Spread the Word

Spread the Word

Technology helps school personnel communicate more effectively with the community and each other.

You can find them just about everywhere on a school or university campus, and most of us probably take them for granted. Whether it's big hands and little hands on an analog system, or a display of numerals on a digital system, clocks provide valuable information that helps keep students, instructors and everyone else who works in or visits schools on schedule.

Well, that's what is supposed to happen if the clocks are working right. But when the time shown on the classroom wall doesn't match what is displayed in the cafeteria or the teachers' lounge, problems can creep up: tardy students, missed buses, late assignments, irritated instructors and an entire campus ever-so-slightly out of sync.

Considering all the issues that schools and universities face, having clocks that run a few minutes behind is hardly a crippling predicament. But it can be an annoying and lingering nuisance, one that is time-consuming and expensive to correct — especially in a school system or campus with thousands of clocks that operate independently.

To correct the problem, education institutions can turn, as they have frequently done in recent years, to technology. Schools and universities can use their computer networks not only to provide Internet access, phone service and voice mail, but also to control their clocks, bell schedules and public-address systems.

The technology enables education institutions to take advantage of their existing infrastructure to communicate important information to students, staff and visitors more effectively.

Beneficial by products

It wasn't too long ago that when a teacher needed to convey some information to a parent, the most common avenue of communicating was a written note. It was hardly a fail-safe method — the reliability of delivery often depended on a student who may have had reasons to prevent parent-teacher dialogue. But it was the most practical solution available — there were few telephone lines in classrooms, cell phones were a rare luxury, and no one had ever heard of e-mails or the Internet.

Technology has made great progress in ending the communications drought in education. Nearly every classroom has computers connected to the Internet, which has allowed most teachers and staff members to have easy access to e-mail and other resources on the World Wide Web. Internet access in classrooms now is commonplace, but the advancements and innovations that have brought us to this point continue to push the envelope.

Education administrators see that their computer networks also have the capability and capacity to enhance school operations even more. With Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems, schools can provide telephones in every classroom and voice mail for all teachers and staff. Schools that have upgraded to wireless technology give students and staff even more options in where they send and receive information.

The systemwide computer network enables schools and universities to communicate quickly with students, staff, parents and the community at large through e-mails, voice mails and instant messages.

In addition, the networks can use Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology to operate clocks, bell schedules and public-address systems in schools and universities.

With the appropriate software, administrators from their desktop computers can control all the clocks throughout a school system — setting them accurately, synchronizing their display, and adjusting them for daylight savings time. The centralized management spares custodians from the time-consuming chore of re-setting clocks manually.

Such PoE systems also enable administrators to set and synchronize bell schedules and choose the sound that will alert students and staff that a class period has ended. When bad weather or in-service programs necessitate a temporary change in the class schedule, administrators can adjust the schedule for an entire school system, or for just one campus.

School officials also can connect a public-address system to the computer network and use PoE to transmit audio announcements. Software enables administrators to target the message to specific locations or throughout the organization.

In addition to simplifying operations, the PoE applications allow schools and universities to provide communication services without having to install and maintain a separate infrastructure.

Instant news

With the proliferation of cell phones, schools and universities have a sizable audience able to receive information about events and issues.

In the wake of last year's deadly shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, many campuses have accelerated efforts to establish an emergency text-messaging system to alert students and others on campus of immediate crises. (See sidebar, p. 44). Many schools also are using text messaging to relay non-emergency information to parents — the kind that students might forget to share, such as when report cards will be sent home.

In the Jefferson City (Mo.) district, parents and other interested parties can sign up for Text JCPS or Voice JCPS and receive text or voice messages from school officials. The notices may involve school emergencies, but also cover more mundane announcements, such as school closings, early dismissals, and reminders of PTA meetings and other events. Parents can choose to receive messages related to specific schools or activities.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.

Sidebar: Getting the message out

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., last month began a new text-messaging service to notify students and others connected to the school about campus emergencies “that pose an imminent threat or danger to the Vanderbilt community.”

AlertVU sends messages to the devices a subscriber chooses — cell phone (voice or text), landline, e-mail account or pager. The system is a 100 percent opt-in system, says Johnny Vanderpool, emergency management coordinator at Vanderbilt.

“The users give us the information about how they want to be contacted,” says Vanderpool. “With an opt-in system, the data is more accurate.”

The university encourages subscribers to have messages sent to many delivery points. Students also can sign their parents up for the system. “Some people have eight or nine delivery points listed.”

Many students sign up for just one delivery — a text message sent to their cell phones. Vanderpool says that is unwise; cell phone companies give voice calls higher priority than text messages, he says, and if an emergency results in heavy usage of the cell network, delivery of a text message could be delayed and defeat the purpose of the alert system.

“Redundancy is the key word,” says Vanderpool. “The more places a messages is sent, the more likely you'll receive it.”

Vanderbilt plans to use the system only for emergencies that call for immediate notification and not for more general security warnings.

As of a few weeks after its introduction, some 13,000 people had signed up to receive alerts, says Vanderpool. With students, employees and others connected with the campus, Vanderpool estimates that there are about 34,000 potential subscribers to AlertVU.

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