4-page Case Study
Posted: 10/18/2010
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Western Kentucky University Western Kentucky University Adopts Unified Communications to Improve Distance Learning and Collaboration

Founded in 1906, Western Kentucky University (WKU) strives to engage its students in world-class, technologically enhanced educational programs. With its main campus located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and three regional campuses in surrounding counties, the university wants to ensure that all of its 21,000 students have access to the programs, professors, and information they need to complete their degrees. Many of the school’s students are place-bound—by jobs, extended families, children, or economic circumstances—so it realized it needed to break with the traditional model of education and find a way to bring the classroom to its students. Working with Microsoft Gold Partner The VIA Group, WKU deployed a Microsoft Unified Communications solution to help expand its distance learning programs and to ensure that students and faculty could collaborate instantly, anytime, anywhere.

Western Kentucky University (WKU) was founded in 1906 as a state teachers’ college. Excellence in education has always been a primary concern for the administration and faculty. WKU provides students with rigorous academic programs in education, the liberal arts and sciences, business, and traditional and emerging professional programs, with emphasis at the baccalaureate level, complemented by relevant associate and graduate-level programs. In the last decade, the university has increased its enrollment 33 percent, from 14,000 students to 21,000 students, making it the fastest growing university in the state.

The main WKU campus is located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with three surrounding regional campuses servicing students in nearby counties. The university also hosts a number of international students and sponsors exchange programs for students and professors doing research all over the world. The school, whose vision is “A Leading American University with International Reach,” recognizes that its mission continues to evolve in response to regional, national, and global changes, as well as the need for lifelong learning. Many of the university’s students are place-bound by jobs, elderly parents, children, or economic circumstances. WKU recognized that it needed to find a way to both enhance education for traditional students on campus, living in its residence halls or nearby housing, and to bring the classroom to students who could not travel easily to campus.

One thing that WKU recognized immediately was that creating a distance learning program by itself was not enough. “It isn’t enough to push out content,” says Edwin Craft, Director of Communication Technologies at WKU. “We needed to develop a method for students to communicate and collaborate in real time.” The school offered some video conferencing capabilities for distance learning programs, enabling students to “attend” class and interact with fellow students and the professor while class was in session. For communication outside of classes, the school provided email through CommuniGate Pro. It also supplied chat group support for students and faculty.

None of these solutions were integrated, and they did not provide the sort of instant communication students required when they needed an immediate answer to a question about homework or to discuss an upcoming group presentation for class. “Our solutions weren’t mobile, and they weren’t real time,” explains Craft. “Email was too slow, and with the chat groups, the students had to be logged in and at their desks all the time. The students needed a way to collaborate when not in a face-to-face session, but they also need a way to be mobile and to communicate at nontraditional hours.”

* Now, when students need a higher level of communication, they have it at the click of a button. That is the true power behind Microsoft Unified Communications. *

Edwin Craft
Director of Communication Technologies, Western Kentucky University

Craft and his team also needed a way to support a growing mobile workforce. With students, faculty, and administration for the main campus and regional campuses combined, the university’s IT team must support communications for approximately 42,000 people. “We are here to educate students, but we are also a business entity that needs to communicate as a business as well,” says Craft. Administrators who traveled as representatives of the university to raise funds or interview candidates needed a way to communicate with the staff at school. Professors on research sabbaticals or teaching exchange programs needed a way to communicate with students and colleagues in their department about current projects and programs.

As part of its continuing commitment to increase distance learning programs and increase its international reach, the university wanted a more integrated solution for providing real-time communication. “No matter what the physical location of the students, we needed the tools—voice, video, instant messaging, presence—that were missing from our current distance learning programs to enhance the ability for students’ success,” says Craft.

In 2009, working with Microsoft Gold Partner The VIA Group, WKU decided to deploy a small proof-of-concept pilot of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2 to understand how its presence, instant messaging, voice, and conferencing capabilities would work in the school’s environment. Impressed with what it found, WKU expanded to a more aggressive approach, eventually deciding to deploy the full Microsoft Unified Communications solution—including Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 for messaging—to all faculty, administrative staff, and students across all campuses.

By September 2010, WKU had deployed Office Communications Server at its central data center on the main campus, and it had enabled capabilities for 33,885 users. To provide voice over IP (VoIP) communications, WKU used Direct SIP to connect its Avaya private-branch exchange (PBX) telephony system to Office Communications Server. Direct SIP uses the session initiation protocol (SIP) and real-time transport protocol (RTP) to pass network traffic from Office Communications Server over an IP connection to the Avaya PBX.

Because the population of a university is somewhat fluid—every semester students graduate or transfer to other schools, while new students arrive—WKU relied on The VIA Group to help it find the right deployment configuration to help ensure that its networks remained secure, but accessible. With 21,000 students connecting through personal computers that are essentially external to the school’s network, and 3,000 faculty and staff members connecting through “internal” computers, it needed to correctly balance traffic to ensure that everyone had access. In most cases, “external” users would connect to Office Communications Server through the Edge server, while all “internal” users connect through the front-end servers. The VIA Group helped WKU route all traffic securely through the front-end server, while all multiparticipant activities involving true “external” users, such as professors from other schools joining for a chat or a Live Meeting, are routed through the Edge server. The university also implemented single sign-on, so that faculty and students only have to enter their user IDs and passwords once to access Office Communications Server and Exchange Server.

With Office Communications Server, students, faculty, and staff can view each other’s presence information and start an instant messaging session or place a phone call with the click of a mouse. They can also use the video or audio conferencing capabilities to conduct meetings or discussion groups, and they can initiate a desktop sharing session to complete assignments or share notes. To access these capabilities, people can use either the Microsoft Office Communicator client installed on their personal computer, or they can use Microsoft Communicator Web Access—available through the university portal--which provides the same functionality as the Communicator client and is accessible from any browser on a computer with a network connection. They can also use the Microsoft Communicator Mobile client to view presence or start an instant messaging session from their mobile phones.

To enhance its Office Communications Server deployment, WKU also automatically provides the VIA Contact Manager for Microsoft Office Communications Server as part of the installation of Office Communicator, or as part of the service through Communicator Web Access. Using this application, WKU students can populate their contact lists automatically with other students in their current classes. This way, they can see other students who are available to answer a question about an assignment or project, without having to search through a student directory. Students can add their professors to their contact lists as well, so they can see when professors are available outside of office hours to answer questions or discuss assignments. The university eventually plans to have faculty and staff contacts load automatically through the Contact Manager as well.

Another capability that WKU has implemented is federation. Federation enables the faculty, staff, and students to communicate and share resources with other universities and vendors who provide support for the school. People can place Communicator calls, share a desktop, start an instant messaging session, or view presence and calendar information for any trusted organization that has also enabled federation.

Currently WKU is also testing Microsoft Office Live Meeting in its classroom environment. In addition to the interoperability with Office Communications Server and Exchange Server, one advantage the university believes Live Meeting has over its current solution is its consistent, reliable voice and video quality.

Going forward, WKU plans to offer students and faculty additional unified communications capabilities. When it has completed the Exchange Server 2007 deployment, users will be able to send and receive email, view presence information, and start instant messaging sessions directly from the Microsoft Office Outlook messaging and collaboration client. The university also plans to implement Exchange Unified Messaging so that users can receive and manage both voice mail and email messages through the Outlook client.

* Physical location no longer matters. Unified communications offers students the tools to collaborate from anywhere, and that enhances their ability for success. *

Edwin Craft
Director of Communication Technologies, Western Kentucky University

In the future, the university also hopes to extend Office Communications Server capabilities to parents, especially for high school students attending the university’s Gatton Academy of Math and Science in Kentucky, where they receive college credit for courses taken in their junior and senior years of high school, and to parents of international students.

By deploying a Microsoft Unified Communications solution, WKU has provided the tools for its students, faculty, and staff to communicate with each other instantly. It has bridged the gap between distance-learning and traditional students, making them more of a unit working together toward a common goal. The university has also laid the foundation to expand its distance learning programs and share resources between campuses and with other schools, supporting its initiative to be a leading American university with international reach.

More Instant Communication
WKU has performed a great deal of research to understand how to help students perform at their best, and how to adapt the university’s tools and programs to best meet those needs. With Office Communications Server, the university can provide the instant communication that younger generations have come to expect. Students’ ability to see presence information for all of their classmates at any time of day makes it easier for them to communicate anytime, using the method—instant messaging, voice call, audio conferencing—that makes it easiest to accomplish their goal. “This generation on campus now—the ‘millennial generation’—they want to communicate instantly, and at nontraditional hours. They want instant access to information,” explains Craft. “Now, when students need a higher level of communication, they have it at the click of a button. That is the true power behind Microsoft Unified Communications.”

Faculty and staff also benefit from more instant communication. “One of the university vice presidents was using Office Communicator on a plane to communicate with his staff at the university while he was flying. He was amazed at how easy it was to continue doing business, even while traveling,” says Craft.

Increased Collaboration
By implementing a unified communications solution from Microsoft, WKU has established a more integrated foundation for distance learning and collaboration. Students have more options for the way they communicate with one another outside of class. They no longer have to rely on arranging busy schedules and meeting once or twice outside of class to complete group projects or study for an exam.

“With Office Communications Server, we implemented a framework of communication tools to bring real-time collaboration to these classes,” says Craft. Because students can see who in their classes is available at any time, they can work together when they feel most productive. Students who cannot physically attend class can more easily participate and feel that they are part of the unit because they can, using conferencing and desktop sharing, “attend” group sessions and work on projects as though they were local. “Physical location no longer matters,” continues Craft. “Unified communications offers students the tools to collaborate from anywhere, and that enhances their ability for success.”

With Office Communications Server, faculty and IT staff can more easily collaborate as well, especially with people outside of campus. As difficult economic times continue, schools must find ways to enhance education that go beyond the boundaries of campus. “WKU knew it was absolutely critical to develop cross-university platforms to share because of budget restrictions. Office Communications Server technology effectively opens door for sharing resources and remote programs to deliver course content effectively,” says Babs Summerhill, Regional Account Manager at The VIA Group.

WKU hopes to serve more students in the future by expanding its distance learning programs and continuing to improve how students and faculty communicate and collaborate. With a Unified Communications solution from Microsoft, it has established a foundation for continued growth and success.

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Solution Overview

Organization Size: 3000 employees

Organization Profile

Founded in 1906, Western Kentucky University strives to engage its students in acclaimed, technologically enhanced educational programs. It serves 21,000 students.

Business Situation

Western Kentucky University wanted to provide a more integrated, collaborative environment for faculty, staff, and students, especially students who are “place-bound” and rely on distance learning programs to complete their university education.


Western Kentucky University deployed a Microsoft Unified Communications solution to provide students with instant access to communication and collaboration capabilities.


  • More instant communication
  • Increased collaboration

Software and Services
  • Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2
  • Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Enterprise Edition

Vertical Industries
Higher Education

United States

Business Need
  • Collaboration
  • Mobility
  • Unified Communications

IT Issue
Personal Productivity


The Via Group