Administrator Magazine: Technology
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Mass Appeal

Notification systems expand to include video, 911 access, and two-way chat with parents.

About four years ago, Shawano (Wisconsin) School District purchased InformaCast, a mass notification system by Singlewire, for its 300 employees and 2,600 K-12 students.

The district started by using it in routine ways: daily announcements, upcoming events, attendance. But as it grew more familiar with the technology, officials discovered the system could be applied in new ways.

While initially designed to alert staff, students, and parents about emergency situations, mass notification systems have evolved over the last decade. Educators have recognized the technology's immense capabilities to streamline daily activities and encourage parental involvement. But some aren't convinced these systems have reached their full potential. So they're working with vendors to explore creative applications of the platform.

At Shawano, one innovation is to alert IT staff if the main distribution frame room, which houses the district's servers, becomes too hot, too humid, or even flooded.

"Technology equipment is very sensitive to heat or moisture," says Steve Miller, the district's director of technology. "If our roof sprung a leak, we'd get a message saying, ‘You've got water on the floor over here.' "

Some of the room's doors are linked to the system so that if an unauthorized person opens them, IT staff is automatically alerted. Since InformaCast is now tied into the building's security cameras, administrators can also see who entered the room. So can local police, who are able to remotely view the entire building when emergencies arise.

Miller says the system will soon deliver e-mails to school desktops, distribute text messages to parent phones, send announcements to a digital sign running across the school entrance, and, by linking the system to its video cameras, send video messages to administrators' BlackBerrys.

Allowing Two-Way Comnmunication
Other schools are using mass notification systems to broadcast city events. Murray City (Utah) School District, for example, uses the e-IVR system by Computer Instruments to promote different community or political events, such as plays sponsored by the Murray Arts Centre or a Meet the Candidates Night.

"We see this as a service not just to the school district but to the broader community," says Steve Hirase, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Murray, which employs 900 staffers and supports an estimated 6,500 students.

The district is careful not to overuse its system by flooding parents with messages, reasoning they'll start to ignore notifications if there are too many. The system is used mainly to announce key events such as parent-teacher conferences, explains Hirase. Administrators at each school in the district ultimately decide which activities or events to promote.

The system also works in reverse. Its core technology can be set up for an inbound program, called Homework Hotline, that connects parents and teachers via an audio bulletin board, says Brandon Herring, director of sales at Computer Instruments.

But how schools use these systems really depends upon the creativity of the IT department. Herring points to some schools, mostly private, that use the system for fundraising and others that use it as a substitute locator. He explains the system can call substitute teachers to announce the school's need. Prompts then allow the potential sub to accept or decline the assignment, continuing calls until the opening is filled.

Herring says plans are under way to deliver video images to smartphones, enabling recipients to see and hear the person making the announcement. The company is also experimenting with an appointment reminder that schedules meetings through IP phones.

Surveys and Bilingual Messages
Parents with smartphones will soon be able to message in real time, says T. Gregory Bender, president and chief executive officer at K12 Alerts.

He offers the example of a working mother who receives a message about an emergency school closing. The mother can select the name of someone she previously authorized to pick up her child, such as a grandparent or neighbor. The system will then send that person an instant notification to pick up the student from school.

The same system is also linked to an electronic emergency student card that contains important information about a student, such as allergies or the names of doctors or alternative caregivers. If a student with peanut allergies accidentally eats something with peanuts, parents would be notified.

Mass notification systems are also being used to prevent health problems. Last May, San Diego Unified School District used Blackboard Connect for Teachers to alert parents of school closures due to an outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus, says Jennie Breister, a communications specialist for the district, which supports approximately 130,000 K-12 students and 14,000 employees.

The district observes guidelines established by the county's health and human services department, which identified specific regions that were affected with H1N1. Since the system is set up to target specific groups, such as individual schools or specific grade levels, the district was able to notify parents only in those locations.

"We strategically used the system to target those families, those parents," Breister says, adding that messages also encouraged parents to have their children checked by a doctor. "It's really important to have protocols when using the system. With something like a health scare, you don't want to use it inappropriately, where now everybody is fearful of sending their kids to school."

District administrators have also used the system to survey parents on a variety of topics, such as their satisfaction level with the district, funding priorities, and choices for the school's lunch menu; they even used it to take T-shirt orders. Likewise, teachers find it extremely helpful. Last year, the system placed 289,000 calls to parents in their native language. Teachers created more than 140 pre-scripted, recorded messages in 22 different languages so that they could effectively communicate with parents not fluent in English.

So far, the system has generated few complaints. Breister says less than one percent of the system's total communications have produced problems, and those typically related to parental concerns over privacy issues.

"We've gotten plenty of feedback from our principals and administrators that this is the best tool the district has offered schools in many years," Breister says. "You go in thinking that you're going to utilize it for emergency services but what you really end up doing is utilizing it in so many other capacities."

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