Telephony Products Enhance Convenience, Communication & Distance Learning

Telephones and POTS (plain old telephone service) lines are one of the most-used technologies in existence, but probably the least appreciated. But now, with the proliferation of interactive voice response (IVR) applications and the move toward computer telephony integration (CTI) in consumer and commercial PCs, this 120-year-old technology is gaining, if not a new-found respect, at least a new appreciation of its capabilities.

What this means for the educational arena is that applications only dreamed of by institutions, as well as applications and services that only large institutions could previously afford, are now available to basically anyone who has an IBM-compatible computer and access to a POTS line.

Voice Processing Proliferates

Voice processing is the broadest category of telephony products that can be used in education. Applications and services range from simple automated call forwarding to complete systems designed for large institutions.

Features that are pretty much standard for all of the products mentioned include voicemail boxes; message storage and retrieval; IVR functions such as homework hotlines; and automated attendant, or answering and transferring of calls.

There are four common types of voice processing packages: software-based applications for use on PCs that have a Voice Processing card installed; bundles that include the software and hardware needed to set up a PC to be a voice server; complete systems pre-assembled by the company and installed at the school; and services that require no special hardware and are operated by the service provider. Some require specific PBXs and telephones to operate; however, most of the services and products will work with virtually any PBX and POTS line.

Orion Telecom offers VoiceFX, a software/hardware combination that can answer up to four lines simultaneously on a single computer, with an unlimited amount of mailboxes that are user-configurable. Available in DOS and Windows versions, program files are interchangeable between versions, giving users an easy path when upgrading.

The program is highly flexible and can be set up as a simple answering machine, a fax-on-demand system or a voicemail system. The VoiceFX card that comes with the package includes a fax/data modem offering speeds up to 57,600 bps throughput and is compatible with most communications programs.

Talking Technology, manufacturers of Voice Ranger voice processing cards, gave its Voice Window the ability to be customized by using the included Programmer's Toolkit. Voice Window supports up to 16 ports of voice processing, and comes bundled with a two-port voice board, software, programmer's toolkit, speaker and manual.

The Windows version can be run in the background; a flow-chart building process simplifies voicemail and IVR application design.

PhoneMaster, by U.S. Telecom, can function as a Student/Parent/ Staff information center, automatically calling and notifying parents of absentees or tardiness, grades, homework assignments, school events and other important issues.

Requiring only an IBM-compatible computer and a POTS line, the package can utilize information from existing databases, or information can be entered manually.

The system also supports full remote control operation from any touch-tone telephone and lets the system operator remotely record messages, create or delete call lists, change start/stop times, and turn autocalling on/off.

AVA Technology's AVA-200 SchoolMate Automated Attendant and Voice Processing System is compatible with Centrex and over 180 existing PBXs.

The system is administered via computer or touchtone phone and provides inter-school messaging for board members and administrators, student absentee notification, homework hotline, emergency school closure notification, internal messaging for faculty, athletic/extracurricular activities schedules, and cafeteria menus.

Staff can broadcast information to appropriate parties by recording a single message via touchtone phone, and information can be solicited from parents using Q&A mailboxes.

SIM-phony School from SIM-phony, along with voice mail and automated attendant functions, can be optioned with many convenient fax features, including fax back, fax-on-demand, fax store and fax forward. Fax-on-demand, for example, can be used to offer students course descriptions, requirements, and other pertinent information. The program requires OS/2 Warp or Windows NT and can integrate with any PBX.

TTM and Associates will completely customize and install its CyberSchool server for those who prefer to have full control of an IVR system. CyberSchool incorporates automated outbound calling, advanced voicemail and messaging, and teacher bulletin boards with attendance information available to parents.

The program is also available as a service, with TTM operating the entire system from its computerized operations facility.

Parlant Technology's ParentLink is an OS/2-specific application that can automatically import information from attendance and gradebook programs.

Optional modules include Teacher's Assistant, which gives grade access to parents; Attendance Server, which offers parents attendance information; and SchoolLink, which connects schools in a district through voice and e-mail.

One of ParentLink's more interesting features is the ability to interact with a school's World Wide Web home page and give grade, registration and attendance information through the Internet. ParentLink is also offered as a complete PC/server.

For help with the administrative side of education, NEC offers a unique product for use with its NEAX2000 and NEAX2400 PBXs and Dterm interface cards called Desktop Receptionist.

Designed for Windows 3.x and compatible with Windows 95, Desktop Receptionist lets users simultaneously work in other applications, while handling telephone duties on the same screen. The program will flash specific programmable caller profiles and information on the screen, allowing efficient call prioritizing.

Many products mentioned thus far require at least a mid-level computer. SyncMail, however, is a full-featured voicemail system that is able to run on even low-end PCs and is designed specifically for schools. The basic system comes with a two-line phone adapter card that installs in a 286- or greater IBM compatible, and uses standard POTS lines.

SyncMail features a homework hotline and information bulletin board, voicemail messaging center, outbound calling and messaging, and even substitute teacher calling.

Bye to Registration Hassles

An area familiar to many is telephone course registration. Eliminating long lines and endless data entry, these programs are a lifesaver to students and educators alike, turning what was once an all-day or even week-long process into a few minutes on a telephone.

To this end, Parlant Technology offers the Registrar's Assistant module for its aforementioned ParentLink, giving parents and students the ability to register from their home.

AT&T's Intuity Conversant service can also be configured for course registration. Students can call in from any touchtone phone to register and the system will verify their eligibility, locking out those that haven't met with advisors if so desired. The system will provide immediate feedback on class availability, verify classes and sections selected, and fax a printout of the student's schedule at any time after registering. The service can also interface with the university billing system, allowing students to pay by credit card during their registration.

Periphonics also offers course registration via their Sun SPARC/ RISC-based VPS/is family of IVR systems. Besides being a total voice processing solution, the system has complete course registration capabilities. Admission status, deadline information, financial aid status, grades and GPA, course requirements and credit card payment are all part of the registration module.

T.E.S.S. (Telephone Enrollment and Scheduling System), from CRS, operates from a dedicated IBM-compatible PC and comes with a four-line telephone interface card; the program can handle up to 12 lines per computer.

With a few keystrokes, administrators can learn how many people have registered for a class, arrange for room size or additional instructors, control the number of class spaces available and update registration records. T.E.S.S. can also compile and print a wide variety of reports including: attendance, class size, credits earned and course confirmation reports.

Find Those Subs!

One application receiving a lot of attention because it is specifically designed for schools is substitute teacher finders. Able to automatically find substitute teachers without any personnel involvement, these programs are gaining wide acceptance and use.

CRS's entry in this specialized niche is SubFinder, a true 32-bit Windows 95 application that is designed to fully automate the employee absence reporting and substitute placement process.

Employees simply call in and report their absence, its duration, reason, any special budget codes and a detailed voicemail message for the substitute. SubFinder then automatically calls and schedules the best substitutes based upon preference lists designed by the administration.

The program tracks absence lengths, reasons, time worked and many other variables. Help for special events can be arranged by specifying the number and types of help needed and SubFinder will do the calling and scheduling.

Conveniently Control Comm

A few firms make specialized products for internal campus communications. Tasks such as intercom operation, paging and paging distribution, master time-program clock functions, and internal voice communication are all handled as a matter of course. Uses for these products are obvious, but can also be expanded with a little imagination.

How d'es controlling multimedia playback devices such as videodisc, videotape or digital video by telephone sound? Simply call up the school's media center, punch in the correct code for whatever program is desired, and watch it on the class television.

Sound too easy? Dukane offers media control along with many innovative uses for its STARCall system. Schools can purchase only the capabilities they need, choosing from just internal voice communication, full telephone capability, master time-program clock, voicemail interface, security features and media retrieval.

The system can provide overhead paging throughout an entire school or just specific areas or classrooms. Up to 512 standard telephones can be accommodated; STARCall Administrative Telephones can also be used.

DL Without the Video

As an alternative to videoconferencing, audioconferencing gives many of the same benefits at less expense. While it can't provide the unique "virtual classroom" experience that video can, it can serve to complement distance learning programs that require minimal visual support.

MultiLink's system provides such advanced features as polling and Q&A. Polling can be used for short quizzes or class consensus issues; students use their touch-tone telephones to enter answers to questions posed by the instructor. Q&A allows electronic hand raising and question management. During a lecture, participants can press a button on their telephone to place their name in a question queue that the instructor accesses at the end of the lecture.

Outreach Technologies' T.120-based ConferEase family of multipoint control units (MCU) is one of the first to allow remote connectivity via a single POTS line. Features include multiple simultaneous conferences, conference record, conference playback, and LAN connectivity for e-mail and file download. It requires a single POTS line, one voice-over data modem and one computer with T.120 collaborative software.

Coming Soon...

Deserving mention is the trend in consumer PCs towards CTI. Firms are now starting to bundle voice processing/fax/modem cards. As CTI becomes standard in consumer PCs, expect a similar trend with educational systems. Software that takes advantage of CTI capabilities are beginning to be seen, such as AlgoRhythm's PhoneKITS, which gives PC users voicemail, PC phone, answering machine and fax functions.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.