Improving Teacher’s PARCC Experience with Microsoft Lync (Skype for Business)

Help Teachers, Focus Students

PARCC Testing officially began this week for the early-adopter school districts in Massachusetts.  For those outside education, PARCC is one of the new “high-stakes” assessments that is delivered electronically.  For Mass schools, this means MCAS on computers.  While it is so much more than just e-MCAS, this post will stay away from discussions on Common Core, and whether or not PARCC is here to stay.  This post is about what we can do as IT professionals to help educators during a stressful time.  In Brockton we are always looking for ways to make teachers’ lives easier, and to keep students focused on task.  In this case, we hoped the use of Lync as a tool for PARCC support would accomplish both.

Test Day screen shot of Skype for Business (formerly Lync 2013) from day 2 of PARCC testing

Lync 2010 shot.png


Lync is included with Office 365.   MS recently announced a name change to Skype for Business, and released a Tech Preview of the new client during our Pilot.  I installed the preview between Day 1 and Day 2 of our pilot and have included action shots of both in this post. End-users may refer to Lync as an instant-messaging client, it can be much more.  Our intent was to use Lync mostly as an IM client, and to take advantage of the Red, Green, Yellow presence indicators.  Adding to the fun, we had to move from concept to production in exactly one week.   Simplicity and out-of-the-box were paramount requirements. 

The anticipated benefits of using Lync for PARCC support were:

  • Easy for Teachers – Just change colors  (Red, Yellow, Green)

  • No disruption for students - Silent communication from classroom, remote support

  • Runs on all devices -  Clients for MAC, Win 7, Win 8, and Apps for iOS, Android, WP8

  • Alerting Infrastructure –  “Tagging” automatically generates alerts on status change

  • Monitoring Dashboard –Groups can be organized to suit needs (e.g. 3rd grade, 2nd Floor, etc.)

After two-days of piloting this support model all of the above benefits were realized.  Teachers found it very easy, techs liked that they could use their preferred mobile device, and management appreciated the “Command Center” with real-time views into the status of every room.  Students, well, they didn’t even notice, and that was the point.

Guidance and Lessons Learned

The remainder of this blog will provide more detail on our experience, share some lessons learned, and ask for your suggestions and contributions to build on our one week of effort. 

The first and most important thing to realize is that we wanted to use Lync in a manner for which it was not explicitly designed.  We therefore had to make some adjustments to our expected processes in order to take advantage of the out-of-box capabilities. Lync was designed to help people connect with other people. There are features that make great sense for the intended design scenarios, but not necessarily for our scenario.  For example it makes sense that a user would only want to be alerted when someone they tagged becomes Green (Available). We wanted to be alerted when they became Red (Unavailable). 

Although Lync was not designed to be a tool for support initiation, communications, dispatch, and monitoring, that’s exactly how we used it!   To accommodate this use-case we had to make some adjustments to our expected process.  The following areas of caution and guidance are based on our experience.  I am sure many of you are aware of advanced configuration options, and your input would be most welcome.

3 Things that impacted process design and user guidance

  1. “Flip the colors” - Green means Help
    The status shange alerts that come from “tagging” a contact are generated only when a user changes to “Available” (Green).  UI expectations are that Green means “Good/Ok”, and Red means “Trouble”.  We felt that the benefit of the Status Change alerts was worth instructing users that Green is actually the signal for us to come help; Yellow meant that things were OK, and that finally, Red means Test Over.   In essence, we flipped the colors.  Red is desirable final state, Yellow is making progress, and Green means need attention.

  2. Avoid False Positives - Manual status updates are better than automatic
    After a period of inactivity (5 mins) Lync will automatically set a user to Yellow.  This also works in reverse.  Any activity (e.g. keyboard, mouse move, screen tap) returns the user to Green and immediately generates a Status Alert.  We had many false positive alerts on the first day. We kept responding to avoid Cry Wolf situations.  On day 2 we instructed users to manually change to a Yellow status once the test was running.  Manual changes to Yellow are not reset to Green based on activity.  This approach worked well and only specific changes to green generated alerts. 

  3. Status Text is not easily discovered by users

    At the very top of the Lync window there is a spot for the user to enter text that is visible to others looking at their status.  This is very useful, especially to those monitoring many users, however it is not intuitive to the end-user.  We had to remind everyone - even the techs – to update their status text periodically and we had to remind them where they could find it.

3 Things that hampered our operational efficiency. Not sure if these are configurable or not.

Single-Column Layout of Groups and Contacts

  1. When monitoring many accounts in multiple groups it would be nice to use a full screen view with multiple columns of users.   In projected or large screen environments it is frustrating to see all the available horizontal space while scrolling vertically through users and expanding-collapsing groups. See Pic.

Screen Shot of Skype for Business Single Column View:

  1. Group management is done in full client only

    All Group Management (new group, add members, etc.) is done in full client.  Good news is that it is associated with the account, not the app, and it synchs quickly with all devices. A change at one’s computer shows on mobile devices very quickly.  At minimum “Add to Group” capability for a contact should be in mobile.

  2. Contact Groups cannot be shared / distributed

    Groups and group membership has to be manually constructed by the user Lync.  It would be nice to share these groups with other users, or ideally distribute them to certain AD groups.
    I have since found this post from Greg Munro which appears to be helpful – didn’t test yet.


    Screen Shot Lync 2013:  Groups are useful, an easy way to share would be nice

Pre-Requisites and Set-up Tasks

Time allowing, we will author more posts to provide details on some of the steps below, but at a high level, this is what we did:

Prior Work:

  1. Office 365 Tennant already provisioned with user accounts populated

  2. Licenses for Office 365 E1 (free to education) and Office Pro Plus for Faculty (benefit of School Agreement with MS)

  3. Migrated mailboxes for IT users and a small executive team, All school users still working from on-premises Exchange Server

  4. Experienced with SCCM for software distribution. We pushed Lync 2010 to teacher’s Win 7 desktops

New Actions

  1. Added NEW Room Accounts to local Active Directory (includes proper OU mapping) via power shell script and XL generated CSV

  2. Ran DirSynch to synchronize to provision new Room accounts in O365

  3. Assigned Office Pro Plus for Faculty licenses to target teachers and the newly added room accounts from Office 365 Admin Portal

  4. Pushed Lync 2010 installation using SCCM to all desktop computers at Pilot School

  5. Had all Techs, Edu Support, and Teachers in Pilot School log-into Office 365 Portal page and install Office 2013 (includes Lync 2013)

  6. OPTIONAL: Upgraded “Central Command” to Skype for Business client

  7. Created New Groups within Lync Client and assigned Rooms (contacts) to those groups

  8. “Tagged” all Room Accounts for Status Change Alerts within Lync client


Action Shots from our 2-Day Pilot

Day 1 – First Day of Trial

Creating and Using Groups:  

On Day 1 “Central Command” used the Lync 2013 client.  Groups were created to monitor the rooms matched with the Start Waves at the school.  You can create an unlimited number of groups and assign a contact to multiple groups.  The Pilot school has the idea of staggered start times.  This allowed the specialist (instructional and technology) to concentrate on select rooms during each waves start-up phase, which is the most critical time.  

Group creation is done manually within the Lync client: Right-click over a group to bring up options to Create New Group; Right-click over a contact to Move to Contacts…  
We could not find a way to intuitively share, distribute, or import a Contact group.  Each person had to create their own groups to match the rooms they were monitoring. Once created Groups are very helpful.  The status summary in the group heading bar indicates how many are in the group and how many are on-line/available.  This feature is another reason why we went with the convention where “Green means Go – I need Help”, and “Yellow means Running”.  These number told us at a glance how many rooms were requesting support and how many were running.          

Teacher use and generating Status Alerts

Teachers used the Lync 2010 client which we pushed to their desktops using SCCM.  They needed simply had to make themselves Green - no typing required- by clicking where it says “Available”.  In addition to the color change being immediately visible to anyone monitoring that contact, it would generate an Alert Pop-up.  The Status Alert is a great attention grabber and ensured that we never missed a teacher asking for help.  Note that we still had Techs on-site, but they were often in moving or helping in another classroom, so it was great to have “central” managing dispatch.  Note that we also added the Tech_PARCC contact to each teachers Frequent Contacts.

Teacher Lync 2010

4 Lync Statuses.png


Status Change generates Alert Pop-up for support personnel

7 SfB Alert.png



Managing Requests and Field Dispatch

As Teachers became Green – indicating the needed help - we received the alerts and would respond with the message shown in below picture.  We knew that some teachers might be uncomfortable if they thought support was only available electronically, and we thought it was important to remind them that this is an option and that real people are still on-site.   The IM-dialog pops-out in a separate window from the main Lync client we were using for monitoring

Lync 2013 with IM Dialog


Managing Multiple Conversations and Pop-Out Conversation

The Conversation Dialog Window elegantly manages multiple conversations.  In the picture below the primary IM window is in the back with 7 active conversations listed on the left by the contact name. The blue-highlighted contact is the active conversation, and the yellow highlighted contact(s) means there is an unread response.  This is helpful, and made it easy to switch between conversations with multiple field techs and classroom teachers without having to navigate through multiple IM windows.  You can also right-click over any contact to pop-out that conversation allowing you to tile it.  This ability control the number and size of all open windows was very nice.

Lync 2013: Managing multiple conversations with one conversation in pop-out mode


False Positives

Most Rooms automatically went to Yellow based on inactivity (a feature) rather than a manual change by the Teachers.  This auto setting is accompanied by an auto return to green on the first click or mouse movement.  This resulted in many “false alarm” communications like the below.  By manually setting a status to yellow, it stops automatically reverting to green. 

Lync Conversation with Room that mistakenly went Green


Test-Complete signaling

When testing was complete in a room we asked teachers to go to a Red status indicating that testing had stopped.  It was a nice feeling to see rooms go red.  .

Lync 2013 Room Status when Testing was Completed


Day 1 Summary

Overall Day 1 was a success – Most importantly for PARCC testing, and secondarily for Lync as a support tool.  Although it was not used by every teacher in every room, it certainly grabbed the majority. Teachers were initially skeptical that “just going green” would work, but immediate responses via IM, and rapid response from on-ground support convinced them.  As for the Tech staff in the field and at central it was great.  Central had a real-time view into what was happening and the ability to communicate discreetly with all techs, who were mostly using various Mobile devices.

Mobile Screen Shot



Everyone seemed to adjust to our Flipped-Color model.  We immediately recognized Green as the “need help” state.  The auto-Alerts and green-to-top sorting helped with this.  Yellow quickly became the scan-over state, and Red as welcomed as the completed state


Day 2 Use of Skype for Business Client

Skype for Business Tech Preview

Between Day 1 and Day 2 we upgraded one device to the Skype for Business tech preview, and it worked fine.  As the picture show below, core functionality was pretty much the same.  The monitoring window, conversation window(s), and Alerts had all the expected functionality in a slightly new skin. For the most-part, the upgrade appears to be just a skype-skin over existing Lync 2013 functionality.  This was good as all of our existing settings, groups, and tagged contacts were maintained.  There were two new capabilities discovered on Day 2.  One was new and the other newly discovered.

A Skype-Skin on Lync 2013


New Feature - Conversation Peeks

As the picture shows below, the Skype for Business conversation window adds one-line “peeks” (my word), which is extremely useful when engaged in multiple conversations.  In Lync 2013 and earlier clients a contact/conversation would become highlighted in yellow indicating that a new IM response was added.  This was easy enough and alerted the user to click on that contact to see the conversation update.  The new version is a good improvement. The Contact Name turning orange is higher contrast and thus grabs your attention, and the one line update allows scan of the messages to prioritize your attention.  For instance seeing “thanks” confirms that I don’t need to click to read.


Newly Discovered Feature: Sort by Status in Groups

This is not a new feature of Skype for Business, but it is one we recognized on Day 2, and it was very helpful.  

By changing the Contacts List options to Order my list: By availability it brings all the “Green” rooms to the top of the group. 
This is very helpful since it supplements the Alert, and the color change with position.  This makes it very easy to focus on those that need our attention.


Final Thoughts

The Pilot was a definitive success.  Teachers really liked the option for a one-click silent alert.  The school-based academic and tech support teams appreciated using their preferred mobile device.  Central thought the war room with a projected real-time status from every room was just cool. 

The Benefits of “Dispatch”

We used a single person as “dispatch” from central to immediately respond (IM) to all teachers generating status alerts.  This was important because field support personnel (technical and academic) were often engaged, and we wanted to keep them focused, and let teachers know that their request was received.  The field preferred responding to “dispatch” because short answers and typos were appreciated. Conversely, dispatch was able to send nicely formed responses that made teachers comfortable.  We had a number of responses sitting in an open Word document for rapid cut-paste, but what we found most effective was keeping the “We see your alert response” in the clipboard.  All other responses were done more quickly by just typing. 

As we scale this to all buildings, and as the number of PARCC errors decreases, we will look to strike the right balance for how many buildings and rooms one dispatch contact can manage.

Moving Forward

Some have suggested that this may become our new district-wide support model.  While we aren’t there yet, we are looking at using this for substitute teachers.  We created a user ID for every room and this presents a nice option to connect a substitute teacher to our environment.   Of course, the teachers have many other ideas, and this may be the best outcome.  For many this was their first taste of Lync, and they have already begun to ask if they could use it for a variety of academic and collaborative use cases.  We’ll keep you posted, and please let us know what you are doing.