Schools say farewell to fliers, and hello to new digital signage technology from NEC

Until recently, administrators at Morton College (IL) put in a lot of effort to communicate with their 5,000 students about new classes and other campus announcements. They’d take out advertisements in the student newspaper. They’d print up fliers and tape or staple them to message boards all over campus. The effort was so labor-intensive, that some officials say they’d spend just as much time announcing news as they’d spend planning for it. If the school wanted to improve the lines of communication with students, something had to be done, quickly.

That something was spurred by President Brent Knight, who in the beginning of this year commissioned school officials to find a way to enhance campus communications. With this directive, officials set out to find a strategy to improve communications across the board. Their solution? To trade in paper fliers for digital signs that could cycle a variety of dynamic, video-based messages to students throughout the day. Jason Kovac, assistant dean of academic affairs, says the technology is a perfect way to distribute messages without going through the rigmarole of physically distributing them.

“Our students live and think visually, so we figured digital signs would be the best way to appeal to this digital generation,” he says. “So far, the solution has worked well.”

Morton College is not alone; today, across the country, academic institutions large and small are turning to digital signage to deliver news, messages and other forms of content across campus in new and exciting ways. While a variety of vendors sell only the display devices for this solution, only a handful sell the combination of display and back-end software/hardware to manage the distribution of the message, as well. NEC, famous for integrated networking and communication solutions, is one such vendor, and has made significant headway in the higher education market in recent months.

How It Works

The heart of the NEC Digital Signage Solution is the open source BlueFire® VC Digital Signage Controller, an IP/Ethernet network addressable device that is used in conjunction with the display signage such as Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) and Plasma Display Panels (PDPs) that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The ability of the BlueFire VC to be either LAN or WLAN connected offers the flexibility of placing signs wherever there is AC power access. The BlueFire VC receives content, scheduling and other instructions from a central site for controlling and monitoring multiple individual displays. Scala® content creation software enables customers to turn ordinary graphic and text files into content that can be displayed on a digital sign. Russell Young, solutions manager for digital signage at NEC, says that this triumvirate of technologies would enable any school to start up a digital signage effort in no time. The scalable architecture makes it easy to start small and expand the system over time to meet a campus’s communication requirements.

“When we put all of these technologies together, we can give a campus the ability to centrally manage all of these displays and push targeted messages to specific audiences at different locations throughout the campus,” he says. “There’s no limit to the way this technology can be used.”

NEC’s digital signage solution operates over pre-existing IP connections, taking advantage of the network infrastructure that’s already in place. What’s more, when the company implements a digital signage solution on campus, technicians configure the system so that campus network administrators can manage all of these displays centrally. This capability saves a school’s IT department time dispatching technicians to update every sign individually. It also affords schools the opportunity to broadcast emergency messages over the digital signs in the event of a crisis.

The Morton Approach

Importantly, the NEC solutions are flexible, and can be integrated with proprietary software, as well. The Morton solution, in fact, is only partially tied to NEC; while the displays are provided by NEC, the school built its own back-end software to publish news announcements. Once Morton signed up to purchase the displays, Kovac and Esteban Cruz, director of Management Information Systems, set out across campus to survey the best locations for the new technology. The duo identified at least 20 high-traffic areas where they felt signs would make an impact. Among these areas: the student union, gym, library, and financial aid office.

Ultimately, Kovac and Cruz selected locations for their signs based upon the type of content they wanted to broadcast. The sign by the library, for instance, generally cycles through information about new classes, lectures and so on. The sign in the student union, on the other hand, cycles through advertisements for textbooks, food, etc. - targeted messages to a specific audience.

“In many ways digital signage is like a PowerPoint presentation,” explains Kovac. “You wouldn’t want to give a presentation to an audience that absolutely has no interest in the topic; instead, you want to give it to the crowd that d'es.”

St. J'es Gets Close

Morton was one of the first schools to implement a digital signage solution on campus; at Saint Joseph’s University (PA), network administrators recently tried out the same technology, and are just about ready to sign up. The Saint Joseph’s experience with the signage began at a conference last year for which the school invited technology leaders from 28 other Jesuit schools to come and talk shop. Saint Joseph’s borrowed NEC’s Digital Signage Solution along with displays from NEC, and put them up around the main conference areas. The system was used to display conference information such as meeting times and locations, changes to scheduling and general information. By the end of the event, everyone in attendance was extolling the signs as the best takeaway of the day.

With visitors buzzing about Saint Joseph’s digital signs, David Lees, director of Instructional Technology and Distributed Learning, vowed to explore the technology further. Immediately, he signed up for two digital signs from third-party vendors: one at the student center, the other at the gym. Today, he’s interested in replacing this technology with a campuswide digital signage solution system from NEC that can be integrated into university calendaring, student information and events systems, and can be monitored and controlled from one central location.

“There’s so much going on here on our campus, we’d really like to be able to have a technology-based medium to inform students about all of it,” says Lees. “By putting digital signage around campus, our information will be dynamically communicated and targeted, so hopefully students will take the time to look and see what’s happening on campus.”

Uses on Campus

The whole concept of digital signage is still relatively new, but schools such as Morton College and Saint Joseph’s are using the technology precisely the way NEC designed it to be used. In an ideal world, Young says academic customers would use the Scala software to prepare dynamic, video-based content, then simply distribute messages to targeted locations around campus. The messages can be scheduled ahead of time to play, when and at the predetermined intervals the user wishes. In this fashion, schools can go beyond the traditional method of Xeroxing fliers, and instead use digital signboards to drum up interest for campus events.

Of course, every technology purchase needs to generate a return-on-investment (ROI), and Young says academic customers will welcome their newfound revenue streams. NEC’s Digital Signage Solution can, for instance, be utilized to boost ticket sales at campus events and conferences with dynamic and persuasive advertising; can communicate discounts and sales at the campus bookstore; and can promote sales of campus items such as T-Shirts, pendants, and caps.

He envisions a time when universities will utilize their digital signage to sell on-campus advertising spots to local businesses; a day when schools will be able to convince local retailers to sponsor live video-feed broadcasts of special events in exchange for placement of a logo. This functionality exists now, Young states, and is just waiting for a pioneering school to utilize this innovative technology to its fullest capacity. The possibilities are only limited by the imagination.

“We see ‘digital signage as revenue generator’ becoming a big selling point as the technology becomes more popular,” he says. “Convenient and profitable—I don’t think a college or university can ask for anything more.”

Matt Villano is the senior contributing editor of this publication.

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