The events of 2020 forced schools to close and scramble to adapt to the world of remote learning. Naturally, many schools were unprepared and the quality of education suffered as a result. As case numbers continue to rise, schools are once again faced with answering a difficult question: how will education work in 2021?
Regardless of how your school district or board of education chooses to conduct business, there is a solution for all of your distance learning woes. VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a powerful technology that can not only replace your traditional phone system, but open the door to successful virtual education. We’re going to look at the various situations schools are in right now and how using VoIP can make life better for both students and teachers.
Remote Learning Done Right With The Best VoIP Phone Systems For Schools
How Will Students Learn in 2021?
Whether you’re a concerned parent, a school district official, or just a teacher looking to convince your superiors to upgrade your systems, we understand what you need. We’ve seen the classroom for ourselves from both sides and recognize that every school is handling the situation in different ways. Nevertheless, VoIP really is a one-size-fits-all solution.
Let’s plot the spectrum of education in 2021. You have, on one end, the traditional model of sitting in neat rows facing a whiteboard in a classic classroom. On the opposite end of the spectrum, everyone is at home in their pajamas learning through a screen. Every institution on this spectrum could find a use for VoIP.
While some states and districts have opted to stick to the traditional way of doing things, the fact is that even these schools still need to accommodate students who get sick or whose parents don’t want them to attend school. Regardless of how your students are learning, they need the connectivity you can only get from a VoIP provider. Let’s look at some different scenarios to see why.
The Challenges of Remote Learning
Schools have always depended on controlled environments. Everything in your typical school is regulated, down to the schedule punctuated by bells. But when everyone is learning remotely, that structure crumbles. Naturally, having a high speed internet connection available at all times becomes priority number one, but that’s just the beginning.
Teachers need to be able to see their students. Video conferencing, therefore, is one of the most important tools in the virtual educator’s arsenal. But not all video conferencing systems are ideal for education. The best VoIP providers for schools need to have a video conferencing app with several key features that we’ll look at later.
Doing work online requires some form of cloud based data management. Free options like Google Classroom have exploded in popularity. However, some organizations prefer to use their own software, which they may already have developed considerably. The best VoIP providers have APIs that allow you to integrate their features into your existing student management system.
Will the Hybrid Model Work?
But what if your school has decided not to go back to full online learning? Perhaps your school district has opted for a hybrid learning model. In these situations, the class will be divided into smaller groups, usually half the size of the normal class. This allows for desks to be spaced out more in the classroom so as to encourage safe social distancing.
Any given subject will likely have two sessions a week in this model. Half the class attends the first session in person while the other half gets their in-person lesson on the second date. The half that stays home can view the class through a video conferencing or real time streaming option. Teachers are mostly skeptical about how this would work, but it has been done successfully in several countries and states.
The hybrid model has been sold as a way to transition back to normal for schools that are more concerned about public safety. However, it’s clear that even a hybrid system needs the same technology as an all-online class does. Even schools that try to go back to normal will essentially be operating as hybrid schools to some degree, and here’s why.
Can VoIP Benefit Traditional School Systems?
Teachers, if you’re reading this and rolling your eyes at our talk about remote classes and hybrid systems because you’re back in the classroom with 25 kids in front of you, first of all we’d like to thank you. Now: you may think VoIP is pointless if you’re back in the traditional classroom, but there’s actually a few reasons why you should give your school an upgrade anyway.
First of all, some of your kids aren’t there. Some parents are simply not going to allow their children to go to school in the middle of a pandemic, and there are plenty of valid reasons for holding that stance. Other parents have to keep their kids in quarantine for weeks at a time because a family member is sick or they got a message from contact tracing. Don’t those students need an education also? VoIP service could be the solution for those students who just can’t come back to school.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, why haven’t we done this already? Why isn’t there a system in place for students who are absent? This isn’t going to be our last brush with biomedical danger. We should be prepared for anything, and a school equipped with a VoIP service provider is in a much better position.
What Is a VoIP Phone System Exactly?
We’ve established that VoIP services are going to help schools no matter how they’re working in 2021. But what exactly are these VoIP phone services and what can they offer your school? In a nutshell, a VoIP phone system will unify all the communications in your school by using the internet to handle phone calls and any other kind of communications.
Instead of relying on your telephone network to make a call, you can use VoIP to place calls without needing a phone line. In fact, you can set up any device to use VoIP, so if teachers would prefer to use their mobile phone instead of a clunky desk phone, that’s an option! You can even give each of your teachers a virtual phone number so their personal number doesn’t get mixed in with work affairs.
The best VoIP providers have features and services that are perfect for schools. Video conferencing, file management, instant messaging, user controls: it’s all there on these unified communications platforms. VoIP solutions can do it all.
How Can VoIP Services Replace Your School Phone System?
Whether your school is doing things the standard way or via a hybrid or completely remote model, upgrading your phone system should be a priority. If you’re still relying on a traditional phone line, then you’re spending a lot of money for antiquated telephone technology. The telephone company charges you for each phone line and for extra features like call routing with a private branch exchange.
By using VoIP, you can give each of your teachers their own virtual phone number, or you can program extensions to your desk phones just like your current phone system. But instead of being tied to the desk, the virtual number can work on your computer, laptop, or mobile device. So, if your school suddenly has to abandon traditional learning, your staff can still stay connected.
Using a VoIP phone system makes calls to parents or other staff members much easier. You’ll have access to your entire organization’s contact list right at your fingertips.
Will We Need New Phones?
VoIP services love to brag about their IP phones, or desk phones with VoIP capabilities. These phones don’t use a phone line, but instead have an internet connection either with Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable. Understand that these are completely optional, although they could definitely be useful for your school.
If your school’s budget doesn’t allow for a massive internet phone shopping spree, then simply ditch the phones altogether and install VoIP software on your cell phone or on the teacher’s computer. You can use any device to make calls using VoIP, so you don’t actually need to splurge on the fancy phones.
Is VoIP Better for Making Calls?
A lot of education professionals are skeptical of VoIP because their previous experiences haven’t been very positive. If you used to make Skype calls a decade ago, you know that VoIP was something of a joke. It could work in a pinch but it wasn’t ready to overtake your traditional phone service.
However, the average internet connection is more than 10 times faster than it was a decade ago. High quality audio is now possible in real time thanks to better data processing. And VoIP calls don’t have any long distance charges, plus incoming calls are free. You can save money and have a high quality phone system.
Of course, if your school is operating remotely or still in its hybrid infancy, you’re probably not as interested in replacing your entire phone system as you are getting all the cool VoIP features that make online learning a breeze. Let’s take a look at what your school can get from the top VoIP providers.
What Other Features Do VoIP Providers Offer for Schools?
VoIP service is more than just supercharged phones and free calls. There are a ton of other VoIP features that are exclusive to VoIP. Your local phone service wishes they could do even half of what your most basic VoIP provider does. The best VoIP phone service providers have everything your school needs to operate at maximum capacity, regardless of the learning model.
Let’s look at the various VoIP features and how they relate to educational environments. Whether your school needs all of these depends largely on your situation, so examine them carefully to determine what you need. Later, you can set a budget and compare VoIP providers based on the features you’re looking for.
VoIP Call Features
VoIP phone systems can do everything your current telephone system does and more. Call routing and call forwarding are a must in schools where calls are frequently redirected to teachers or other staff members. Call routing is easy to set up on VoIP services, you can even configure it to forward incoming calls to specific devices.
The auto attendant is a powerful tool that will make your school secretary superhuman. You can create your own prerecorded message that your callers will hear, complete with a menu that activates call routing and sends the call to the right destination. Your standard phone service might offer this too, but configuring it is a huge pain. With VoIP, you can update your messages in seconds.
Call recording is another feature you can use with VoIP. On a traditional phone, you need a special recording device to actually use call recording. But with VoIP, all you have to do is tell the software where to save the call. Call recording provides your school with significant legal protection and prevents misconduct between staff and students.
As amazing as VoIP phone calls are, they’re not likely to get your students hyped for class. These days, a good video conferencing system is an absolute necessity, and the top VoIP providers know this. But not every VoIP system has a video conferencing platform designed for educators, so you need to consider what features are the most important for students and teachers.
Teachers must be able to see all of their students at once. If your video calls limit the number of cameras that you can see, you’d better look elsewhere. Next, students need opportunities to participate and so your VoIP service should have multiple options for this. Polls, a “raise hand” feature, or other reactions or buttons that allow students to express themselves without using their voice are crucial to a good remote learning experience.
From there, the ability to go into breakout rooms or “meetings within meetings” is likewise a must have. Teachers know how important group work is to students’ development. If students can’t have their own virtual space to work in, then your video conferencing solution is not good enough for school.
Screen sharing has become a standard feature across the board, but how screen sharing is handled matters. Some VoIP services will give you this feature, but it’s all or nothing: You share your entire screen or nothing at all. This will work, but it’s hardly ideal.
Teachers need some privacy when they share their screens. For example, a teacher might be grading assignments while students present their work. The teacher is sharing their screen to make the presentation order and a timer visible to everyone. But they don’t want students to see each other’s grades, so what can you do?
A good VoIP service will let you share a specific window, or even a section of your screen that you can designate by dragging a box onto your screen. Also, if your teachers have multiple monitors (and they absolutely should!) you should be able to share one and not the other.
Annotation and Digital Whiteboards
No classroom would be complete without a whiteboard. But when you’re learning remotely, what can your students use instead? While there are plenty of apps out there that can double as a whiteboard, including Microsoft’s OneNote or Google’s Jamboard, ideally your VoIP service will have a digital whiteboard in its video conferencing app.
Students can scribble and write on the screen being shared or use the digital whiteboard to write answers to questions the teacher gives. In fact, virtual whiteboards actually do a lot more than your typical classroom whiteboard. You can paste pictures or even videos and GIFs from the internet onto your virtual space.
Math teachers love this tool for explaining problems. You can even record annotations to video and upload this later for students to review if they missed part of the class because they were playing Fortnite during your lesson.
File Management for Teachers and Students
Even though your average VoIP service provider is focused on communications, they understand that sharing information is just as important as sharing your voice. These days, we work together with files, and your students are no exception. Teachers need to review what their students do in class, and so a file management system is a must.
If your VoIP services include a unified communications platform, then you can also share files quickly to groups that you create. You don’t have to pay for students to sign up as users either! Students can be invited as guests, similar to how other businesses invite clients to join their VoIP network. Not only can you let your students know what they have to do via instant messaging, but you can drop a PDF with instructions at the same time.
If your school is already using another file management system such as Google Drive, look for VoIP providers that allow you to integrate their software with other programs. This way, you can still keep your files in Drive but share them instantly using your VoIP system.
Cloud Voice Recording
We mentioned call recording earlier, but having the ability to record your voice during video calls or your online classes is absolutely essential for both teachers and students. The fact is that most students can’t be asked to pay full attention for eight hours a day. Well, you can ask them, but don’t expect a great response.
Make sure your VoIP service provider has the option to record everything, either to your local computer or to the cloud. With this awesome VoIP feature, you’ll get a video or high quality audio file that you can share with your students. This is great for those who might have missed part of your class, or for absent students. It’s even helpful for test reviews.
A word of caution about the cloud, however. It’s very easy to fill your cloud storage, and then you’ll have to pay fees for the data you save in the cloud beyond your limit. Many VoIP providers won’t mention this early on and will leave your data uncapped. Ask your VoIP service provider to cap the amount of data you can hold in the cloud, and consider disabling the feature until your staff is trained on how to use it.
Most VoIP services charge your organization a monthly fee per user that you add to the VoIP phone system. Each user gets their own virtual phone number and access to all of the features that your VoIP service provider offers. However, large organizations like schools and school districts may not want to pay for everyone, especially not all of the students on board.
A good solution to this is to use your user management tools. You can set up profiles for “guests” who don’t actually cost you anything. These users won’t get their own phone number, but they can still call your virtual numbers and be invited to enter instant messaging groups and share files.
You can also treat several members of your staff as a single user for cost savings. For example, there can be one “secretary” phone number and you can use call routing to forward calls to that number to multiple extensions, allowing two or three people to handle calls to one number. The auto attendant feature is also a great way to handle these situations.
What Hardware Do You Need to Get Started With a VoIP Provider?
Now that you know more about the features you can get with VoIP services, you can start planning your VoIP integration. You may want to consider buying some new hardware to enable the best VoIP features in your classrooms.
Some of these tools are especially important for hybrid learning scenarios. Some may be best suited to a fully physical learning experience. Even in distance learning situations, some hardware upgrades could be a good idea. While the upfront cost of getting your school outfitted with the latest technology can be high, it’s a worthwhile investment. Parents love it too.
Upgrading Your Internet Connection
Most schools are already on a high tier line directly from the internet service provider, but you may want to ask if there are newer connection options available. When you consider that most schools were built quite a long time ago, it’s entirely possible that your ISP could have better infrastructure, like fiber optic lines, that could help you increase your internet bandwidth. Call your internet service provider and ask.
Even if your internet pipeline is wide open and ready, you’ll want to make sure you have enough internet connection access points. For example, if you’re going to switch to a VoIP phone system, do you have an extra Ethernet port in each room to accommodate the phone itself? If you opt for Wi-Fi devices, do you have enough coverage, including routers that can handle a higher number of connections?
Wi-Fi 6 is out now and if you are going to make any upgrades, make sure you don’t cut corners and buy outdated hardware that you’ll only need to replace in a couple of years.
Should You Upgrade Computers to Use VoIP?
VoIP is not a very difficult process for most computers to run. Even very simple devices can handle VoIP calls. In general, you won’t need to worry much about upgrading your computers. There are a couple of things you should look for, however, before assuming your PCs are ready to go.
Make sure your classroom PCs have plenty of USB ports available. You’re going to be connecting more devices to your desktop computer, including USB microphones and cameras. If you’re interested in wireless models, make sure your PC has the ability to communicate with other devices over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
If you feel that your classroom PCs may not have enough connections, you don’t have to replace them completely. You can get additional USB ports by installing a card in the computer, and USB Bluetooth and Wi-Fi adapters are fairly cheap. For $30-50 you can have a computer ready for VoIP and more.
Microphones for Education
High quality audio is even more important than video in the classroom. While visual information is extremely important, it can’t thrive without crystal clear audio. USB microphones tend to be more reliable than Bluetooth, however you need ports to connect them to. IP microphones are the holy grail, but they are also the most expensive.
For hybrid learning, giving each student a directional microphone on their desk, similar to what you would see in a chamber of congress, is a great tool. Remember, you’ll need to broadcast this hybrid lesson to students at home, and if they can hear their classmates then you have more opportunities for collaboration. These microphones are more personal than one that picks up every sound in the room, giving students some semblance of privacy.
If you’re doing distance learning exclusively, consider buying a simple headset for every student, or at the very least give parents a bulk deal by working with a supplier. Standardizing the equipment kids use at home reduces the rate of errors. On the flip side, if you’re running your school normally, a single omnidirectional microphone that covers the whole classroom is good enough for the occasional absentee.
Cameras for Your School
Cameras for any VoIP system should record in at least 720p, as anything lower can make visual information a pixelated mess. Ensure that your VoIP service includes some form of compression in its video, which will reduce the strain on your internet connection, and your students’ if they’re at home. But what kind of cameras should you get?
Most laptops have a webcam that’ll be good enough to get your at-home students through the year. But for hybrid scenarios, the plot thickens. You want students at home to be able to see the whole class from the teacher’s perspective, while also being able to see what the teacher does on the board. A 180-degree camera can give students a great view of the whole room.
You can also get creative here. Get a second wireless camera and have a student be your camera operator. They go around filming the class and broadcasting that to the video call. Ask the students how to configure streaming applications like OBS to take your virtual classes to the next level.
As we mentioned, to go to a full VoIP phone system, you need to have phones that can use VoIP instead of a traditional phone line. There are tons of models available, so ask your VoIP service provider which models they recommend. They may even have a partnership with a company to get you a better deal on specific models.
Try to avoid being upsold, however. Does every VoIP phone need a color touchscreen? Remember that not every person in your school needs every feature on every device.
If your receptionist would rather resign than lose her beloved trusty phone of 30 years, you can also get adapters that turn any regular phone into a VoIP phone. VoIP systems are very flexible, so keep an open mind when you’re planning your VoIP installation. You can often do a lot more than you may assume.
Get More VoIP Information
When you start investigating the myriad VoIP service providers, it can become a bit overwhelming. But don’t fret! Take your time and start by analyzing your current needs. These are unpredictable times, so you do want to consider what may happen in the near future, be prepared for every eventuality.
Once you are sure what features you need, sit down and determine how much your school is able to spend on VoIP. Don’t forget to ask if you’re already paying for some of these features. Perhaps your Microsoft 365 subscription means you can use Teams and find a cheaper VoIP provider that just handles your phone system.
When you’re ready, start comparing VoIP service providers. Don’t call too many, because it’ll quickly become cumbersome. Choose 3-5 service providers that have the features you’re looking for and contact a couple of them to start. Once you have a quote, you can use it as leverage on the other providers. You’ll be teaching with VoIP in no time at all.