Let me begin this article with a bit of unfiltered candor. My experience over the years when those in the commercial audio visual industry speak about the education market is that for the most part, it is pretty mundane and most often easily determined as to what the project will entail. A lot of times we can almost “phone in” the design with a standard cookie cutter approach. There is a screen and a projector or more recently a flat panel and perhaps a sound system and for the really “advanced” there is remote control of some sort. In short, there has traditionally been little creativity and certainly few instances of pushing the technological envelope. Okay now, save the emails. I know there are some examples of creativity but the majority are just basic AV at the core. No less and rarely more.
There are a lot of reasons for this. To the first order, there are budgets to consider. Education has always been budget conscious with variations in funding department by department. The most funding has gone to the most popular (read that profitable) departments and the more obscure ones tend to languish a bit money wise. A second issue is a lagging of acceptance of more advanced AV technologies in many schools. Again this varies by department but university technicians aka the people who make the systems work, tell me that professors are reluctant to learn how to use the systems and have concerns that the systems are unreliable and will impede their teaching effectiveness. The fact is that whether we are speaking about budgets, total cost of ownership, or learning curves and acceptance by the teaching community, education has not been a bastion of AV technological advancement until recently.
Of course this begs the question, what has changed? The answer requires only two words, digital signage. It has altered the way things are done on many university campuses and involves a rapid advancement far beyond the confines of a projector or flat panel display in the student union that might have been a typical example only a few short years ago. Conventional wisdom tells us that educational institutions should be a driving force of new ideas and applications but the hallowed halls of academia have not always lived up to that ideal at least in the case of AV technologies and applications but in this case they are exceeding expectations. In fact, the world of education has become the incubator of digital signage applications, design, and acceptance in the market and this is permeating other market niches as well such as corporate and healthcare with education for once leading the way. Bold claims aside, let’s examine some specifics on how this has become a reality.
As an umbrella to all of this we need to consider the impact that instant information and connectivity have had on all of our lives and how it has radically changed how we think and act over the last few years. As a population we have changed the way we send and receive information in every way from our TV viewing habits at home all the way to our daily lives in business and yes, education. We are not only acclimated but in many cases addicted (yes!) to our smart phones, tablets, laptops, and even smart watches with emails, text messages, and tweets. We do not write personal letters anymore, we communicate via Facebook and connect professionally via LinkedIn. People are expecting and demanding that information come to them immediately where they are and not vice versa. This is the genesis of the new wave and expanded view and uses of digital signage.
In order to understand way the educational community and college and universities in particular are leading the way it is necessary to embrace the concept of necessity is the mother of invention and add to that the word innovation. First of all, take a look at a university in new light. By its very design it is a full-fledged encapsulated and controlled community (for the most part) with almost all of the services in one spot that the outside world utilizes. It is a community unto itself. It is a perfect “lab” to be used as a test bed for digital signage. Just think about it. There are classrooms spread about, administration buildings, student unions, cafeterias, dorms, athletic facilities, stadiums, healthcare, maintenance facilities, common areas, roads and signs, and even power plants. The common denominator in all this diversity is the need to connect all of these disparate areas to one another in some manner and do so with the ability to centrally manage the flow of information and do so with a high degree of security. The perfect answer to this is digital signage.
There are numerous examples of areas where the educational community has been at the forefront. First of all is the emergency notification networks that are mandated by nearly every state. There must be a way to get emergency warnings throughout the campus. This must be managed in a central location but with the ability to access it at other predetermined spots with proper security and administrative approvals. Secondly is wayfinding. Just think about how complex many campuses are and refer back to all the facilities we mentioned earlier that need to be included as part of finding a path to a location, room or a service in a building. Third on our list of leading the technological march is interactivity. In this regard things like accessibility and ADA compliance needs to be considered as does the security of the interactive display itself against theft and vandalism. Environmental concerns are also part of the equation on most campuses from outdoor to indoor with temperature extremes both cold and hot, also dirt and debris that might affect the operation of the network, and addressing the impact of high ambient light and the ability to read a display. We will wrap up the hardware side of this by mentioning two recent applications of digital signage. As we all know, the financial wellbeing of educational institutions is critical and most depend upon donors to make charitable contributions to fund projects of all types. The inclusion of what is known as “honor walls” is a trend at many campuses. This grouping of displays gives credit to those who step up to donate or provide leadership in other significant ways. When one department gets theirs, it is only a matter of time for the next one to demand time in the limelight for their VIPs. The second and most significant wave of technology adoption is the inclusion of portable devices connected wirelessly to the digital signage networks on campus. Whether it is NFC or some of the other wireless form of connectivity, students, administrators, faculty, and visitors can get information on their personal devices instantaneously.
On the software side of things, the educational community leads as well. Once again it is the diversity of applications inside the educational community itself that stretches the envelope. From the ability to segment by applications, departments, locations, or even functions all the way to day parting information in a given area, it is the control and manageability that is required. Add to this the ability to set administrative approval levels for the appropriate people to be in control and you have a network capability that is profound in what it can do. Add to this the central management and security capabilities and that rounds out the picture.
Colleges and universities are leading the way in digital signage for a basic reason. They more than any other institutions have such a wide range of applications under one environmental envelope and the requirement to communicate where the people are on campus and do so in as close to real time as possible and with the best security that can be brought to bear. The challenge to be embraced involves how to solve the problems of reaching people with such diversity of needs for information and content and manage it all effectively and efficiently. The educational communities answer to these needs is incorporating digital signage in more diverse ways than most anyone else. Perhaps all of this experimentation and development in digital signage is an unintended consequence but a consequence it is and we can look to colleges and universities to continue to lead the way in the area of dissemination of information and communicating where the viewers are as they go about their daily lives.
By Alan C. Brawn CTS, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME, ISF-C