More Purpose for Your Buck

Tremendous changes have happened in the world of digital displays and signage over the past five years. And these changes, along with other innovations in software and our digital culture (like the ubiquity of touch screens) have made digital signage a viable option for schools looking to not only communicate to students, but to engage them, promote responsiveness and foster a technology-rich learning atmosphere.

Costs are down
According to Gene Ornstead, director of product marketing at ViewSonic, volume drives technology, and that has led to a serious price drop in good digital display hardware. Schools looking to invest in a display system, whether for one building or district wide, will be surprised to find that a basic set up is no longer cost-prohibitive or so spendy that they feel the need to wait it out for a few years.

“If I flashback four or five years ago,” Ornstead states, “these flat panel displays that were used for public viewing, they were costing anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000.” To handle the media of these displays, administrators had to use a high-powered PC. “In some cases, I remember customers strapping Dell computers 
to the backs of these displays that were costing upwards of $1,000 to $1,500, and then putting a software package on that would allow them to control the signage that would be another $1,000 to $2,000.” The startup costs were an enormous inhibitor.

“The volume of flat high-definition televisions has trickled down to affect lower-cost professional displays as well,” explains Ornstead. The most common professional display, a 42-inch flat panel display, costs around $700 to $800. Flat panel televisions are also popular in K-12 installations. “Flat panel televisions today also accommodate a computer input,” Ornstead adds. Display technology, front-of-screen performance (the resolution), has improved so much in the past five years.

Usability is up
Along with the downward trend in prices, usability and cloud hosting have increased the demand for digital signage. “Years ago digital signage software was multiple thousands of dollars. Today software can be as low cost as free, coming packaged with a media player, up to the $500 to $1,000 range,” Orstead says. Along with this lower cost, software is just more easy to use. Often it is built around Windows or Mac OS, meaning “the amount of education and investment in learning a specific software product has become much easier today.”

Another innovation in software is cloud hosting or software as a service. Software as a service (SAAS) means that a provider can also store messaging and other display data on a virtual server, freeing up space and the district IT department’s time. “There are many services on the market that will charge you anwhere from $25 to $50 a month, and they’ll handle your whole server architecture, your content — they’ll even build screens for you, give you some design capabilities and then serve those down and schedule that content down to your players that may be strategically located around the campus or at a specific location.”

The plug-and-play nature of new digital display set-ups means that training is simple and changing out messages or other information will not require a series of complicated steps. This also means that more displays may be in use across a building due to their easy networking features. “I can put a wireless network on my campus and have instantaneous content and messaging throughout that campus without the high cost of a lot of labor or a lot of wiring by installing these players in a wireless network. And the wireless network, and the servers if you will, can be as simple as a PC. I can have a PC in my administration office and be wirelessly connected to different displays around the campus at a fairly low cost, giving me the capability of pushing down the message of the day, the menu in the cafeteria, what special programs are becoming available during the week,” Ornstead illustrates. And all of these messages can be instantly and simply updated.

Multipurpose displays
Digital signage has a number of practical applications across a school building. Ornstead notes that schools interested in using digital displays for security will have strategic locations where emergency notifications can be flashed, and seen. In addition to this, strategic messaging can also be more effective through digital media. Studies have shown that people are much more attentive to a video screen running than they are to a fixed sign or poster. Students will remember messages run across strategically placed screens when they are done with a little flare.

Classrooms across the U.S. are seeing more and more screens, whether on the wall, in the hands of students or both. Digital displays reflect the one-to-one initiatives in play in many progressive school districts — remote lectures and interactive lessons are just some of the ways digital signage can help engage young learners in classes shaped around a student-centered curriculum. “Some of the displays are in the classrooms, and because the networks are pretty easy to configure these days, the display in the classroom can not only be the receiver, if you will, of digital content (maybe that’s from the cloud or it’s canned digital media for educational purposes or even something streaming off the Internet) but also connected to the main administration office where notification and messaging can be immediately communicated within the classroom,” explains Ornstead. Mass communication has spurred this particular innovation with digital signage and 21st-century classrooms.

Start small, think big
The uses of digital signage and displays are really only limited by the imaginations of administrators. Through education and training, a well-thought-out purchase can have a huge impact on the learning environment, from mixing digital video with imaging for school events and announcements to promoting a blended learning model in the classroom.

Ornstead suggests starting out small and build your school’s digital signage network in steps so that new users aren’t overwhelmed, leaving the new displays underused.

While the digital display used to only function as an electronic bulletin board by the front office, or a rotating menu in the school cafeteria, look for them throughout the school building now. Reasonable price points, user-friendly software and new digital initiatives (as well as the infiltration of screens of all types in the classroom) have made digital displays and signage a valuable solution in the everyday school environment.

Christine Beitenhaus is an Ohio-based writer with experience in education-, architecture- and technology-related topics.