What is Google Voice and Why is it Great for Teachers?

Telephone operators, 1952

Google Voice started out as Grand Central, a call routing service that a few bright guys (Craig Walker & Vincent Paquet) started a few years ago. Google saw the opportunity to disrupt the telecom world with Grand Central, and snatched it up. So what is it? Basically Google Voice is an independent call router and voicemail system. I'm going to give a brief overview and tell you how I use it.

It's a Number Without a Phone

The idea is that instead of having a phone with an "attached" number (the traditional way of doing things), Google Voice gives you only the number (for life, and for free!), and that number is completely independent. It does not "reside" on a device. Does that have you scratching your head? Read on.

When someone dials your GV number, many things can happen from that point. For example:

1. Google recognizes the incoming call as being from your mother and passes it through to ring your home phone, mobile phone, and work phone, all at the same time so you are sure to get the call. Or calls from your friends only ring your mobile and home numbers, but never your work phone. Whatever you want. You can have up to six different numbers ring when you get a call, in any combination depending upon the rules you create on the Google Voice website. I put my Google Voice number on my syllabi so parents and teachers can reach me. Much better than an office phone (and for those of you who share an office phone, this is a great solution).

2, If you choose, Google will send all callers of a certain type straight to voicemail if you so choose. For example, all unrecognized callers, or calls from that friend of yours that always results in a thirty-minute conversation. ;-)

3. Google receives a call from a pesky sales person that you have identified, and you will never hear from that person again. Their voicemail goes to your junk box. Or you can block that number completely and the sales person will get an "out of service" message. How often have you wanted that for your landline or mobile number?

4. Different Outgoing Greetings: People you have tagged as "friends" or "family" hear an informal voicemail greeting from you ("Hey what's up? Leave me a message) whereas calls from your students' parents get a different greeting (Hello this is Mr. Robertson, sorry I wasn't available for your call, I'll get back to you as soon as I can).

Call Screening

When you "take" a call, you don't have to be connected with your caller. You have the option to listen in to messages as they are being left (call screening). It's a very cool feature to have when you are out and about (same as listening to your old message machine at home). Sometimes you can't or don't want to take a call, but you don't want to wait for the voicemail to come in either. Screening is the perfect solution. GV also lets you break in and take the call while the person is leaving a message if you so choose. You can also send calls directly to voicemail after Google tells you who is on the line.

Call Translation

After Google purchased Grand Central, they added voice translation. I have found this to be a great feature. Say you are at a meeting where you can listen to voicemail. Google sends you a text translation of the message as email. I have to say, it works great. Not perfectly, but it usually gets 95% right, enough to know what the call was about. You also get the voicemail as an audio attachment. All of your voicemail is available on the GV webpage as well, where you can review, add the caller to contacts, etc. Basically you never have to write down message details again. Much like gmail, Google has plenty of storage so you never need to delete your messages.

Number Permanence

I really like the idea of having a number that stays with me. There are many cases where I don't want to give out my mobile or home number. Or have you gone through the ordeal of getting a new phone number and trying to notify everyone? With Google Voice it doesn't matter if you get a new office number, mobile number, or drop your land line number. You simply give everyone your GV number. Since I have the spam options on GV, I don't hesitate to give it out. I give out my GV number for all business transactions (utilities, comcast, etc.). I don't want those companies having my mobile number, and now it's never necessary.

Call Routing

Basically Google is acting as a call routing system. Somebody calls your GV number, and then Google switches the call wherever you need it to go. You also use it to make calls so that your caller will see the call as coming from your Google Voice number rather than your mobile, office number, etc.

For example, when you are listening to voicemail you can return the call by pressing the number 2. When you do, GV dials the person's number so that they see your GV number, not your mobile or wherever you are listening to your voicemails. Then Google connects the call to that phone. Another use: You can put a "call me" button on your website. People can call you without even knowing your GV number at all! They press the button, enter their number, and Google calls you both and connects the call. Slick!

Google also added SMS and international calling. SMS is totally free (and unlimited).

Should You Get It?

As you can see, Grand Central was a very forward looking idea. Google was wise to buy it out. Add on top of that the things Google has added and you have a very disruptive technology. It has been working perfectly for me. When people call my number at school, I have changed my outgoing message asking them to write down my Google Voice number and use it exclusively. This way I don't have people leaving messages for me on the school's outdated voicemail system. For those of you who have newer voicemail systems at school (for example the type that emails you the message) Google Voice may not be a high priority. But for me it has been great. No more dialing into the school system and pressing buttons to navigate about. I just hit the Google Voice website.

Other uses might include obtaining a Google Voice number for your parents organization. There are times when your parents don't want their personal phone numbers being used. Google Voice could be the perfect solution. You could also grab a Google Voice number to serve as a ticket or special event hotline. Possibilities are endless.

Google Voice requires a gmail account and you must request an invite. Go to: http://voice.google.com

UPDATE: There's an app for that! The Google Voice app works great on the iPhone and Android. And you can also port your home number to GV and ditch the land line if you like!

Send Group Messages via Email, SMS, or Voice Phone for Free | SendGM

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This morning I was doing some searching for sms-based online polling (clickers are too expensive and oh-so-20th century). PollEverywhere looks great, but I also happened to stumble on this notification service called SendGM. It does basic polling, but its real forte is notification.

You enter contact information into your account, and from there you can assign the contacts to any combination of groups. The real power comes in the types of notifications that SendGM can provide. It will send any combination of email, sms, and text-to-voice notifications based on the contact info for each person. You can also request replies from the contacts (hence the polling feature).

The free account handles up to 25 users, but the next level (100) is only $79 per year. Not bad. I like that it is a more private, controlled, and flexible system than Twitter. This could be the ultimate school group notification system, especially for travel.

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Twitter makes phone trees a thing of the past

Last spring as my wife was preparing to take her college choir on a trip across Europe, we were discussing how to keep in touch with the whole group easily. It is always a little nerve wracking when students are spread out across an airport terminal or sight seeing in a foreign country and the need arises to reach everyone. Time can really be of the essence in those situations, especially if the itinerary needs to change on a moments notice.

It occurred to me that Twitter might be a viable option for a mass contact tool. If you don't know much about Twitter, I'll explain it briefly as a service that people use for posting information, thoughts, or status updates. So it is basically like the status box in Facebook for those of you familiar with that feature. Twitter does a few other things, but not much. It really is focused on these brief 140 character updates, which are fondly referred to as "tweets."

Well, one of those "other things" that Twitter does is allow a user to receive updates from someone as a text message on their mobile phone. It was this feature that appealed to me, because it seemed to me that my wife could post one "tweet" and, provided all the students were "following" her, they would all receive the tweet instantly as a mobile text. We decided to try it. Over the next few weeks the students registered for Twitter, requested to be able to "follow" my wife's updates (which were set to private), and checked the box for receiving tweets from her via sms. Twitter sends a quick verification text to your mobile phone and then you're all set for getting tweets as sms. The whole process from registration to verification takes just a few minutes once you know the steps.

After a few tests stateside we were set. She ended up using this tool quite a bit, both in the various airports and across France and Austria. Any changes in plans were easily and instantly communicated to everyone. Worked like a charm, and sure beat trying to use a phone tree. If your groups travels a lot, it might be something you want to consider. If you students are younger and having Twitter accounts isn't a viable option, you could at least use it to communicate with your chaperones. It could also be a nice way to keep parents back home up to date as well. For example, you (the teacher) could have an account for communicating with the students and/or chaperones, and one chaperone could have an account for trip highlights that parents could subscribe to. In any case, let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to help if you want to give this a try.

UPDATE: I now recommend www.sendgm.com over using Twitter for mass sms.