Schools are using digital signs more widely to convey information to students, faculty, and visitors. From emergency alerts to event schedules to touch screens to more creative uses—like backdrops for marching bands—digital signs are replacing posters that can clutter up a school, and are making communication more attractive, interactive, and efficient.
The evolution of digital signage
According to Gene Ornstead, the director of product marketing at ViewSonic, digital signage sales have grown over the past three years. “Prior to 2010, the primary business concern was ROI,” he says. “There was a fear of the unknown. Schools didn’t know how to ‘do’ digital signage effectively, so they did not purchase it.”
But that uneasiness is dissipating. Recently, many schools have been bolstering their internet connections to implement 1:1 programs or BYOD. Schools that have high bandwidth and fast internet speeds can use digital signs to stream videos of athletic events and images of classes doing exciting projects, Ornstead says.
Ryan Cahoy, managing director at Rise Vision, notes that as digital signage has evolved, there is more content available for streaming and more ways to deliver it. Schools can display RSS feeds of news in education, feature photos from after-school activities, stream YouTube videos of school assemblies, and more. The trick, he says, is determining what content is most relevant and useful.
The power of active messaging
Cahoy says schools are interested in interactivity, specifically touch screens. For instance, visitors and students can touch a certain part of a digital sign to get more information about a particular event that’s being displayed.
“In general, everyone is much more comfortable with touch technology because of mobile devices,” he says.
School purchasing officers want to make their signage as engaging as mobile devices so more people will read the information that is displayed.
Cahoy says students are more likely to read information off a digital sign than a paper poster. There also is a better chance of connecting with students when multimedia, like videos, is used.
“The younger generations use technology. They are interested in what’s vibrant and dynamic,” Cahoy says. “Digital signage will catch their eyes and make them stop and read what is being displayed.”
Buying digital signs
When digital signs first hit the market, complete units cost more than $10,000, Cahoy says. But as more products become available, costs drop and a school can spend less than $1,000 on hardware.
When buying digital signage, technology officers should assess the number of screens necessary, the type of content to display, and whether real-time data should be screened. Cahoy also advises district managers to partner with a company with which they want to have a collaborative, longstanding relationship.
Sign technology is commoditized, so he says products from most companies are comparable in quality and cost. It is the support that differentiates one from another, he notes.
From a technology standpoint, it is more prudent to buy signs that use a standard operating system, like Windows, and standard outlets, like VGA. That way, when school leaders want new software in the future, they can leverage their existing hardware. Standard technology also allows districts to stay relevant without having to purchase new monitors or other hardware pieces, Cahoy adds.
As budgets tighten, schools are looking to invest in products with a dual purpose. Digital signs can give general information as well as alert students to emergencies or safety issues. Cahoy recommends schools look at state or federal grants for emergency preparedness when funding their digital signage.
The emergency alert trend has trickled down from higher education institutions after the shootings at Virginia Tech, Cahoy says. Most colleges and universities have their Common Alert Protocol (CAP) connected to every digital sign on campus. Virginia Tech presently has 500 digital signs in classrooms and public spaces that can give specific instructions should an emergency arise.
K12 schools have also begun connecting their signage to their emergency alert systems, according to Cahoy. Signs can instantly go from displaying typical content to flashing an emergency message when the school activates an alert. Since most signs are hung in common areas, a large number of people should be able to see the alert at once.
A successful implementation
Yvonne Thompson, information technologist for Castleberry ISD in Texas explains that signs placed in each of her district’s seven schools display the lunch menu of the day, school news such as athletic achievements, and district events such as awards ceremonies.
“People visit the signs frequently,” she says. “They rely on the signs as the one place they can go to know everything that’s going on in the district.”
Each of Castleberry’s schools has at least one digital sign, but Thompson’s team is working on installing more. She advises placing signs in cafeterias and learning labs—any place where people gather.
Of course, cost was a factor when considering options. Fortunately, Thompson’s district already owned the hardware—the screens—necessary for installation. Castleberry spent $1,800 on the initial software design. Thompson says her team took a template from Rise Vision and tweaked it for the district’s unique needs.
The software itself was open source and free. Rise Vision still provided online user support forums to Thompson and her technology team.
Thompson wants the signs to become the visual part of Castleberry’s already extensive emergency notification system. With increased reports of violence in schools, she says, an emergency message with specific instructions of what to do if there is danger in the building adds another important layer of communication.
Ike Jackson, the assistant band director at Chino Valley (Calif.) USD uses digital signage to enhance the performance of his school’s marching percussion team during competitions. When high school marching percussion teams were first allowed the use of lighted equipment in competitions in early 2012, Jackson looked for something that would tell a story.
A parent who worked at ViewSonic suggested digital signs and Jackson was hooked. With these screens, Jackson can project movie clips, cartoons, or colors that enhance his band’s performance.
“I was afraid the signs would not be bright enough for competitions since the arenas are so bright, but those screens are crystal clear,” he says.
Jackson was also wary of the fragility of the equipment, given that the signs are hung by special racks in the air or laid on a platform on which the students march. He says it’s crucial for schools to invest in high-quality, durable equipment.
“During a show, a student improperly fastened one of the screens to a special rack and it fell from 10 feet in the air,” Jackson says. “The only damage was a slight bend in the left corner. It still operates perfectly.”
And managing the signs during a performance is simple. Students use a ViewSonic computer that wirelessly connects to the signs. With a Bluetooth mouse and keypad, students can power up the signs and change images if desired.
Keeping schools current
The managers at Ridgefield Public Schools (Conn.) are cognizant of environmental concerns, says Craig Tunks, director of technology and operations development. Digital signage from IDSolutions has replaced paper flyers, which can fall on the floor and litter the school.
And the equipment is used to broadcast live events. “We recently had a guest speaker in our auditorium,” Tunks says. “Since the auditorium was filled to capacity, we live-streamed through our digital signs so students in our student center could also see the presentation.”
According to Tunks, digital signage is just another piece of technology like mobile devices that is key to keeping a school current. Students’ attention will be drawn to signage that looks like the technology they interact with on a daily basis.