Communicating the Future

Costs have come down and schools are looking at new ways to show their commitment to technology, not only to their students, but to the community as well. What they’re finding is that digital signage displays have multiple uses across the school, making the technology a great investment.

“There’s two major categories of the digital signage revolution so to speak,” explains Joe Simone, director of K-12 education at CDW-G. The first category is instant visual communication; the second, an interactive display solution. Schools are increasingly adding digital signage in new construction and renovations to take advantage of both of these features.

Instant Communication

For instant visual communication, digital signage and professional displays in hallways, cafeterias, auditoriums or common areas, as well as libraries or places like art rooms, help broadcast everyday and special messages. Outdoor signs also fit into the visual communication piece.

Dennis Earnest, a technician in the technology department at Hobbs Municipal Schools, Hobbs, N.M., explains that their district started installing signs in all their buildings three years ago. “We have them in each school, usually near the entrance, and we have a person in each school who takes care of programming it.”

They’ve found over the past few years that the best solution to their digital signage installation is the usability of the software. Not every person tasked with updating the scrolling announcements is as tech savvy as Earnest and his department, so the ease of use of the software applications definitely affects the implementation of a digital signage solution.

Gene Ornstead, director of business development for ViewSonic, explains that a digital signage solution can be as simple as a media player-type product that drives large-format displays. The players sell for less than $500 and can tie into the school’s existing infrastructure. These networkable media players appear as a destination IP spot, which can be named (e.g., auditorium, cafeteria, main hall), and controlled via a main PC in the administration office. The great thing is that these accessible little media players handle JPEG imaging, Power Point slides and even digital video. Ornstead notes that if a school has already invested in upgrading its network, these are a convenient and cost-effective (and user-friendly) way to add school-wide messaging.

Digital signs in visible areas also offer another benefit: effective, clear security messaging. “This allows the IT team, but also the leadership team within the school, to be able to broadcast any type of messages, so they don’t necessarily have to rely much on the phone tree approach of days past,” explains Simone. “It’s instant communication that the message is concrete and delivered the same way across the board so that you don’t run into situations where you may hear something secondhand. You’re getting that directly from whoever the sender is in the format that they want to send it.”

“Even if the deployment is small, where you might have four or five screens strategically located around the campus, there is the ability to broadcast emergency notification or instructions in where to go,” Ornstead adds.

The Interactive Piece
While most school using digital signage right now are more often taking advantage of the communication aspect of the technology, the future of digital signage is in its interactive abilities.

According the Simone, what he calls an interactive signage solution “would be for things like group collaboration, so that can help students organize and process things more quickly.” Interactive digital signage would also work well engaging small-group instruction or even with students with special needs.

“You can have multiple students touching a screen at the same time. It’s a really powerful learning tool,” Simone adds. One product available allows up to 52 simultaneous touches.

At the forefront of this interactive movement is interactive kiosk monitors, where students can interact with the monitor for everything from wayfinding to the day’s events. Kiosks are also popular, Ornstead notes, because of their plug-and-play nature and remote capabilities.

Small Signage Solutions
Digital signage is a solution that needn’t only be in large schools. “That interactive signage solution, it really transcends large or small schools because it becomes a tool for educators to connect with students in a different way. So, you can throw size out the window from that perspective,” says Simone, “because a small school may have a class size of 15. They may be able to really engage students on multiple touchpoints a day. Maybe they do less of the broadcasting; they’ll use their funds to do more of an interactive type solution.”

Simone also points out that whether a school is broadcasting weekly events or using digital displays for interactive learning, kids engage with the technology on different levels than they would with a notebook or desktop.

Making the Investment
Using digital signage sends the message to students that a school cares about technology and wants to invest in it. That doesn’t mean that a district needs to make a significant investment. “A basic solution, depending on the environment,” Simone explains, “could be as simple as display mounts, video distribution switch and projectors.” Schools often invest first in signage in visible places (near the front office, the hallways, the auditorium and the gathering spaces) for instant communication purposes. Think of the places where there are bulletin boards and flyers — those are great places to start replacing paper with digital signage now that the price points have come down significantly in the last few years.

Even with the lower price points, sometimes schools have to compromise on the investment. “I will say sometimes a digital project will have to get prioritized so that does affect the popularity of investing in the solution,” Simone explains “Our advice to schools if you’re look at this, you have to be careful because you want to makes sure what I call the leadership team, so that’s the community, the school, the school board, they’re prioritizing the right projects.” A digital signage solution may have to be put on the back burner for a one-to-one or BYOD initiative. “But, it’s usually right behind that because [digital signage] kind of rounds out that entire package and message to the community.”

Another way to think about it, Ornstead says, is you’re investing in a campus-wide messaging, safety and emergency messaging, digital menu and interactive display system. And for five screens on a network meaning an investment under $10,000, that’s a pretty good deal for such a critical system.

While schools may choose to fund a project that puts technology in students’ hands, digital signage shouldn’t be left out of the package. A whole-building technology solution will broadcast to students that technology and learning can happen outside the classroom. 

Christine Beitenhaus is an Ohio-based writer with experience in educational and architectural topics.