Telephone Technology Increases Communications Across the Board

The tremendous explosion in telecommunications technology has sent shock waves throughout education. Educators are actually ahead of consumers -- distance learning has been a viable educational alternative for the past several years, yet the concept of "electronic town meetings" had most of America chortling in disbelief during the past election. The latest development in the communications explosion is the increased number of uses for telephone technology, particularly in education. In the past, a phone in the classroom was a luxury and often an annoyance. However the telephone is now providing education with a vital link to parents and the community -- a link that many herald as one of the missing pieces in the educational puzzle. Getting the Word Out Systems are now available that allow parents or students to call the school and hear important information; connect to electronic gradebook programs; provide student progress messages and information on upcoming tests; impart attendance statistics; and more. Or systems can dial out to parents to provide much of the same information, safeguarded via passwords. Another option, several companies offer phone-based registration systems in which high school or university students can register for classes, change their classes, learn of pre-requisites, have alternatives presented and pay tuition with a credit card. Plus a wide variety of other programs with telephone capabilities are also available. Media and library management are but a few examples that come to mind. It should be said that the amino acid for these telephone-based tools is voice mail, which has many educational uses. Instructors at higher education institutions need voice mailboxes in which students and colleagues could leave messages. At K-12 schools, voice mail would enable parents to communicate with teachers without having to wait until school opens. In addition, voice mail provides callers with access to recorded outgoing messages regarding registration, school closings and special events. Higher education faculty could leave outgoing messages concerning classes, tests and office hour availability. Numerous companies offer voice mail products. Examples include AT&T, whose AUDIX Voice Power voice messaging system works with its Merlin Legend phone system to provide just such communications between schools and parents. One user, Superintendent Jacob Broncato of School District 401 in Elmwood Park, Ill., says, "The system makes school personnel easily accessible to parents any time during the day. It also helps us keep in touch with the community." Phone-Based Registration Registration on a college campus is usually a stress-filled process in which long lines, long days and nights, and long faces are commonplace. Many schools need an alternative that would free up staff, raise morale and improve service to students. Phone-based registration systems do just that. While many are developed specifically for education, others are generic and can be used in business settings as well. Most take advantage of interactive voice recognition technology, which provides information to callers using touch-tone phones by serving as the front-end to a database of any type. For example, the Meridian IVR system, Meridian Mail's Automated Attendant and Voice Menus from Northern Telecom offer 24-hour database access that allows students to register for classes, get dorm assignments, request transcripts and learn grades, order catalogs and more. An example may run as follows. Students call in and hear a recorded greeting. Options are then presented: Dial 1 to register for courses, Dial 2 to request catalogs or transcripts, Dial 3 for information about your account. Dialing one will connect the caller to Meridian IVR, which queries the university's student record database for registration information as well as a course listing database. Dialing 2 will connect students to Voice Forms, which will collect the necessary data to then process the requested information. The last option, also handled by IVR, would access a financial database to provide student account information. Meridian IVR is an IBM 3270 mainframe terminal emulator that connects to a Meridian 1 PBX phone system. Other computers are supported via X.25, Async, RS232 or Ethernet connections, however universities would need a VAR to supply the software drivers. RobotOperator/HigherEducation from InterVoice or GTE? is a similar voice automation solution that handles routine calls, phone-based registration, admissions and financial help, housing confirmations, requests for transcripts and more. An additional fax capability will send documents automatically to any fax or fax modem. A turnkey solution, the product integrates the developer's VocalCard hardware and InterSoft software to answer phones, route calls and access a database. It can be customized to interface with any host computer via native terminal emulation and TCP/IP file transfer protocols. It is also LAN and WAN compatible. The University of Nebraska in Kearney needed a voice response system that would interface with its computer system, which runs IA/SCT information management software. In June of 1991 the school purchased a 16-line IVR hardware and software solution from Periophonics Corp. The VPS 7500 with VT100 terminal emulation simulates a Digital VAX terminal; applications were limited only by the capabilities of the student information system. The school named its new system EASI, Electronics Access to Student Information. Course registration is the primary application, although it has also been used for grade reporting, financial aid, and a schedule listing service for class times and locations. Syntellect is another company that provides interactive voice response systems that give callers direct access to host computer databases via touch-tone phones. The firm's family of Premiere products accommodates from four to 72 phone lines and can be networked together. Schools can configure a voice response system with input security, voice recognition, forms processing and more. An example of a network-based voice/fax/data server for education, TeleCentral from ComArt is a turnkey solution that integrates a multiple co-processor i486 computer and disks that enable voice and fax application on four to 32 lines per chassis. It ships with over 30 applications. A sampling of these features includes: fax-on-demand selectable by phone for catalog information or enrollment and drop/add forms; providing student grades or account balances by searching a database via the network and faxing that information to the student or verbalizing it through text-to-speech conversion; a voice bulletin board system to play announcements and act as a hotline for assignments; telephone-based registration with charges billed to a credit card; automated appointments made with guidance or health personnel; automated attendance dial-out; call broadcasting of generic messages; and much more. Out since last August, Registrar's Assistant from Parlant Technology handles phone-based registration for high schools. It takes a school's master schedule and registration rules and makes that information available to callers. Prerequisites are explained, core courses set, alternatives for full classes suggested, other times that the same full class is being held presented and recent schedules read. Dropped classes are immediately updated and an opening created for the next student. Administrators can put a hold on a student's schedule by phone or by computer and manually override any feature. Extensive reports can also be created. The company provides complete turnkey systems, dedicated OS/2-based communication servers complete with phone/voice cards and the software. Anywhere from four to 48 lines can be handled. Registrar's Assistant can also be placed on a NetWare network. Another related option is offered by XAP Company, which automates the college application process. Applications are completed at home on a floppy disk that is then sent to the university or transmitted via modem to XAP's file server for subsequent transmission via the Internet to the designated school. This process provides information in an electronic format, reducing paper as well as data coding and manual data entry time and error. Phone Home Of increasing popularity are phone-based voice communication systems for education, also known as "homework hotlines." These products take a positive approach to the common problem of minimal parental involvement and lack of information on school-related activities. These systems increase the lines of communication between administrators, teachers, students and parents. Several companies offer turnkey products that perform education hotline features; those with dial-out functionality can contact all names in a list or selected lists. Advanced Voice Technologies develops the Homework Hotline Communications System (distributed by Ameritech), which is based on research conducted by Dr. Jerold Bauch of Vanderbilt University, who has been studying parent involvement for more than seven years. He initially investigated answering machines and standard voice mail but determined that dial-in and dial-out functions were needed. Homework Hotline is customized to each school, with dial-in and dial-out capabilities from a school database. It is installed directly to dedicated phone lines, Centrex or extensions off a PBX. The turnkey solution includes an IBM PS/2 computer with Dialogic voice boards and proprietary software. Of note is the ability to call out in the preferred language of the home by allowing parents to establish in which language they want all messages to be played, then having teachers fluent in those languages record the outgoing messages. In addition, the system delivers up to 100 different messages at one time; parent identification numbers maintain security. Training and support are highly stressed. Advanced Voice provides a minimum of one full day's inservice at each school. The system is warranted for three years, with onsite service provided from the computer manufacturer. Schools spend no money during those three years except on phone lines. Software upgrades are free, training is free, an 800 number is provided for technical help and remote diagnostics are performed at no cost. U.S. Telecom International, Inc., another provider, offers PhoneMaster 2000, an up to 24-line system that automatically calls parents to notify them of absentee students, homework assignments, school events, report cards and more. A bulletin board feature lets parents and students call in to hear information on homework, policies, events, lunch menus and other general information. Multiple security levels and the ability to operate and update messages remotely are other highlights. In addition, voice mailboxes save messages from parents to individual teachers. Name and number lists can be downloaded from an existing database. If PhoneMaster 2000 detects an answering machine when dialing out, it will wait until the outgoing message stops before playing its recorded message, then report that an answering machine was reached in its detailed report. For institutions that already have computers, PhoneMaster 2000 can be purchased as a software and board combination. Parlant Technology offers two products, their ParentLink flagship education hotline and Teacher's Assistant, which adds the ability to access messages from an electronic database such as Excelsior's grade2 program. Parents can call in to learn their child's recent grades, missing or incomplete work, future assignments and attendance records. Teachers can also opt to have this information sent to parents via the system's dial-out features. Teacher's Assistant will even monitor students' grades and call parents with a "glad note" when improvement occurs or a "sad note" when performance drops. Lastly, Parlant provides LinkNET, which allows different schools running ParentLink to be connected, thus facilitating inter-district e-mail and voice messages. SyncMail from Sync Data connects up to two standard phone lines, with the ability to expand to 16. The product handles many education hotline tasks, including finding substitute teachers via automatic call-out features that stop calling when enough substitutes are found and then reports which ones are available. Sync Data asserts that the system performs multiple call-outs simultaneously and can interact with school administration systems. Teachers and administrators can have their own mailboxes, each of which require 1MB of hard drive space on the system's computer. SyncMail is backed by a one-year, money-back guarantee. The above hotlines are all for DOS platforms. Computer Corner, however, provides MacHomework, a multi-line hotline product for Macs. It supports up to 24 lines, d'es not require a dedicated computer, supports access codes for security purposes and much more. Others Uses CRS, Inc. offers The Substitute Finder System, a product dedicated to dial-in and dial-out substitute management and employee absences. While some products mentioned earlier boast this as one of many features. This program specializes in this one aspect. It searches substitute employee data files using designated priority lists. Sub Finder calls out to those teachers, describes the job available and records his or her response. Substitutes can also accept jobs in advance, calling 24 hours a day; conversely teachers can call in at any time to indicate an absence. Another highlight is the ability for the absent teacher to leave recorded voice instructions for the sub. Substitute Finder can be interfaced to a school's mainframe to interchange data between both systems. Many other useful programs make use of telephone technology. For example the Library Voice Information System from Geac imports ASCII text files and dials out to patrons to notify them of overdue material, that reserved books are now available for pickup and more. Library staff can download phone lists, build their own and record an unlimited number of messages. In addition, patrons can call the system to check the library's calendar of upcoming events, leave suggestions in mail boxes or do their own book renewals. Dukane Corp. has introduced SmartSystem, a communications and instructional technology system that handles communications, multimedia resource access, administrative recordkeeping and control functions. Additional features include VoiceLink, which establishes voice mailboxes for staff members, and HomeLink, a voice-mail option that lets parents call in to hear pre-recorded homework assignments or leave messages for teachers. The latter function also calls out to parents to notify them of student absences. Finally, another interesting implementation is provided by Lotus Development Corp. Lotus Notes users can now take advantage of Phone Notes, which answers incoming calls and interacts with a caller via voice prompts and touch-tone input. Notes documents can contain voice messages and recordings, plus the program supports text-to-speech, so voice messages and text strings can be played back to callers. This can translate into student grades, messages from teachers, news on upcoming tests or field trips, and myriad others. In all, telephones do more for schools than "let their fingers do the walking." Phone-based technology offers information access to all parties involved in the education community, facilitate the learning experience and ease the administrative burden.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1994 issue of THE Journal.