Distance learning comes a long way


Having courses come to the students – instead of the other way round – is the logical next step at Blanchardstown institute, writes GORDON SMITH

FROM NEXT year, students at Blanchardstown Institute of Technology (ITB) won’t have to show up for lectures. Instead, the courses will come to them.

Distance learning is the logical next step for the college’s unified communications (UC) technology, which it recently implemented across its campus in west Dublin.

Currently, academic, IT and administration staff are using UC. From the beginning of the next college year, students will be able to collaborate with other students and lecturers without having to be in the same room, using document-sharing features in the software.

“From next September, the plan is to actively roll out the application to our student base,” says Dave Curran, IT manager with ITB.

As other colleges roll out similar systems, cross-institute collaboration such as guest lectures between different third-level colleges become possible. “It is a huge benefit to think that there might be experts in Cork IT that could be lecturing to their students in Cork, while students in Blanchardstown are also able to see this,” says Curran.

UC comprises a range of different technologies such as e-mail, video, instant messaging and telephony, as well as document collaboration. Its supporters say that combining all of these into one system makes people more productive, since less time is wasted failing to make contact with colleagues.

Erik van Ommeren of IT services firm Sogeti recently argued that e-mail is losing effectiveness as a standalone tool. He recommended that organisations need to look at more all-encompassing collaboration technology.

For example, using instant messaging rather than e-mail allows for faster communication. Phone calls can be transparently routed to a mobile or even a home number. People on a network can quickly see each others’ status and their preferred means of contact through a feature called “presence”. A green signal indicates the person is available, orange is for when they are in a meeting or on a call, and the red “do not disturb” setting stops people from sending instant messages or contacting people directly. More than just a business tool, elements of UC are being increasingly seen in less obvious places.

“Customers expect to have personal communication. In some cases you can log on to a website and there’s a picture of an individual with their presence indicated,” says Barry Dillon, Ireland country manager for UC provider ShoreTel, which has supplied the National Concert Hall with a system for its contact centre to better handle bookings and customer queries.

Dillon says unified communications technology offers a very fast payback that is measured in months. “On maintenance alone there are savings of €175,000 over five years,” he says. The systems typically consume up to 40 per cent less power, he added.

The current economic situation is causing businesses to evaluate the technology more closely because of the promised cost savings, says John McCabe, managing director of Damovo Ireland, which supplies and installs systems from several suppliers. “We probably aren’t that blunt when we go into a sales discussion, but at the end of the day, cost savings are what it comes down to.”

Falling prices have also helped to make elements of unified communications more appealing, but saving money isn’t the only driver, adds McCabe. “The bigger benefit is the ability to collaborate better,” he says.

Damovo implemented UC across its own global business and now holds management meetings virtually. The company calculated it will have saved 319 staff days this year and reduced its costs by €363,660.

It also installed the UC system at ITB. Mr Curran says his technical support staff save on average 33 per cent of their time by fixing user problems remotely.

But not everyone is so enthusiastic about UC. IT analyst firm Gartner has dropped it from its latest list of strategic priorities for business, arguing the technology is evolving too slowly. Critics say it extends the working day by stealth, since it could make employees contactable outside regular working hours.

Microsoft’s information worker business manager Richard Moore says people used to spend much more time looking for information or people than before this technology existed. “Many people don’t have an issue with it [constant contactability]. There is a generation in the workforce, broadly between the ages of 25 and 35, who are receptive to this type of technology.”

McCabe says it was a matter of becoming accustomed to the presence setting, and adjusting it depending on the time of day. “Given you’re showing what your status is, people tend to respect that,” he says.