Technology Calling

By 2002, 92 percent of the instructional rooms in U.S. public schools had computers with access to the Internet. The level of technology's penetration into the nation's school systems seems a remarkable accomplishment, especially from the perspective of 10 years ago, when only 3 percent of classrooms had connections to the Internet.

But for many schools, the embrace of technology is not an end, but a beginning. Schools and universities are taking advantage of the technology infrastructure they have acquired to improve communications within a school and with the community it serves, enhance the safety of students and staff, and provide more effective instruction.

Telephone hang-ups

Teachers typically have a desk in their classrooms; but unlike most business professionals, they usually are not provided with a phone to link them with the world beyond their classrooms. Once that isolation may have been viewed as an inconvenience to a teacher, or even a sign of disrespect, but as school safety has assumed greater importance in most communities, the absence of classroom phones could be considered a potential security problem.

Many schools are using their Internet infrastructure to make classroom telephones a reality. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows someone to make telephone calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a traditional phone line. The system converts a voice signal into a digital signal that travels over the Internet, then converts it back to a voice at the receiving end of the call. Some systems also allow a user to place a phone call directly from a computer using a conventional phone or a microphone.

“Education institutions with several campuses within a limited geography are excellent candidates for VoIP or other voice/data integration technology,” says Rich Kaestner, a project director with the Consortium for School Networking. “This is further complemented with the relatively robust LAN infrastructures in schools, thanks to help from E-rate, while the analog voice networks are often becoming inadequate and lacking wiring to the classroom.”

During the 1990s, the Excelsior Springs (Mo.) school district was among the thousands of districts that established a network to connect its schools to the Internet. However, the technological improvements did not extend to the 3,300-student district's telephones. Staff members had to work with an inadequate and outdated phone system.

“We were faced with a phone system without voicemail and with no phones in any classroom,” says Chris Kamler, the district's director of technology. “Our wiring infrastructure was a train wreck. Any expansion of the phone system came with exorbitant costs. So we began looking into our ability to run the phones over our existing Internet wires.”

The district was able to use its computer network to install a telephone in every classroom without having to re-wire the classrooms, says Kamler.

“We've had rave reviews from the staff,” says Kamler. “It can make a big difference when there are emergencies.”

In some instances, the infrastructure in place might not be suitable for a conversion from traditional phones to VoIP.

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., officials conducted a trial of VoIP, but opted not to move forward with a campuswide installation after concluding that network upgrades were needed before a VoIP system was viable.

“We must harden the network to assure reliability in a VoIP solution,” concludes a project report on the university's trial.

Total coverage

Phones can boost security and foster better communication while teachers and students are in classrooms, but some education institutions want their staff members to have access to communications throughout their campuses — in stairwells, on playgrounds, or in temporary classrooms.

For many institutions, a wireless phone system can provide comprehensive coverage that enhances the safety of staff and students. The Richardson (Texas) Independent School District has installed wireless telephone systems in all of its schools and has provided handsets to all of its teachers.

“Our teachers' ability to communicate with each other and with the rest of the world has improved tremendously, and this is very important for them,” says Allen McDaniel, director of technology project management for the Richardson district.

The wireless phones can receive text messages and provide more privacy during conversations than walkie-talkies or intercoms.

Panic button

Schools without the resources or infrastructure to provide phone communication in classrooms can offer teachers and students more security by installing a panic or duress alarm system.

“The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools,” a guide for schools produced by the U.S. Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, identifies three types of duress alarms:

  • A panic-button alarm — a pushbutton mounted in a fixed location.

  • An identification alarm — a portable device that identifies the owner of the device.

  • An identification/location alarm — a portable device that identifies, locates and tracks the person who activated the duress alarm.

In the Lexington, Ohio, district, classrooms are equipped with wireless panic systems that teachers can wear around their necks, on wrists or belts, or in pockets or purses. When the device is activated, it sends a signal that includes the teacher's name and room number. It notifies personnel in the school office.

Interactive whiteboards

Technology not only allows better communication between a classroom and the rest of the world, but also it provides tools for teachers to communicate more effectively with students. It has helped the traditional classroom chalkboard evolve into an interactive writing surface linked to students' individual computers.

An electronic whiteboard is in effect a large computer touchscreen that captures what is written and transmits it to individual computer screens. Students with computers at their desks can follow along with the lesson, and can save the lessons and view them later. Teachers also can use a projector to display web pages or computer applications onto the whiteboard and add their own notes to the display.

The Thomaston-Upson County school district in Georgia has installed an electronic whiteboard in all of its classrooms.

Mike Gatlin, the district's technology director, says the whiteboards allow teachers “to transform an ordinary classroom into a highly interactive, collaborative learning system.”

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at [email protected].

NOTABLE

  • 3

    Percentage of public school instructional rooms with Internet connections, 1994.

  • 92

    Percentage of public school instructional rooms with Internet connections, 2002.

  • 94

    Percentage of public schools with Internet access using broadband connections, 2002

  • 23

    Percentage of public schools with Internet access that use wireless Internet connections, 2002

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, “Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2002.”

Sound the alarm

On certain school days, students — and teachers — can't wait for the school bell to ring. So if a bell system isn't working right, a school could find itself with a building full of irritated people.

A bell sounding at the wrong time, or bells ringing at different times in different parts of a school, could result in problems. But technology can help schools get their bells accurate, synchronized and even sounding more pleasant.

The Ross School, a private institution in East Hampstead, N.Y., had an outdated bell system that required a bell schedule to be entered separately for each building on the campus, and the system did not have a way to synchronize the ringing in each building.

The school solved its problem by installing a system that uses Ross' computer network to set bell schedules, synchronize schedules when desired, and send an audio file containing the bell sound to be broadcast throughout a specific area. Because the “bell” sounds are audio files, the school can create bits of music or other customized sounds to broadcast instead of a bell.

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