WebEx Social: Tweaking collaboration for higher education

Cisco introduces WebEx Social for Higher Education as unified communications and collaboration vendors tailor products for vertical markets.

Business goals vary across different industries, so no two unified communications and collaboration strategies are the same. IT organizations are moving away from out-of-the-box products in favor of technology more tailored to meet their unique business needs.

Unified communications (UC) and collaboration vendors have traditionally relied on their partners to deliver solutions that serve a particular vertical market, but they are recognizing that IT organizations value products targeted directly at them.

Cisco Systems Inc. recently announced WebEx Social for Higher Education, a cloud-based collaboration offering that Cisco developed with help from several universities, including Duke University, North Carolina State University, Case Western Reserve and the University of Chicago.

WebEx Social -- formally Quad -- is an enterprise collaboration platform that combines WebEx Meetings and WebEx Messenger for real-time communications with social networking. WebEx Social for Higher Education will include the same technology, with features designed to help students and faculty to quickly shift from social networking to real-time communications and collaboration, and will be delivered through the Cisco WebEx Cloud.

"With WebEx Social for Higher Education, users can quickly find subject matter experts, gather feedback from groups, collaborate on documents, and locate relevant content and communities to help complete assignments and projects much more efficiently," said Marc Musgrove, global communications director for Cisco in a blog post.

WebEx Social: Tailored for higher education

Cisco identified a need within the education vertical to manage user access to social technologies for thousands of faculty, students and staff. WebEx Social for Higher Education supports Microsoft Active Directory synchronization and open source Shibboleth authentication, both access and sign-on technologies that are popular with higher education, Musgrove said.

The cloud-based offering will grant users full access to WebEx Social from any location, across any device -- including tablets and smartphones, while reducing IT infastructure costs for universities and colleges. The education vertical -- with a great many more transient users than are in a typical enterprise environment -- will benefit from a cloud-based collaboration solution, said Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc. "Enterprises have a stable amount of users, but universities are onboarding and offloading students every semester," he said. "The cloud is perfect for those kinds of flexbility needs."

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Durham, N.C.-based Duke University saw an opportunity to work with Cisco on WebEx Social when it started planning an international campus in China. Duke wanted to support local, as well as global classrooms with a platform for video conferencing. Cisco helped Duke by developing new features in WebEx Social -- user authentication, for example -- which the university, as well as other academic institutions, could benefit from, said Tracy Futhey, Duke's CIO and vice president for IT.

"[WebEx Social] offers a more automated way to determine who can participate in different groups. Students are regularly adding and dropping classes, and permission lists into classes and organizations need to change very frequently," Futhey said. "We can now better manage access for a community of over 40,000 individuals to the appropriate resources, without a lot of overhead to administer the tool."

Duke's business school had been testing the on-premises WebEx Social offering for 18 months, and moved to the cloud-based version six months ago, Futhey said. Duke's IT organization soon will extend the WebEx Social for Higher Education product to all its students, staff, faculty and administration.

Duke encouraged Cisco to move WebEx Social into the cloud to simplify deployment and open the technology up to remote users. "A cloud-based solution with multiple data centers throughout the world makes much more sense for supporting a global operation -- like education," Futhey said.

Targeting UC and collaboration

Cisco's WebEx Social for Higher Education is very similar to its enterprise offering, but the shift into the cloud has made the collaboration tool a good fit for the education industry. The cloud is not appealing to every industry, however, said Jim Lundy, CEO and founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Aragon Research Inc. "Some industries want that on-premises collaboration offering for tighter control," he said.

But targeting a particular industry and shaping a UC or collaboration tool to the needs of those users is a great opportunity for vendors to differentiate their offerings -- possibly sparking more adoption if the product can speak to a particular industry.

As the UC market has matured, many vendors have relied on their partner network to tailor their products to certain markets -- such as health care or finance. Cisco is one of the first vendors to go after the education space, aside from the traditional education technology vendors like Blackboard Inc., Lundy said.

"Cisco is following a very opportunistic path by combining their strengths in the cloud and offering them to education, a marketplace that is very interested in consuming software this way," Current Analysis' Shimmin said. "It's not enough anymore to deliver a generic collaboration platform. These tools need to understand the exact business processes that need to be socialized or collaboratively enabled," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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