Make the Right Call

from Technology & Learning

Caller systems keep the lines open between school and home and are crucial in times of crisis.

Although certainly not the first instance of campus violence in the last decade, the April Virginia Tech tragedy served to further drive home the painful message that communication is key in times of crisis. School administrators charged with protecting student and staff safety—as well as keeping parents up to date on routine information such as school events and student attendance—are increasingly relying on automated caller systems that "push" messages to parents (and sometimes students) via phone, text message, and e-mail.

It's become a nearly essential connectivity tool, but try researching the best-value system for your district and you might end up getting the runaround.

1. What Vendors Won't Tell You Upfront

T&L contacted several vendors to obtain price quotes, but had little success getting a straight answer. A representative from 3n replied by saying, "We don't publish pricing because it has the potential to create confusion among existing customers." Cisco Systems said, "Pricing info tends to be tricky—[it] depends on configuration, number of phones, etc.," and directs administrators to their local Cisco reseller for details.

The NTI Group, which offers the popular Connect-ED caller system, was more forthcoming. According to the company, it costs $1,000 per district and $100 per connected building to set up its caller systems. After this is done, the NTI Group charges $3.60 per student per year, with no limit on the number of times the system is used. District staff is included at no extra charge, and there are no charges based on minutes, call volume, or the number of messages sent. The company provides support 24 hours a day, and staff training is included in the price. (These prices are the company's standard costs; lower prices may be negotiable.)

Our advice when researching how much to expect to spend? Use NTI's pricing as a baseline when negotiating a deal for your district.

2. Types of Caller Systems

Caller systems fall into one of two categories. The first is purchased, integrated, and managed by the school itself as part of its internal telephone system. Cisco's Unified Communications suite, which was recently installed by the Peel District School Board in Ontario, Canada, is such a system. It provides automated calling as part of an overall VoIP PBX solution.

The second is hosted and managed by a third party, such as the NTI Group's Connect-ED service. In this scenario, school and district users can send calls via a toll-free number by entering their unique user ID and password/PIN.

3. How It Works

First, the school district IT department populates the caller system database with the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of parents, government officials, and others—such as police, fire, and EMS—that they want to receive automated alerts. Next the database is loaded with prerecorded text and voice messages that cover situations like school closings and evacuations. Sophisticated call systems employ text-to-voice software to call the homes of specific children to report absences.

When a mass calling is required, a school official types in the appropriate command or calls their third-party provider and the alert begins. Additionally, users can access a secured Web site to send text messages to cell phones, e-mail addresses, and to TTY/TDD receiving devices for the hearing impaired, as well as to recipients from an unlimited number of groups that can be unique to each user.

How Caller Systems Stack Up

Company

3n (National Notification Network)

Cisco Systems

The NTI Group

VoiceGate

Product

Instacom School Edition

Unified Communications Suite

Connect-ED

Teacher's Assistant

Type & Features

Third-party SaaS (Software as a Service) hosted solution

Users can interact with the system by making a phone call to a live operator, going online, or going through a school's internal application to initiate mass notifications.

Integrated VoIP and voice messaging system

The UC suite can upgrade and expand the capabilities of a school district's entire communications infrastructure.

Hosted and managed by the NTI Group for its users as a third-party SaaS

School districts provide the database information via automated and unattended updates from the district's SIS and pay a monthly access fee. Connect-ED does the rest.

The system can make calls even when a school district is out of commission and users can make a call using just a telephone if they are evacuated.

In-house application that runs on VoiceGate's Integrated Communications Server (ICS) platform

Teacher's Assistant can be used for a variety of purposes, including absentee and homework notification to parents.

Suitable Setting

School districts large and small

Medium and large school districts.

Smaller districts with sufficient IT support to manage an in-house VoIP system

Small districts with limited IT staff

Large districts not wanting to commit resources to managing a caller system in-house

School boards of all sizes

Worth Noting

Three versions available: Standard, Premium, and Ultra

Pricing on a per-student basis, with discounts based on size

Assign extra staff and budgetary funds if managing in-house

24-hour, year-round support

Training and retraining included in price

No per-minute, per-call, or per-message fees

PC-based

Compatible with voice mail systems made by Mitel, NEC, Nortel, Panasonic, and Samsung, among others

4. Which System Is Best?

Aside from affordability, which kind of caller system to buy is usually dependent on three factors: district size, degree of existing in-house communications infrastructure, and time and resources necessary for deployment.

The Peel District School Board decided to manage its own caller system since this feature is included with Cisco's Unified Communications suite. But Orlando, Florida's Orange County Public Schools opted for Connect-ED because it didn't want the hassle. "Our core business is running 181 schools serving about 179,000 children," explains OCPS CIO Charles Thompson. "It just makes more sense for a large school district to let a telecom professional host all of this infrastructure while we stick to what we do best."

Whichever you choose, be sure to select a system that is robust, easily expanded with lots of headroom for future growth, and capable of using multiple communications pathways (voice, e-mail, text message). If you do decide to install a caller system in-house, be aware that this is not a one-shot deal. Caller systems require upkeep, supervision, and periodic upgrades.

James Carelessis a freelance journalist based in Ottawa, Canada.

Alert Notification System Tips

Andy Berning, chief information officer and chief technology officer of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Carrollton, Texas, and Randy Taylor, supervisor of applications for Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, Florida, offer their strategies for getting the most out of your district's alert notification system.

  • Put one person in charge. Put a single representative from each campus—usually an administrator—in charge. That person is responsible for the content of calls and the system.
  • Carefully select which numbers to use. Chose to use only contact numbers for custodial parents and guardians.
  • Set up categories of message recipients. Set up different configurations of students and employees such as Spanish-speaking students, district faculty, and elementary school instructors.
  • Put thought and effort into training. Have administrators meet face-to-face with system representatives to demonstrate how the system works and spell out acceptable and non-acceptable uses for it—and to do practice recordings.
  • Don't overuse the system. Unless it's a crisis, messages should run no longer than 30 seconds.
  • Monitor outgoing messages if necessary. Have your district CTO get e-mail notification when any message goes out; they can even listen to it if they want.
  • Keep passwords secure. Change all passwords, including those used for alert notification messages, every six weeks.
  • Notify parents of absences at random times. Sending attendance information at the same time every day is asking for trouble; students quickly figure the timing of the calls and intercept them.
  • Evaluate use. Keep track of the type of messages sent, typically on a monthly basis. Users can choose how to identify the type of message they send.
  • Look at possible future uses. The next level is using the alert notification system for instructional purposes—to give parents an idea about what's going on in the classroom.

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