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Education: Ripe for Advanced Communications and Collaboration Technologies

With all the talk on both sides of the political divide about online education and its potential benefits for students, teachers and the country at large, it seems like a good time to review Frost & Sullivan's recent market study on the North American higher education vertical, conducted by my colleague Alaa Saayed. Long one of the most appealing targets for enterprise unified communications and collaborations (UC&C) technologies, the sector will be able to change dramatically only if it takes advantage of advanced communications and collaboration applications and services. Advanced communications technologies not only facilitate collaboration among students, faculty and staff members, they also pave the way to new teaching and learning techniques.

While the adoption of fully integrated UC solutions is still nascent in this market, many postsecondary educational institutions have already implemented certain components of the UC&C stack, forging the way to more advanced communications technologies and architectures. North America has been the fastest-growing world region in terms of UC&C application deployments.

There are 7,087 degree-granting higher education institutions in North America, composed of 2,980 private for-profit organizations, 1,884 private nonprofit organizations, and 2,223 public institutions. The percentage of colleges and universities that have implemented UC&C technologies has more than doubled in the past year, according to the 2011 CDW Unified Communications Tracking Poll. The most prominent drivers that have contributed to the growing demand for UC&C technologies include the following:

* Growing recognition of the productivity and cost-related benefits of UC&C technologies
* The popularity of E-learning and the need to extend the user environment beyond the campus
* The rising impact of tech-savvy younger generations on IT purchasing decisions
* The need to offer high-quality education in an increasingly competitive environment
* Advancements in mobile communications

In addition, trends such as the growing role of social media, increasing popularity and availability of collaborative team spaces, the evolution and growing use of consumer mobile endpoints in the enterprise, the proliferation of online education, and the popularity of cloud applications and freeware (e.g., Google Docs) have also served to improve the consideration rate for advanced UC&C technology in the higher education vertical.

Frost & Sullivan expects demand to grow in the coming years as more colleges and universities get acquainted with the benefits offered by collaborative technologies. A recent Frost & Sullivan survey of North American C-level executives found that more than half of non-users of specific UC&C tools are either considering or have concrete plans to adopt various advanced communications technologies in the next two to three years.

Still, challenges remain, including tight budgets and the complex economic environment, other investment priorities and restrictions; privacy, security and compliance concerns; policy and regulatory issues, and staff training. Currently the higher education market is characterized by deployment of a complex mixture of legacy and IP communications infrastructure. While Frost & Sullivan estimates that more than 60 percent of North American colleges and universities have already implemented an IP telephony system, the number of end-to-end, pure IP environments is still very low, with only around 10 percent of institutions having deployed IP telephony throughout the entire campus. UC&C technologies that already have high penetration rates include unified messaging, instant messaging, audio conferencing, and videoconferencing. The largest potential areas of growth, on the other hand, are present in premises-based and cloud–based messaging, IP telephony, video collaboration, mobile UC, social networking tools, and shared/collaborative team spaces.

Of course, the bigger issue is whether UC&C technology is enough to usher in a new era of online education. Online colleges like the University of Phoenix have been around for years, and similar for-profit programs are now available to kids in grades K-12. But the real change is coming from big-name universities like Stanford, Harvard and MIT, which are making noises about their forays into the online world. Already, they are putting lectures on the Web for hundreds of thousands of students around the globe; future plans include figuring how--and, indeed, whether--to offer full-on degree programs for undergrads and post-grads alike. Obviously no such program will be able to function without web collaboration, video and social media; the question is, will those tools be a reasonable substitute for all the in-person collaboration, living and learning that usually goes on at a traditional, venerable campus?