Keeping the Community in the Know
Notification systems—which use the Internet to enable school administrators to make and send thousands of automated phone calls, text messages and e-mails in minutes—are expanding in popularity in school districts across the country. As the dire national economic conditions increase voter concern about the best use of tax dollars, notification systems often play a crucial role in district transparency, by enabling administrators to conduct telephone or online opinion polls about budget proposals, for example, and rapidly, regularly and efficiently informing the community about financial issues. The 2009 School Safety Index, a national survey conducted by CDW-G, found that 70 percent of districts were using some form of the technology to disseminate information, up from 45 percent in 2008, while 46 percent of districts without such a system were considering implementing one in the next year. “That is a tremendous increase. Notification systems have become part of the infrastructure of school districts,” says Houston Thomas, lead public safety business manager for CDW-G.
The demand is so strong that notification is becoming a part of other services. School Web site design company eChalk, for example, recently added a text messaging and e-mail notification feature to its capabilities. “A lot of our customers were interested in notification,” says Charlene Noll, vice president of product development. “This feature is becoming an important part of what we do.” And according to a recent market analysis report by research firm Frost & Sullivan, “The education segment is expected to register high growth in the next two years,” due both to the “need for reliable communications in emergencies” and the recent “significant improvements” in mass notification systems.
Not Just for Emergencies
While the number of districts implementing mass notification rapidly increases, the frequency with which such systems are used is also increasing. “Emergency notification” is becoming something of a misnomer, as most of these products are now designed to be used more often, for regular, non-emergency, everyday communications. This trend is due in large part to the convenience and ease of use that comes from Internet-based, entirely hosted online services. “We started as an emergency notification service, but our customers kept telling us they could do so much more communicating with the same technology,” says Jason Bedford, vice president of AlertNow, whose fully hosted system can make up to two million calls per hour.
More affordable than hardware- or software-based systems of the past, systems like AlertNow do not require on-site installation of software, hardware or additional phone lines; nor do they require maintenance. Users simply log in from a Web browser, or call in to record and broadcast a message over the phone. Administrators at the Nassau County (Fla.) School District implemented the SchoolReach notification system after a security incident in 2007 but started using the system for much more than emergencies, including reminders about a variety of events, unexcused absences, low lunch money balances, or late buses. Because of the system, “we’ve increased attendance at certain activities by double or triple,” says Sharyl Wood, the district’s executive director of administrative services.
The Brownsburg (Ind.) Community School Corporation implemented AlertNow as part of its 2008 initiative to eliminate all paper communications with parents concerning various district events. “Those without Internet access can sign up to receive school newsletters and information via an AlertNow call each Sunday evening,” says Donna Petraits, director of communications at Brownsburg Community School Corporation.
Language translation technology has also become more sophisticated than ever; consequently, text-to-text and text-to-speech language translation is fast becoming an important feature. TeleParent, for example, claims translation is one of its strongest capabilities, and it supports dozens of languages. SchoolReach now includes translation, and AlertNow is aggressively adding languages, increasing this year from 11 to 20 languages it translates. “Spanish is the main one, but there are a surprising number of districts that need many more languages to reach all their parents,” says Bedford.
Regardless of the type or urgency of the messages, however, the greater the number of platforms and media that are used, the greater the chance that they will be received. As a result, notification systems continue to broaden their reach beyond voice messages to landline and cell phones to also include text messaging, e-mail, desktop instant messages, school Web sites and blogs, and most recently through social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter.
“The information needs to be ubiquitous, in as many places as possible across different technologies and media,” says Thomas. None of these platforms is supplanting existing technologies, however. “Schools are still utilizing old technology in an emergency, like radio and television broadcasts,” says Thomas, but notification systems are adding more and more platforms to the total number of technologies they support.
These trends will continue, and the overall future of notification systems is one of continued expansion, to new technologies and an even wider audience. “One area that will grow is interagency communications,” says Thomas, “so that in an emergency, school administrators can quickly send messages not just to parents but to police, fire departments and other agencies, and also send them maps and diagrams of their facilities, for example.”
Regardless of the type of notification system, effective community outreach is crucial, and it’s accomplished by keeping phone numbers, e-mail addresses and other contact information current. “Remember that these systems require parents to register,” Thomas adds, “so a sustainable program of reminders to keep them involved and connected is vital to success.”
Kurt O.E. Dyrli is products editor.
Beyond The Call
Dozens of notification systems are on the market. Here are some of the fully hosted online services designed specifically for K12 education.
Originally designed for emergency communications, AlertNow has a range of capabilities that enable regular non-emergency messaging as well, and it distinguishes between them by displaying “411” on the caller ID only during an emergency situation. The system connects through landline or mobile phones, e-mail, fax machines, or pagers. A secure Web interface enables administrators to create an unlimited number of distribution groups, schedule messages, survey parents, manage contact lists and view delivery reports.
$1-$3 per student annually
Blackboard Connect-ED www.blackboardconnect.com
Blackboard’s Connect-ED system enables administrators to record, schedule, send and track personalized voice messages to students, parents and staff members, and it includes utilities for emergency notification, survey taking, and community outreach. Users can also custom group their recipients. Supported formats include landline phones, text, e-mail, voicemail and PDA/pagers.
$3-$3.60 per student annually
While e2campus has focused primarily on colleges and universities in the past, the company has recently begun moving aggressively into K12. E2campus particularly emphasizes its wide range of platforms, including social networking utilities. Intended primarily for emergencies, e2campus broadcasts voice and text messages across phones, e-mail and instant messaging services like many similar products, but it also connects with Twitter, Facebook and RSS readers.
Average of $2 per person annually
Global Connect www.gc1.com
Global Connect’s system is designed for both routine and emergency messaging via voice, e-mail and text. A custom call list feature enables administrators to contact targeted groups, confirmation key settings allow for community polling and survey taking, real-time reporting functions allow users to see who has been contacted and when, and an instant callback feature enables parents, staff members or students to return a call to get additional information.
$2 per student annual base price, first six months free
Honeywell Instant Alert www.honeywell.com/instantalert
With Instant Alert, users can record up to a 30-second voice message or send text messages and e-mails at a rate of 100,000 in 15 minutes, for emergencies or daily information such as schedules, newsletters, attendance notifications and announcements. Honeywell also includes a fully staffed help desk available at all times, 24 hours a day, to assist in emergency notification if needed.
$2.25-$5 per student annually
SchoolMessenger emphasizes flexibility of scale by offering a variety of notification packages to suit districts of different sizes. Its CommSuite is a fully hosted, full-featured service, or districts can choose from a configurable, more affordable Flex Appliance for routine communications that taps into the hosted service only in an emergency, or a stand-alone service that makes use of existing network infrastructure.
$1-$3 per student annually
SchoolReach’s system includes a Message Center, which enables users to record, store and manage a library of up to 99 messages. Administrators can call in to record, use a text-to-speech utility that translates typed words into a computer-generated voice, or upload WAV files of recordings made on a computer. SchoolReach also offers a variety of detailed reporting functions that track the success of each broadcast.
$2.50 per student annually
Teleparent’s notification system is designed to be used by teachers as well as administrators. Teachers can schedule and send messages to the parents of a class or individual students concerning everything from unexcused absences, classroom behavior or upcoming exams, while administrators can use the system for emergencies. Teleparent also supports dozens of languages with live translators.
$1.75-$3.75 per student annually