Staying Connected: Televisions for Campus Communications

One of the ironies of the information age in higher education is that it is sometimes very challenging to get important information into the hands of students. The increase in the number of technological devices on campus and ways in which students access them can make it difficult for colleges and universities to identify the best mode of communication.

That was certainly the case at High Point University in High Point, NC, a private liberal arts university with approximately 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. More than 90 percent of our students do not use campus-provided telephones. Instead, they use their own personal cell phones, because they are less expensive for long-distance calls. While some students regularly use their school-provided e-mail accounts and university computers, others rely on their own personal accounts and machines.

High Point University’s 11-person information technology (IT) team is responsible for all hardware, printers, peripherals, laptops, projectors, software, services/maintenance, e-mail, enterprise data storage, file sharing, networking, telephone services and programming. Needless to say, they have a large job. As the university struggled with how to reach its students most effectively, the university president, Nido R. Qubein, expressed interest in using large plasma-screen televisions around campus to add energy, color and movement to the university environment.

He realized this initiative could also solve the university’s communication challenge, and he turned to the IT team to make this vision a reality.

With Qubein’s support, the IT staff began to deploy plasma-screen televisions on campus. The IT team worked closely with technology provider CDW Government (CDW-G) to select NEC PX-42VM televisions and deploy them in public access areas on campus. CDW-G provides most of High Point’s technology products, and the IT team often asks CDW-G for advice when selecting new technologies. The university chose this television model due to its design and features, as well as its particularly long lifespan (60,000 hours), in order to keep the televisions on all the time. Going forward, CDW-G will assist High Point University by installing the televisions on campus.

In August 2005, we made our first installation in the university’s café, where the team deployed six large plasma televisions that broadcasted news networks, including the Weather Channel, CNN, Fox News and ESPN — video only, no audio. Another part of the president’s plan was to provide live music every day in the café. The students have been hugely supportive of this initiative — and the energy level in the café has increased.

After the first television installation, we noticed some interesting things. Though silent, the televisions definitely drew the attention of the students and allowed us to communicate effectively in a subtle way. If one screen was off, the students would notify the IT department. Students became accustomed to receiving their daily news fix in this manner — they wanted to access information as they stopped by to get lunch. We realized we could leverage the plasma televisions to harness this energy in a broader fashion across the entire campus. In addition, we wanted to use the televisions to create an environment where students would congregate more regularly in common areas to exchange ideas — an important part of the university experience. In addition to deploying the television sets, the university also installed hammocks and benches in common areas outside, as well a wireless network, to meet this goal.

The IT team has since deployed six plasma televisions in the entrance to the sports complex, as well as plasma televisions in all of the residence hall common areas. These will allow the university to communicate more easily with its students — providing information on hall meetings, which resident advisor is on duty, instructions for moving day, sporting event ticket prices and much more. In addition, the university is currently planning a state-of-the-art student center that will include a wall of televisions. We continue to seek ways we can improve our campuswide system. For example, we are considering the installation of a public announcement system via the televisions, and we plan to introduce multimedia, so students can watch sports on the left side of a screen, for instance, while accessing building check-in schedules on the right side.

The television program has really helped High Point University enhance its move-in day process at the beginning of each semester. We survey every parent and student on their experience each year, and the survey results have been overwhelmingly positive. We are now also studying the possibility of using the televisions to provide detailed instructions to an audience that may not be familiar with the campus layout and processes.

As other colleges and universities consider embarking on a similar project, they should make sure they have a technology provider they can count on. In addition, they need to remember that everything needs maintenance — even televisions. In our environment, the televisions must function 24/7. It is important to develop a plan to be able to monitor each device from a central location. At High Pont, these are not just televisions, but critical communication tools. We cannot afford for them to be down.

We currently have about 20 plasma televisions on campus, and we plan to install at least twice that amount. In the future, our dream would be to provide visitors to the campus with an RFID tracking device that would integrate with the televisions on campus to show the visitors specific content as they arrive at new locations. There really is no end in sight to the capabilities this system offers us. Our goal at High Point University is to continue to deploy televisions wherever there is a congregation location in order to create an environment where students can gather to access information, exchange ideas and meet new people.

Wellington Desouza is director of Information Technology for High Point University. He can be contacted at [email protected]