The ABC’s of voice messaging – Southwestern Bell’s voice processing trial at the Blue Valley School District in Stanley, KS

The ABC’s of voice messaging – Southwestern Bell’s voice processing trial at the Blue Valley School District in Stanley, KS – includes related article about information services to be offered over telephone systems

Phyllis Hoffman

The ABC’s of voice messaging

Teachers don’t know everything.

In fact, some teachers don’t know anything when it comes to enhanced services. But, thanks to U.S. District Judge Harold Greene’s March 7 ruling, telephone companies can now offer these services in new markets such as the schools.

Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. will improve communications in our schools through its innovative voice processing trial at the Blue Valley School District in Stanley, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. The trial is the first of its kind in a school district.

America’s educational system, often the target of harsh criticism, is thirsty for a solution to its communication difficulties between parents and the schools. Face-to-face meetings between parents and teachers have gone the way of the horse and buggy. Mandatory busing and two-income families have made personal contact between parents and teachers extremely rare. Even though personal computers are now standard equipment in many schools, telephone technology within the schools generally is not state of the art.

Different time schedules contribute to the parent-teacher communication gap. Many parents are not available during the day and teachers have already gone home by the time parents can call the school. Parents have begun to view teachers as the bearers of bad news because the only contact between parents and teachers happens when there are problems.

The situation is worsened because teachers have limited access to the telephone during the day. According to a SWBT study, the average large high school has between four and six outside lines, forcing teachers to hover over an office secretary to make a call. The logistical difficulties and lack of privacy add up to an undesirable communications environment.

“Voice processing solves many of these problems,” says former teacher Karen Waters, who is now SWBT’s area manager of planning. Waters and several others in a special SWBT marketing group conceived the idea to launch a six-month voice processing trial within a public school district.

The trial began in September after the telco got an enhanced services plannign waiver from the Federal Communications Commission.

The Trial Site

SWBT chose the trial site carefully. The area served by the Blue Valley School District includes several rapidly growing Kansas City suburbs and accounts for 20% of all student growth in the state. Middle- and upper-income families are attracted to Blue Valley because its school system is considered one of the best in Kansas.

Most of the district’s schools are less than 10 years old. Three new schools will open this year and another nine will open in the next five years. The Blue Valley schools have had computers for several years and many families also have them at home. The young, well-educated community was perfect to test this new technology.

About a year ago, Blue Valley began to look at voice processing. Since the district was adding an average of two buildings each year, Blue Valley Assistant Supervisor of Support Services John Gilfillan decided to explore this technology. At the same time, SWBT District Manager of Planning Keith Hogan was experimenting with several voice processing systems for the educational market.

The Blue Valley trial includes both telephone answering and voice mail services. The voice processing system selected had to meet the needs of parents, teachers and administrators, and integrate with the school system’s existing Plexar Centrex service provided by the telco’s Northern Telecom DMS-100 central office switch.

Searching for a System

Don Miller, SWBT area manager-planning, led the search for a system. Miller chose an Octel Communications Aspen Maxum voice processing system primarily because of “its features and quality and the reputation of the vendor.” Octel’s systems fully integrate with most PBX and Centrex systems, an essential requirement for this trial.

Full integration between a switch and a voice processing system makes the system easier to use and more functional. In fully integrated telephone answering, for example, the switch can pass on called-party identification to the voice processing system, allowing a call that reaches a busy or unanswered line to be forwarded directly to the correct voice mailbox where a personal greeting is played and a message can be recorded.

Without integration a caller must enter the mailbox number before a message can be left. Therefore, integration also gives rotary dial customers without push-button service the capability to leave messages. An integrated voice processing system can also alert subscribers when a new message has been received by activating message waiting lights, or as in the Blue Valley trial, a broken dial tone on the subscriber’s telephone.

Three Blue Valley schools and the district office are participating in the trial. Morse Elementary, Blue Valley Middle School and Blue Valley High School will help determine whether different school levels have different needs. The trial includes 250 faculty members, 50 school administrators and the parents of 1650 students (Figure 1).

How it Works

Each teacher, administrator and family has a voice mailbox with a private password. When a teacher records a voice message and sends it to a parent, a broken dial tone on the parent’s telephone is activated. As soon as the parent calls the system to pick up the message, the broken dial tone is deactivated.

Parents select the send function from a menu recited by the system’s voice. They are then prompted to record a message and enter the teacher’s voice mailbox number so the system can automatically deliver the recording.

Teachers can set up distribution lists for each class to send general messages about field trips or class assignments to all parents. The message is recorded once and sent using a few push-button keys.

In this trial, only some faculty and administrators have telephone answering capabilities. As a result, these school employees may receive messages from any caller–inside or outside the school offices–while parents can get messages only from other who have voice mailboxes in the school system.

Anyone trying to reach a counselor, principal or administrator calls the seven-digit telephone number for that person. If the line is busy or the faculty member is unavailable, the call is transferred immediately by the DMS-100 to an eight-line uniform call distributor group.

Data is simultaneously sent to the Maxum system, identifying the call’s original destination, so the system can respond with the correct personal greeting and record a message. After the message is recorded, the Maxum system sends a command over a simplified message desk interface link to the DMS-100, instructing it to activate a broken dial tone on the phone in the teacher’s office.

Installation and Maintenance

The Maxum system is located at SWBT’s Stanley CO. It was easy to install and was functioning in less than a week. Cables were run between the Maxum system and the DMS-100 via a distributing frame for cross-connection. The system is powered by -48 V telephone CO power.

Octel technicians installed the system and will provide technical support, but SWBT technicians, who have taken Octel’s maintenance and administration course, will perform routine system maintenance.

With approval of SWBT’s comparably efficient interconnection plan, required under Computer Inquiry III rules, the telco can conduct market research on this and other voice processing trials. Octel’s Call Detail Records software package helps extract useful customer-usage data for traffic engineering and for system-size evaluation. In the future, when the telco begins charging for voice processing, this data will be useful for itemized billing.

Initial Marketing

With the technology in place, training new users and encouraging them to use the system was the next hurdle. SWBT conducted several sessions for faculty at each school. Special instruction booklets were distributed to parents and additional telephones were installed in the schools. And, to get the system off to a good start, the schools had an open house for parents. Parents participating in the trial were required to sign a consent form.

Blue Valley School District Superintendent James Thompson says that the teachers’ enthusiasm will motivate the parents to use the system. “We’ve already seen some exciting results,” says Thompson. “Teachers have immediately taken to it and have found it to be a great tool. Creative people will come up with uses for the system that no one can anticipate, and because of this, we feel it has tremendous potential.”

Teachers are expected to use the system to inform parents about their children’s progress or problems through private voice messages. The door is open both ways for more frequent, positive communication between teachers and parents.

Blue Valley and SWBT also are using Octel’s Information Center Mailbox software, which allows the schools to record general messages that can be accessed by callers about weather conditions that affect school hours or news about special school events.

According to SWBT Vice President of Marketing Richard Vehige, “This trial will be as much an improved educational exercise as it is a real technical and operational test. It will determine how far voice processing services can go to increase communications between school faculty and parents, and community involvement in the school district.”

The Blue Valley trial is one of six SWBT trials currently using the Maxum system. The trials will cover all five states the telco serves. All trials are free and vary in the type of service offered and the user community served. A seventh trial will begin next month.

Each voice messaging trial is an example of how creative product development can bring new technology into unexplored and undeveloped markets. With competition on the rise, voice processing services can be a real boon to telcos, who need look only as far as the local schoolyard to find potential customers in need.

COPYRIGHT 1988 PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group