Sunday, September 15, 2013

Google Voice

Although I am a big fan of Remind, I realize there is a flaw with that program: no one can reply to the teacher's messages. While that may be great for informing parents/students of school information, it's not a true conversation because no one is allowed to talk back.

While I fully support after-hours educational conversations, I am also a firm believer that teachers deserve to separate their professional life from their private life. I learned the hard way that if I give my cell phone number to parents, I don't get the privacy that I crave. So what's a girl to do?

Fortunately for me, Google Voice was created to save my life. Okay, maybe that's a bit dramatic. But it's pretty darn cool.

What is it?

I think of Google Voice as a free call and text-message forwarding service. After you sign up for a phone number through Google Voice, you choose which existing phone line of yours you'd like to connect it to. From then on, calls to your Google Voice number will come through that phone.... without giving the caller knowledge of any of your personal information.

If you hook it up to your cell phone, you can answer "regular" calls and text messages, as well as those coming to your GV number, at any time.

  • 100% free.
  • Ability to pick your own phone number (and area code) -- especially helpful so you can pick a number that you'll remember and/or that is free for others in your area to call from a land line. 
  • Ability to discard your Google Voice number at any time and stop receiving calls/text messages from it. 
  • Ability to switch your Google Voice number at any time. 
  • Connect your Google Voice number to an existing phone line of yours -- do not buy anything extra in order to use Google Voice.
  • Ability to connect your Google Voice number to your cell phone, which means that you can take screenshots of text messages if you need documentation of your conversations. 
  • Transcribes voicemail for you -- handy when you can't listen to a message or need written records of communication.
  • Keeps your personal number completely private. 
  • Free iOS app from which you can call and text message; it even imports your existing contacts!
  • "Click2Call" feature, which allows you to screen phone calls to your Google Voice number.

Why might this be useful in the classroom?

  1. Students and parents can contact you with questions or concerns. 
  2. Most people I know would rather text than call, which you can really only do from a mobile phone. Google Voice allows you to do that without revealing your personal cell phone number. 
  3. Although you take phone calls on your personal phone line, you do not have to give your "real" phone number to students or parents, so your information is still private. 
  4. You can trash your Google Voice number and replace it with a new one at any time. This is handy if someone starts abusing the privilege of having your information... 
  5. Document voicemails and text messages for your admin, in case there is any question about the content of the conversations.
  6. Don't get stuck at school at 5 pm, trying to finish all your phone calls home. Call from your cell phone {using your GV number} while you're stuck in traffic on the way home.

One of my best teacher friends uses a Google Voice number with her freshmen Algebra students. She gives them her number at the beginning of the semester, inviting them to text her with homework help, project questions, and/or grade inquiries. She tells them that she is available until 9 pm and will not answer texts until 6 am the next morning.

Surprisingly, she has only has two "incidents" in the two years she's been using this. One happened over spring break: a kid got bored and decided to prank her. Unfortunately, he did not block his phone number, so she called him out on it when they got back to school; he was embarrassed to be caught and didn't do it again. Another student texted too late. Again, my friend addressed it the next day at school, and it was never a problem again.

If your "incident" stories don't turn out as successful as my friend's did, you could always just change your Google Voice number.

How do I set it up?

You have to have a Google account, but if you have a gmail address, a Blogger blog, or a YouTube account, you already have one. If you're not a member of one of those sites, signing up is quick and easy. Besides, you get to take advantage of so many of Google's features that you really should have a Google account, anyway (IMHO).

Once you sign up or sign in, you have to access the Google Voice website. I usually just Google-search the term. But I've included the link various times in this blog post for you -- click on any of them to be taken directly to the website you need! :)

Users are directed to choose their own phone number. You can choose anything you'd like, so long as it's not taken by another user. This worked great for me, since I moved here with an Oklahoma area code and had no plans of changing my phone number after 10+ years! I wanted people to be able to call a local number, and I was able to easily choose a number in the local area code.

After you pick which phone number you'd like to call your own, you get to choose which phone you will connect your calls to. I chose my cell phone.

Finally, confirm your number with Google. To do this, Google will give you a confirmation code (I believe it's a 5-digit number?) on the computer screen as soon as you pick your phone number and which of your personal phones you'd like to direct your calls. Afterwards, Google gives you a call. When you pick up the phone, you're instructed to enter the confirmation code with your phone's keypad. It's super simple!

I'm not entirely positive as to how this works on a house phone, since I've got mine set up to forward to my iPhone. But let me tell you what I do know:

I almost immediately downloaded the free Google Voice app for my iPhone. When I launch it and log in, I see several screens that look almost the same as the regular call screens in my iPhone "phone" app. I can access any of the online Google inbox options via my iPhone:

I can also text and call phone numbers (already in my address book or not) directly from the Google Voice app. This ensures that the recipient will see my Google Voice number on their screen -- not my personal cell phone number.

I used my Google Voice number to call my husband's iPhone to test it out, and his caller ID always registered my Google Voice calls calling from an "unknown number." When I called my GV number from his iPhone, I saw his name pop up on my screen, since he's a contact in my phone.

Google gives you the option to use "Click2Call," which is basically a screening service for your incoming Google Voice phone calls. Via the instructions on the Google Voice set-up page, I had recorded a message with my name. When I enabled "Click2Call," callers would hear my recorded message while Google called me. Callers were instructed to state their name and reason for calling; Google would play this for me and allow me to accept or reject the call. That portion didn't work as well as I'd hoped, so I eventually turned the "Click2Call" feature off. Now I get calls just like I would on my regular phone -- no screening. I'm OK with it, though, because I know that I could change my phone number for free at any time if things ever got out of hand.

Google Voice is completely free to use -- and pretty easy! It would be so simple to put this on your syllabus or classroom website so that students and their families could contact you at any time. As cliche as it sounds, communication really is key, so the more ways you can give families to communicate with you, the better.

Google Voice - Google, Inc.

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