Campus technology leaders are searching for ways to make digital signage more effective at their schools.

Smart phones and tablets shouldn’t be seen as competitors to a campus’s digital signs, but as companions, and colleges should make sure on-screen content grabs students’ attention, digital signage experts said March 7 at an industry tradeshow.

During a panel discussion at the Digital Signage Expo (DSE) in Las Vegas, campus technology leaders said digital signs run the risk of becoming irrelevant if decision makers don’t embrace new approaches to signage.

Higher education has seen a boom in digital signage usage. After 1,500 U.S. campuses added digital signs in 2010—displaying information such as course schedules, upcoming campus events, and weather reports—more than 8,400 digital screens were installed at colleges and universities in 2011, according to a report from Northern Sky Research, a market research firm.

Digital signage creators and campus technology officials charged with operating the machines said the technology is ideal for campus tours—allowing prospective students to view maps of a school, for example—but grabbing current students’ attention has been a challenge.

Jared Padgett, manager of web development and digital media at Pepperdine University’s School of Law, said colleges should use digital signs to connect to students’ smart phones, laptops, and tablet computers.

The goal, Padgett said, is to draw in students with a compelling “headline” on a digital sign, and convince them to text a code to the sign for more information about an upcoming event or campus-wide announcement.

“Digital signage can end up just being another piece of furniture on campus,” he said. “People aren’t going to stop and read your sign unless you give them a reason to. … We see [students] are buried in their devices. And these don’t have to be competing devices; they can be companion devices.”

James Velco, chief technology officer at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, said watching his young children interact with the Apple iPad’s touch screen made it obvious that physical interaction soon would be expected of digital signage.

Velco said campus technology officials should only display content on digital signs that can’t be accessed on the school’s website. Without that demand, he said, digital signs might not last in higher education.