It's a Sign of the Times

College is changing. If you are involved in higher education, you have probably noticed some of these changes. Complete degrees are now offered online, courses are scheduled in accelerated formats, and hands-on laboratory skills are increasingly important.

College students are changing. The young, tech-savvy students entering college today carry cell phones and iPads with them at all times. This new generation of students expects information to come to them through various electronic devices, and they expect it to be entertaining and engaging as well as informative.

College campuses are also changing. One very visible change is the addition of digital signage networks. Digital signage networks are a network of electronic screens placed in strategic, highly visible locations. The content displayed on the screens can be individualized for particular locations and times of day.

A Visible Aspect of Safety and More

In the wake of the emergencies at Virginia Tech and other schools, digital signage networks are recognized as a tool for public safety on college campuses, but their uses and benefits extend far beyond this one purpose. With proper planning, digital signage networks provide schools with flexibility in how they inform students, faculty, and visitors of emergency situations, upcoming events, cafeteria menus, changes in classrooms or schedules, and other important information.

Digital signage networks provide an immediate conduit to disseminate information to students, faculty, and visitors during a campus emergency. Campus emergencies may be weather warnings, construction information, or even notifications of traffic accidents. Many emergency notification systems now rely on student and faculty “buy-in” to send emergency information to cell phones or other electronic devices. Often, students and faculty choose to have notifications sent to e-mail accounts, but access to e-mail may be limited in an emergency situation. Digital signage networks, when installed correctly, can provide information before, during, and after emergencies and blend perfectly into a multi-layered approach for emergency notification systems. The screens can be preprogrammed to display maps of emergency exits and safety procedures and can be activated with the touch of a button.

Digital signage can also augment other campus information systems. Cafeteria menus can be displayed in multiple locations to inform students and faculty of available food choices. Classroom changes or changes in class meeting times can be displayed dynamically to keep students aware of their schedules. The screens can provide wayfinding in the form of campus maps for new students and visitors. When visitors are on campus, the digital signage network can be programmed to display information about who is visiting and guide the visitors through a campus tour. The digital signage screens in student areas can be used for movie nights and other entertainment. These same screens can keep students informed of important happenings around the nation such as election results or major news developments.

Central Control Is a Key Benefit
One of the key benefits of a digital signage network is the ability to control all of the screens from a centralized location. One issue with current campus information systems is the forming of information silos based on departments or buildings. With these current systems, changing the information displayed across an entire campus is difficult. Updating these systems requires time and legwork. Someone must print new flyers for doors or bulletin boards in each building or department. Before long, the overload of paper creates confusion, not information. Digital signage networks can alleviate the update problem and much of the clutter. Digital signage networks can save money for campuses because they are a very “green” alternative to paper systems. With digital signage networks, there is no paper cost, no ink cost, and no valuable time spent walking all over campus to post notices.

In addition to the benefits already mentioned, digital signage networks are a great way to promote school branding. The screens provide a vehicle for highlighting student and faculty achievements. When these networks are used in conjunction with a Graphic Arts program, they give students a place to display work, which promotes student ownership and engagement. Displaying information about sponsors, endowments, and alumni is a wonderful way to say thank you to those who support the school and let everyone on campus share the pride created in a collaborative environment.

Managing the Dollar Signs

When digital signage networks are well planned, the cost of deployment can be minimal. Many times, the cost of installing digital signage networks is included in new building construction budgets, making retrofit networks unnecessary. There are government grants available to install these networks as part of a campus emergency notification system. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) supports the use of digital signage networks for the hearing impaired because a flashing emergency notification does not need to use sound. Digital signage networks can also generate their own revenue by selling advertising time to businesses that want their products seen by many potential customers.

Planning is the key to success with a new deployment, as it requires the cooperation of many departments. When planning a digital signage network, representatives from the IT department, the marketing department, the physical plant, administration, as well as any academic departments involved, should be present.

Starting with a “roadmap” for the network is highly recommended. Some of the questions to ask during planning sessions would be:
  • What is the objective of the network? Is it to inform, entertain, or encourage sales?
  • How many screens will be installed?
  • Where will the screens be located?
  • Who will support the hardware for the network?
  • Who will provide the content for the network?
  • How will we measure the success of the network?
Answering these questions during the planning stage will ensure that the digital signage network fulfills its intended purpose and that intangible benefits such as school pride and branding are not overlooked.

Maintaining a Working Network

Support for a digital signage network can be a daunting task. Troubleshooting when a problem arises can be time intensive — as it is with any network of devices. Content creation and scheduling is a full-time job. When considering the installation of a digital signage network, designate a team to support it. Do not think of this support as an add-on responsibility to an existing position. Having a laboratory or test environment to set up and configure new equipment is invaluable for smooth deployment. With the right planning, deployment of a new digital signage network can be a pleasure, not a pain.

Digital signage networks are making their way into campus call centers to provide even better technical support. They are making inroads into classrooms. No matter the learning style, digital signage networks reach students who might miss information presented only in a printed format. All markets show a projected growth for digital signage networks on school campuses. Texas State Technical College–West Texas offers an Associate’s Degree in Digital Signage Technology which ensures that future digital signage professionals have the proper marketing, hardware, and graphic arts background needed to fill the employment gap created by this huge growth in the digital signage market.

With proper planning, any college campus can implement a digital signage network. The technology to drive these networks is ready; the funds to implement these networks are obtainable; the professionals to support these networks are available. The process begins by asking one important question: Is your campus ready to reap the benefits of a digital signage network? Hopefully, the answer is, “Yes!”

Patricia Lister-Golin
currently teaches for the Digital Signage Technology program at Texas State Technical College–West Texas, focusing on instruction through their virtual campus in Second Life.