Digital Bulletin Boards

For years, old-fashioned cork bulletin boards did a fine job of showing off the artwork and other creations of students attending the Cherry Lane Elementary School in Suffern, NY. But no more.

Not long ago, Paul Garofano, the school’s instructional technology facilitator, realized that his classes had nowhere to show off the digital artwork they created on computers. “All we had were those bulletin boards,” he chuckles. “I wondered if we could use plasma and LCD screens to showcase the work.”

Garofano asked a friend, Shari Sentlowitz, a marketing manager in the government and educational fields with Sony in nearby Park Ridge, NJ, about his idea and learned that there is an entire product line of displays devoted to digital signage.

“Schools use digital displays in libraries to advertise new books, library hours, visiting authors, and other activities,” Sentlowitz says. “Cafeterias show menus, nutrition guides, and videos on good eating habits. In the main lobby, they offer local news and current events.”

Systems can be set up with screens doing different jobs depending on location. Lobby screens can welcome visitors. Classroom screens can display homework assignments. In the faculty lounge, digital signs can announce departmental meetings and report administrative details.

Special software can commandeer the system to advise students, faculty, and staff of an emergency. In the case of fire, for example, all screens might carry a headline saying: This is not a drill. Walk to the nearest fire exit. Information below the headline can tell people looking at that screen the location of the nearest fire exit. Those in the lobby would be directed out the main door. Those in the gym would receive different directions.

One of the main uses, continues Sentlowitz, is showcasing work created by students: photography, video, graphic arts — perhaps with associated audio produced by the students.

That’s how Garofano uses the technology. The Cherry Lane system includes three 40-in. plus plasma and LCD screens. Each connects to an Apple TV hard drive, which acts as a storage device for the content.

As students complete their work, he sends it from his classroom computer to each of the Apple TV drives, using the school IT network.

Garofano installed one screen in the lobby, another in a hallway on the second floor, and the third in the cafeteria. He uses it to showcase student work and also to post informational messages to students, parents, faculty, and staff.

“It doesn’t do everything I want it to do,” Garofano says. “It won’t loop movies, for instance. We’re considering Sony’s signage software, a system designed to manage content. It automates the process and makes it easier to put materials up. I think it would save time and give use more room to be creative.”

System Consultants and Content Services
If you’re not comfortable with the technology, you can find consulting as well as content help in the growing digital signage service market. StrandVision Digital Signage, in Eau Claire, WI, for example, consults on system design and provides content by subscription.

StrandVision systems use Internet connections to access content stored on StrandVision servers. “That’s where we shine,” says Mike Strand, president and CEO. “We’ve made our Web interface simple and intuitive to use.”

If you install an Internet-based system with a controlling PC, some number of interconnected screens and a content subscription, you can log into StrandVision, go to the content wizard and call up a menu of options. Options might include weather, news and other content from external suppliers.

You can also upload school-based content onto the system, and then use the system to feed your network of digital screens. Garofano, for instance, could upload the digital productions created by his classes. He could call up a schedule, insert his presentation on certain screens at certain times and click a button to tell the system to include the material on certain screens starting tomorrow or a week from tomorrow.

Schools typically assign one person to manage the system. In that case, Garofano would send a link to the materials on Cherry Lanes network with a request to insert them into the digital signage system’s schedule.

“Teachers as well as students manage these systems,” Strand says. “Usually, an administrator or teach approves content before it goes live.”

StrandVision subscriptions start at $650 per year per storage system — if you store content on a drive beside each screen like the Cherry Lane system does now, a subscription will cost $650 per year for three storage systems. If you store materials on a single drive at the controlling computer and then ship it to all of the screens on the system, the cost is $650 per year.

For a subscription costing $1,000 per year, you can get longer play back times and more content.

Finally, a $1,799 subscription adds streaming video content.

For IT directors with security concerns about connecting an outside Website like StrandVision to the school’s and perhaps the district’s network, it is possible to build a separate system of screens and a controlling PC. That would prevent the signage system from the risk of allowing a hacker to get into the school IT system.

But it isn’t necessary anymore, according to Strand. “You can actually do it with one Internet connection with an extra firewall to keep the signage system separate from the school system,” he says.

Paying for It
Garofano’s system cost between $3,000 and $4,000 for three screens and $600 to $1,000 for the storage drives.

A communications technology now on the market could reduce that cost by several hundred dollars. With this technology, you can store content on a drive near the controlling PC and direct it to all of the screens on the system. That would eliminate the need for storage drives connected directly to each screen in Garofano’s system.

For systems with five, 10, 20, or more screens, such technology is a necessity.

Government grants are also available to help pay for digital signage technology. “Grants are available from the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security,” says Sony’s Sentlowitz. “The grants for 2008 have already been given out. But you can apply for 2009 grants at some point.”

For information about grants, Sentlowitz recommends visiting the Websites of the federal Education and Homeland Security Departments and googling “emergency education” grants.

Another way to raise funds to pay for a system is selling advertising on the system. While it would be inappropriate for a school or district to mount a highly commercial effort, it might be perfectly appropriate to treat the system like a program for school theater productions and simply mention community businesses that support and help pay for the system.