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Without improved content, digital signage could ‘ride off into the sunset’

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.

“It’s got to have personally relevant information,” Velco said, adding that John Marshall’s latest digital signs allow students to swipe their ID cards on the screen to have additional information sent to their eMail inboxes. “People need to ask, ‘Why do we need this?’ Without that question, we could see digital signage ride off into the sunset.”

John Marshall students can flip through slides of campus faculty members and even search the school’s database for an instructor’s contact information or office number. Velco said that’s only possible because the school combined disparate database streams into one centralized system.

Quick Response (QR) codes—barcode-like boxes that contain URLs and can be scanned with smart phones—could be a valuable tool for campus technology officials hoping to make digital signage more interactive.

Including clearly displayed QR codes on digital signs, Padgett said, would show students that they could easily and quickly interact with a sign using their ever-present mobile device.

There are, however, “limitations with QR codes, like anything else,” Padgett added.

Twenty-one percent of students surveyed at schools including Michigan State University, the University of Tennessee, and Virginia Tech said they were able to successfully scan a QR code, according to a 24-campus survey conducted during the fall 2011 semester by Archrival, a youth marketing company based in Nebraska.

Do you snap a photo of it? Do you need a smart phone app? How long will this take? These are a few of the questions students asked about QR codes when responding to the survey questions.

Some students who participated in the Archrival study thought a QR code could be scanned by taking a picture of the bar code with a smart phone. Others didn’t know they needed a third-party smart phone app to scan the code.

Smart phone ownership isn’t an issue—eight in 10 student respondents said they owned one. But three in four students said they were “not likely” to use their mobile device to scan a QR code.

Making digital signs interactive enough to answer questions and dispatch information to students, faculty, and campus visitors would prove the value of the signage in an era of tightening campus technology budgets, Velco said.

“Using [the signage] as a kind of guide instead of employing a person to answer questions—that’s the kind of thing we should be focused on,” he said.

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