Published May 2008

Properly located digital signage in high traffic areas on school campuses provides students and faculty with a convenient resource to stay up to date about the latest school news and activities.

Dynamic Digital Signage in Education
By Anthony D. Coppedge

Technology gets high marks.

Digital media and communications have come to play a vital role in people’s everyday lives, and a visit to the local K-12 school, college or university campus quickly illustrates the many ways in which individuals rely on audio and visual technologies each day. The shift from analog media to digital, represented by milestones ranging from the replacement of the Walkman by the MP3 player to the DTV transition currently enabling broadcasts beyond the home to mobile devices, has redefined the options that larger institutions, including those in our educational system, have for sharing information across the campus and facilities.

Flexible And Efficient

Digital signage, in particular, is proving to be a flexible and efficient tool for delivering specific and up-to-date information within the educational environment. As a high-resolution, high-impact medium, it lives up to the now-widespread expectation that visual media be crisp and clear, displayed on a large screen. Although the appeal of implementing digital signage networks does stem, in part, from plummeting screen prices and sophisticated content delivery systems, what’s equally or more important is that digital signage provides valuable information to the people who need it, when and where they need it. On school campuses—whether preschool, elementary, high school or post-secondary institutions—it does so effectively, for both educational purposes and for the security and safety of staff, administration and the student body as a whole.

School campuses have begun leveraging digital signage technology in addition to, or in place of, printed material, such as course schedules, content and location; time-sensitive school news and updates; maps and directions; welcome messages for visitors and applicants; and event schedules. Digital signage simplifies creation and delivery of multiple channels of targeted content to different displays on the network. Although a display in the college admissions office might provide prospective students with a glimpse into student life, for example, another display outside a lab or seminar room might present the courses or lectures scheduled for that space throughout the day.

This model of a distribution concept illustrates a school distributing educational content over a public TV broadcast network.

K-12 Level

At the K-12 level, digital signage makes it easy to deliver information such as team or band practice schedules, or to post the cafeteria menu and give students information encouraging sound food choices. Digital signage in the preschool and daycare setting makes it easy for teachers and caregivers to share targeted educational programming with their classes.

Among the most striking benefits of communicating through digital signage is the quality of the pictures and the flexibility with which images, text and video can be combined in one or more windows to convey information. Studies have shown that dynamic signage is noticed significantly more often than are static displays and, furthermore, that viewers are more likely to remember that dynamic content.

Though most regularly updated digital signage content tends to be text-based, digital signage networks also have the capacity to enable the live campus-wide broadcast of key events: a speech by a visiting dignitary, the basketball team’s first trip to the state or national tournament, or even the proceedings at commencement and graduation. When time is short, it’s impractical to gather the entire student body in one place or there simply isn’t the time or means to deliver the live message in any other way.

The ability to share critical information to the entire school community, clearly and without delay, has made digital signage valuable as a tool for emergency response and communications. Parents, administrators, teachers and students today can’t help but be concerned about the school’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to a dangerous situation, whether the threat be from another person, an environmental hazard, an unpredictable weather system or some other menace.

Digital signage screens installed across a school campus can be updated immediately to warn students and staff of the danger, and to provide unambiguous instructions for seeking shelter or safety: where to go and what to do.

Although early digital signage systems relied on IP-based networks and point-to-point connections between a player and each display, current solutions operate on far less costly and much more scalable platforms. Broadcast-based digital signage models allow content to be distributed remotely from a single data source via transport media, such as digital television broadcast, satellite, broadband and WiMAX.

The staff member responsible for maintaining the digital signage network can use popular content creation toolsets to populate both dynamic and static displays. This content is uploaded to a server that, in turn, feeds the digital signage network via broadcast, much like datacasting, to the receive site for playout. By slotting specific content into predefined display templates, each section with its own playlist, the administrator can schedule display of multiple elements simultaneously or a single-window static, video or animated display.

The playlist enables delivery of the correct elements to the targeted display both at the scheduled time and in the appropriate layout. In networks with multicast-enabled routers, the administrator can schedule unique content for displays in different locations.

In the case of delivering emergency preparedness or response information across a campus, content can be created through the same back-office software used for day-to-day digital signage displays. Within the broadcast-based model, three components ensure the smooth delivery of content to each display.

A transmission component serves as a content hub, allocating bandwidth and inserting content into the broadcast stream based on the schedule dictated by the network’s content management component. Content is encapsulated into IP packets that, in turn, are encapsulated into MPEG2 packets for delivery.

Generic content distribution model for digital signage solution.

Content Management

The content management component of the digital signage network provides for organization and scheduling of content, as well as targeting of that content to specific receivers. Flexibility in managing the digital signage system enables distribution of the same emergency message across all receivers and associated displays, or the delivery of select messages to particular displays within the larger network.

With tight control over the message being distributed, school administrators can immediately provide the information that students and staff in different parts of the campus need to maintain the safest possible environment. Receivers can be set to confirm receipt of content, in turn assuring administrative and emergency personnel that their communications are, in fact, being conveyed as intended. On the receiving end, the third component of the system, content, is extracted from the digital broadcast stream and fed to the display screen.

The relationships that many colleges and universities share with public TV stations provide an excellent opportunity for establishing a digital signage network. Today, the deployed base of broadcast-based content distribution systems in public TV stations is capable of reaching 50% of the US population. These stations’ DTV bandwidth is used not only for television programming, but also to generate new revenues and aggressively support public charters by providing efficient delivery of multimedia content for education, homeland security and other public services.

Technology Is Already Available

Educational institutions affiliated with such broadcasters already have the technology, and much of the necessary infrastructure, in place to launch a digital signage network. In taking advantage of the public broadcaster’s content delivery system, the college or university also can tap into the station’s existing links with area emergency response agencies.

As digital signage technology continues to evolve, educational institutions will be able to extend both urgent alerts and more mundane daily communications over text and email messaging. Smart content distribution systems will push consistent information to screens of all sizes, providing messages not only to displays, but also to the cell phones and PDAs so ubiquitous in US schools.

The continued evolution of MPH technology will support this enhancement in delivery of messages directly to each student. MPH in-band mobile DTV technology leverages ATSC DTV broadcasts to enable extensions of digital signage and broadcast content directly to personal devices, whether stationary or on the move. Rather than rely on numerous unrelated systems, such as ringing bells, written memos and intercom announcements, schools can unify messaging and its delivery, in turn reducing the redundancy involved in maintaining communications with the student body.

Assessing Needs

An effective digital signage network provides day-to-day benefits for an elementary school, high school, college or university while providing invaluable emergency communications capabilities that increasingly are considered a necessity, irrespective of whether they get put to the test. The selection of an appropriate digital signage model depends, of course, on the needs of the organization.

Educational institutions share many of the same concerns held by counterparts in the corporate world, and key among those concerns is the simple matter of getting long-term value and use out of their technical investments. However, before even addressing the type of content the school wishes to create and distribute, the systems integrator, consultant or other AV and media professional should work with the eventual operators of the digital signage network to identify and map out the existing workflow. Once the system designer, integrator or installer has evaluated how staff currently work in an emergency to distribute information, he then can adjust established processes and adapt them to the digital signage model.

The administrative staff who will be expected to update or import schedules to the digital signage system will have a much lower threshold of acceptance for a workflow that is completely unfamiliar or at odds with all their previous experience. An intuitive, easy-to-use system is more likely to be used in an emergency if it has become familiar in everyday practice.

Turnkey digital signage solutions provide end-to-end functionality without forcing users and integrators to work with multiple systems and interfaces. The key in selecting a vendor lies in ensuring that they share the same vision and are moving in the same direction as the end user.
In addition to providing ease of use, digital signage solutions for the education market also must provide a high level of built-in security, preventing abuse or misuse by hackers, or by those without the knowledge, experience or authority to distribute content over the network. Because the network is a conduit for emergency messaging, its integrity must be protected. So, the installer must not only identify the number of screens to be used and where, but also determine who gets access to the system and how that access remains secure.

Scalable Systems

Scalable systems that can grow in number of displays or accommodate infrastructure improvements and distribution of higher-bandwidth content will provide the long-term utility that makes the investment worthwhile. By going into the project with an understanding of existing infrastructure, such as cabling, firewalls, etc., and the client’s goals, the professional is equipped to advise the customer as to the necessity, options and costs for enhancing or improving on that infrastructure. As with any other significant deployment of AV technology, the installation of a digital signage network also requires knowledge of the site, local building codes, the availability of power and so forth.

The infrastructure requirements of a school in deploying a digital signage network will vary, depending on the type of content being delivered through the system. HD and streaming content clearly are bandwidth hogs, whereas tickers and other text-based messages put a low demand on bandwidth. Most facilities today are equipped with Gigabit Ethernet networks that can handle the demands of live video delivery and lighter content.

However, even bandwidth-heavy video can be delivered by less robust networks, as larger clips can be “trickled” over time to the site, as long as storage on the unit is adequate. There is no set standard for the bandwidth required, just as there is no single way to use a digital signage solution. It all depends on how the system will be used, and that’s an important detail to address up front.

Most digital signage solutions feature built-in content-creation tools and accept content from third-party applications, as well. Staff members who oversee the system thus can use familiar applications to create up-to-date content for the school’s digital signage network. This continuity in workflow adds to the value and efficiency of the network in everyday use, reducing the administrative burden while serving as a safeguard in the event of an emergency.

For educational institutions, the enormous potential of the digital signage network can open new doors for communicating with students and staff, but only if it is put to use effectively. Comprehensive digital signage solutions offer ease of use to administration, deliver clear and useful messaging on ordinary days and during crises, and feature robust design and underlying technology that supports continual use well into the future.

Ralph Bachofen, senior director of Product Management and Marketing, Triveni Digital, has more than 15 years of experience in voice and multimedia over Internet Protocol (IP), telecommunications and the semiconductor business.

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