrate college staff because they’d already be familiar with it.”
That assumption proved sound, with even Haigh taken aback at how quickly they embraced its functionality. “People immediately started using Instant Messaging as opposed to emails in the office.
“Using Skype internally has increased productivity because you get such a quick turnaround with messaging and, with presence, you can see whether people are available or not.”
There is plenty more to be squeezed from the platform as the college gradually rolls out functionality, not just to its staff, but well over 2,000 students. Skype for Business’s impressive video and broadcast capabilities have already been earmarked for exploitation in a variety of ways.
“We have a few ideas on how we can utilise the new technology, such as video and the possibility of using Skype within to record lessons and getting students to Skype in,” confirms Haigh. He can also see how the technology might help in the recruitment of staff and students who are not local to the college.
“Students can come from quite far and wide, from places like Saddleworth, Glossop and parts of Derbyshire. We’re thinking that rather than getting them to come into college we might simply do a Skype interview in a meeting room.
“The same could apply when interviewing for a staff position. New teachers may not be local,” he says, noting too that the relative ubiquity of Skype for Business means it can be used to network with other colleges and external bodies.
IP Office has been met with equal enthusiasm having proven to be a robust telephony solution offering excellent functionality which immediately enhanced efficiency.
Among the many benefits it’s brought is a Virtual Contact Centre with menu-based call routing. Callers can now report student absences or access particular departments, personnel or any of the college’s 120 extensions, without needing their call to be directed by a member of reception staff. “It’s much more efficient and has freed up staff time on Reception,” reports Haigh.
Resilient, flexible & cost effective
It is, he says, also much more resilient and flexible. “The old system was very much a box on premise. IP Office gives us flexibility in that we can have it on or off site because with cloud-based facilities we can host it anywhere we want. It’s the future flexibility we were looking for in terms of resilience and disaster recovery.”
… Pennine are great. They’re very responsive, friendly people to deal with and their engineers technical expertise is very good
Pennine’s expertise is also set to yield something any educational establishment would welcome in these straitened times: savings running into thousands of pounds. Haigh is forecasting that the college’s telephone bills are set to slashed by around 15% as a result of moving ISDN lines over to SIP trunks which run across Janet’s impressively reliable, fast and high bandwidth network.
Praise is also directed at how Pennine handled implementation of the solution, investing much time in advance of the new system going live to ensure the smoothest transition possible.
Pennine’s engineers built the phone system in-house so that it could run alongside the old one internally for a few weeks whilst we tested the handsets,” reports Haigh. “Then we waited for a break in term when there were no students or staff around and switched to the new systems.”
Since then any issues or questions that have arisen have been dealt with expertly and promptly. “Pennine are great. They’re very responsive, friendly people to deal with and their engineers technical expertise is very good.”
“Any questions we’ve had we’ve got the answers back extremely quickly which shows their engineers are extremely knowledgeable.”