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Old Dominion University: Tech Fusion

University digital signage has become ubiquitous, and it’s certainly no surprise to educational professionals that today’s students use, and expect, a lot of technology. Recent studies show that 98% of university students own at least one digital device, nearly a third of students on campus think that their laptop is their most valuable possession (as opposed to only 10% who feel the same way about their textbook), and spend literally hours each day texting, phoning, and chatting, as well as using email and social media; students use technological tools to help them write papers, take notes, do research, make presentations, and contact teachers and other students. Education writer Mark Prensky has coined the term “digital natives” to describe people who have grown up with the technologies that became available in the late 20th century and consider such tech as a “given” in their lives.

“We have certainly seen this. Students nowadays need to feel like they’re surrounded by technology, like they are in a high-tech environment,” says Dwayne Smith, Classroom Central Senior Engineer in Information Technology Services at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. “We try to stay on the cutting edge, and we are competing with other small universities, so meeting this expectation can be a deciding factor in whether a student prefers us to another school.” Wendell Cruz, Night and Weekend Manager at the university’s Webb Center, echoes the sentiment. “We see a lot of schools are getting more and more modernized, and communicating digitally is everywhere now. Even airports are going to digital directories and advertising. The students we see today are digital people.”

Smith has given Old Dominion, which is already one of the nation’s largest providers of online distance learning courses, a competitive edge by implementing an extensive and varied digital signage solution. “We have displays in most buildings, and while websites can be great, they aren’t always the best, or most timely, way to get information out to your audience,” says Smith.

In addition to implementing a campus-wide emergency-alert system, “something that’s vital to every educational institution today,” Smith says, one of the many uses he has found for the system is wayfinding. “Take peer tutoring as an example – when students walk in, there is a huge 70-inch display that says ‘Peer tutoring this way’, so there’s no way they can miss it.”

The ability to update information in real-time is also a major advantage. “In our computer lab,” Smith continues, “there are hundreds of computers, so how can a student know which ones are free without walking around and checking? We have displays that show a live map, with a station in red if it is being used and green if it isn’t. This saves them a lot of time and hassle.”

Another innovative use for digital signage, in this case combined with Twitter, shows up in the dining hall. “We encourage students to send live tweets about the food that we then put up on the displays. Other students can figure out what they want faster, and the food distributor can actually gauge which menus they offer get a more positive response.” Using the system in this way allows students to contribute directly to an important aspect of campus life, speeds up the lines for the food service staff and assists the food distributor with immediate feedback.

Smith has set up a system that allows each department autonomy over what gets displayed. “We let each department drive the content and decide on the layout,” Smith tells us. “Some are quite complex, while others are rather simple.” He figures that each section of campus should know what they need on screen better than anyone. “In the learning commons, they use a large window and a smaller window, plus another small window for weather. Other departments just use a directory with wayfinding features, or just choose pictures for promoting events. At the Webb Center, which is our student union, people can see which room a particular meeting is in and how to get there from the lobby.”

The Webb Center boasts an interactive touchscreen kiosk that features a Platinum AVA Award-winning design – a large interactive directory and wayfinding map with two QR tags that allow people to send maps of the Webb Center or the whole campus to their smartphones, a weather ticker, the date and time, and a window that pulls content from the main server. “We were looking for something that would be compatible with both our current advertising system and event management system,” says Wendell Cruz. “It had to fit in with our newly redesigned look and be an effective way to reach our audience.” Cruz uses the kiosk display to supplement more traditional communication methods, such as signs and sandwich boards. “I think grassroots marketing is still important – it’s more than just Facebook and Instagram.” He has worked hard to give the combination of high- and low-tech a cohesive feel. “It really works and attracts the students,” says Smith. “Even small things, like putting power outlets near all the chairs and tables, contribute to the feeling that they are in a technology environment. The Webb Center is now the hot spot on campus – it’s warm and inviting, yet modern and up-to-date.” The whole process was relatively painless as well. “We approved everything in July, the design was done in September and we had it up and running in October,” says Cruz.

QR codes (short for Quick Response Codes – matrix barcodes that send smartphone users to a webpage or online document) are not just on the kiosk display at the Webb center; Smith has started incorporating them all around campus. “It’s another method to communicate,” he says. Smith continues to find new ways to exploit the digital system to reach more and more people. “Our digital signage system is integrated into our campus cable infrastructure,” he tells us. “This means we can use a cable channel, sending content to students sitting in their dorm rooms, so they can still know what’s happening. We also send content out to satellite campuses, forming a connectivity to the main campus that wasn’t there before.”

The system is also leveraged to further the larger goals of Old Dominion. “Students come here for a degree,” Smith explains, “but we’d also like them to leave with a job. We’re working on doing live digital signage job fairs.” When companies come to recruit potential employees from the student population at a fair at the Career Management Center, Smith plans to set up cameras with live web feeds that show up on the TV cable station as well as selected displays. “So, maybe a big-name company is interviewing someone; we can send that interview out live across campus, letting people know what’s going on, stimulating interest and increasing participation. Ultimately, this gives our students a better chance at finding the right place to go work after they leave us.”

But Smith warns that, no matter how many tricks you have up your sleeve, you must keep things current to keep people interested. “Technology is easy – it’s the content that’ll kill you, and you have to keep it fresh and lively, or it just blends in with the wall and gets ignored by the audience.” In a fast-paced, ever-changing environment, a dynamic flow of information is necessary. It also needs to be eye-catching, and a cohesive communication style is important. Smith is contemplating utilizing the school’s graphics design students to assist in that effort.

“There are a lot of factors to consider before investing in a comprehensive digital signage system,” Smith tells us. “Get the parties involved that want the system and see what their needs are, what kind of content they want to display. I’d look at it in two ways. The backbone – do they just want slides and messages or do they want live streaming video, web pages, or what? And the infrastructure – we were lucky and just piggybacked on the large cable infrastructure that was already here, so all I had to do was get run-of-the-mill, off-the-shelf displays and those work just fine. But another place may have to really think about things differently. You have to consider your content delivery capabilities. Streaming, for example, takes up a lot of bandwidth. In some buildings here, we have 20 or more displays running, and that’s almost its own network switch. Make sure to get all your criteria together and shop around until you find what you want and need.” Incorporating later expansion is also something to keep in mind. “Mobile is becoming a big deal, so institutions might want to consider what they’ll likely be doing a bit down the road.”

Back in 2009, Old Dominion changed their motto to “Idea Fusion” to tell their audience “that we are youthful, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and different. It is a fresh way of talking about our innovative character,” according to Jennifer Mullen Collins, Assistant VP for Marketing and Communications. By using their digital signage system to the reach as much of their audience as they can in as many ways as possible, and always pushing the envelope to find still more channels to communicate, it seems that Old Dominion is living up to that motto and helping light the way forward for digital natives in the 21st century.