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Case Study

Digital Signage: Beyond Campus Emergency Notification

Digital signage systems often come to mind as part of a campus emergency notification system. But they actually have far more prosaic uses on numerous campuses, where they are used daily to inform and even entertain students on a variety of issues.

At Santa Clara University, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, a new digital signage system is tied into the university's emergency communications plan, but day-to-day use is where the system is excelling so far.

More than 20 digital signage devices from Cisco are in place in the university's new business school, which opened in fall 2008, as well a learning commons area. Now, according to CIO Ron Danielson, Santa Clara plans to expand the new signage system into the student center, replacing an older digital signage system there, as well as into the law school.

When the decision was made to go with the Cisco signage system, Danielson said, the intention was to place at least one display in a public area in every building on campus. Part of the reason is that the signs are used as one aspect of the university's emergency communication system, but the devices are also proving highly useful on a day-to-day basis in getting a variety of information out.

The digital signs have additional capabilities. During the fall presidential election, the signs were used as large-screen TVs, displaying different channels on different devices and allowing students to compare coverage. And unlike TVs, the devices can display other information at the same time beside the TV display.

As part of the university's emergency communication plan, the signs can be controlled from a single point, or groups of signs can be controlled from different central points. If necessary, the entire system can be taken over by an administrator at Santa Clara with the correct permissions and passwords--a capability that has been verified but never used.

In terms of cost justification, Danielson said, the signs added to campus so far were included in the cost of the two new buildings they are part of, which he termed "fortuitous."

Justifying a digital signage system in terms of a direct return on investment might be challenging, he said, and isn't something he would attempt in any case: "At Santa Clara, we don't talk much about ROI.... We talk about effectiveness." Using that measure, he said, would focus on how well digital signage captures and holds students' attention. "They might walk right past signboards or posters because they're static," he noted. In contrast, the digital signs can change frequently, depending on how they are set up.

If he has a disappointment with the signs, Danielson said, it's that the school sometimes has trouble finding time to take advantage of their next-generation capabilities. The devices can display a mix of media at the same time, for example static content, crawling text, links to Web sites, and so on. The challenge at Santa Clara is finding the time and personnel to create that content. One idea: hiring students in graphic arts and other appropriate fields to help with content creation.

And this points to an important issue with digital signage: If you're installing such a system, you'll want to make sure to plan for sources of fresh, regular content. That's the advice of Jay Field, vice president of technology and learning resources at Solana Community College. The school, located in central California as part of California's public community college system, serves almost 12,000 day and evening students.

"It's a real challenge to keep content fresh," Field noted. To address that, his department makes it a habit to reach out regularly to staff at various departments at the college who can put the boards to good use. The college's public information officer, for example, now makes regular submissions, as does the student nurse and student government leaders.

Fresh content on the digital signage systems is important, Field pointed out, because students typically pass by the same points over and over. Not surprisingly, videos and action draws viewers: "Students are very video-oriented. The student newspaper did a clever video about participating on the paper," Field said. "It really seemed to get students' attention."

Placement of the units is also important. Solana has had the best luck with systems placed where students tend to wait, such as the student services center. "If [students] are waiting in line, those systems are right there capturing their attention."

The community college has about 10 Cisco digital signage systems in place--ranging in size from 42 to 65 inches--across two campuses and plans to add digital signs to its Vacaville, CA campus soon. The general intent with the systems--in use for nearly two years--is to take advantage of yet another medium to simply get information such as registration dates and important campus events in front of students.

For example, health services staff run informational presentations to educate students on health issues, exercise classes, drug abuse, and more. One popular item: short (five minutes or less) video excerpts of the school's sports teams.

For emergency situations, messages pertaining to evacuations have been prepared in the case of fire, earthquake, power outages, and the like.

Solana has also deployed the system in places where it can put the screens' LCD functions to multiple uses. In the student center, for example, they can use the displays in the evenings to show movies on the large screens.

One benefit of the Cisco system, Field said: It includes tools to convert PowerPoint submissions into a video format. "That's useful because PowerPoint is an easy tool for the campus community to use to create content." The process of converting is straightforward, Field said, although sometimes adjustment is necessary so the images look best on the signage systems. Submitted files are then sent to the college's IT help desk, where it is a simple mechanical task to convert them to a video format and post them. The signage system's software allows various levels of content contributors and permissions, but, for now, Field's IT group is the content gatekeeper.

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