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Digital Signage Stories: Hall County School District Finds the Power of Digital Signage

In the K-12 educational environment, the possibilities of digital signage often are just talked about. Rarely do these talks turn into reality as strict budgetary guidelines limit many school districts to invest in the bare necessities for the most students. The Hall County school district near metro Atlanta is another story. Local provider Visix has managed to install its AxisTV solution, along with LG LED displays, across a majority of Hall County’s 20 elementary schools, seven middle schools and seven high schools

On this episode of Digital Signage Stories, Visix CEO Sean Matthews joins us to share how his team and their partner, Nisewonger AV, brought digital signage to life throughout an entire school district.

Listen to the Podcast

Digital Signage Stories, the official podcast of Digital Signage Expo and its editorial partner site DigitalSignageConnection.com, highlights successful digital signage projects and installations deployed around the world in a variety of different vertical markets. With this podcast, you will gain insight from industry experts to help make your own digital signage deployments successful as the industry continues to grow.


Alesia Hendley, host of Digital Signage Stories podcast

Digital Signage Stories host Alesia Hendley is an AV professional who is determined to leave her mark by making an impact, not just an impression. She can be reached on Twitter @thesmoothfactor


Sean Matthews: The school district’s actually chosen to use Twitter as an easy way for the local school to publish with having no knowledge of digital signage whatsoever… and as the principals and other authorized personnel are tweeting to the particular accounts, the playback design around Screenfeed is showing the actual tweet and any accompanying picture that’s associated with that tweet, and it’s an animated delivery of that information… so using Twitter makes it very easy for them to put relevant information on screen without having to be digital signage experts.

Alesia Hendley: Hello, lovers of all things digital signage. I am your host Alesia Hendley, and this is another exciting episode of Digital Signage Stories. On this week’s episode, we’re headed to the Metro Atlanta area to discuss a digital signage project taking over Hall County School District. You don’t typically see digital signage in elementary and high schools unless it’s an outside display. Budgeting is taken into perspective from every aspect in the education field.

Being able to deploy multiple screens, media players and content management solutions can be a hefty feat, and many schools can’t necessarily spend that on digital signage technology. But Hall County is gracefully scaling and taking the lead in optimizing digital signage solutions throughout their entire school district. Hall County has a strong partnership with their AV integrator which led them to Visix to standardize their digital signage solution.

On this episode, Sean Matthews, president of Visix, joins us to share what all went into this digital signage story, and how K-12 school districts can benefit and effectively communicate with digital signage solutions.

Alesia Hendley: Hi Sean. Welcome back to Digital Signage Stories. It is so good to have you back on the show. We really appreciate you coming and sharing your latest case study with us. This was a very unique case study.

Sean Matthews: Hey, thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity, as always, to be with you and discuss what’s going on in the market, and what we’re doing technologically, and obviously what people are asking for in this market.

Alesia Hendley: And this is a unique market that we’re about to talk about today, because not many digital signage manufacturers or integrators are in the K-12 sector of what we do right now. Because it’s a weird market because you’ve got to deal with politics of schools and the budgeting that all goes into that stuff. In grade schools, you typically don’t see that higher level of technology being deployed yet. So, tell us about your relationship with the school district there at the Hall County School District.

Sean Matthews: Okay. So, Hall County is just north of us, just outside metro Atlanta (it’s actually considered a metro Atlanta county.) It’s a fast-growing county; it’s definitely a suburban county in metro Atlanta. And our relationship with Hall County is actually brand new. And so is our relationship with the integrator.

The integrator has been involved with Hall County for, I don’t know, eight, nine years, I believe. And they’ve done a lot of work for the county, but we really didn’t have a lot of experience with them. We had one of our field sales representatives calling on them, they would see us at trade shows, they would participate in some online classes, which were really primarily orientation classes towards our technology. But it’s a brand-new relationship for us. And it’s amazing because it’s turned out to be a very thorough and robust deployment of digital signage in this county.

Alesia Hendley: Yeah, it looks that way. So, it seems like there’s a handful of schools, whether it’s from a kindergarten all the way up through high school, that you guys are beginning to deploy your systems within. And I know the integrator brought you into the picture with Hall County. So, was this a bidding process and the integrator actually won, and because of y’all’s relationship it just worked out because you guys had the right solution for what they needed?

Sean Matthews: That’s a great question. You know, I don’t really know about the purchasing nuances of this particular deal because it did go through an integration partner, but I’m under the impression that it was a design-build sort of deal where they basically were the designers of the deployment. It went to bid, I believe, to some degree, but I don’t really know how that worked. You alluded to it – it’s a school district that covers ten separate communities in that county. There’re 20 elementary schools, seven middle schools, and seven high schools. So it was definitely a consultative process that went into the transaction.

Alesia Hendley: And what’s really unique is that it’s sometimes – I actually used to work for a school district and that’s part of where I started out as – and what’s really hard always getting all the schools on the same page, especially with such a large district. So, seeing AxisTV being deployed through all of the schools in Hall County is very, very unique. And seeing that type of solution being deployed across the board is amazing.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. And in fact, just sort of add to that, they started off with a bunch of disparate systems, and you can imagine that an elementary school principal was trying to do one thing simply because he wanted to get announcements out in front of students or parent visitors. And they had this problem throughout the county with individual schools just choosing to do their own thing. But ultimately, it was rolling up into being a management nightmare. And that’s why they sought out a solution.

Alesia Hendley: Right. So tell us about AxisTV digital. Is this a content management solution? How does this all work?

Sean Matthews: Yeah, so AxisTV, our Signage Suite product, is comprised of three different components. Sort of at the heart of it is the content management system, the CMS, which can either be hosted in the cloud, or it can be deployed on premise if you choose to do so. It’s a browser-based solution that allows people to upload and schedule the delivery of content to various endpoints.

The second element is the design tool, which is a Windows-based app, obviously runs on a Windows machine, and it’s designed to provide creative personnel with the tools necessary to create layouts that match the client’s expectations. And not just artistically, but also the data mapping components of it so that they can, bring in auto-updating content, whether it be in the form of KPIs or event management systems or even weather. You know, that stuff that you want to populate the screen all the time and in a timely manner.

And then the third component is the actual playback engine, which runs on very, very small Windows appliances and [is] designed to be mounted behind the back of displays. And that playback application is designed to deliver the visuals that include multiple layers, integrated zones, opacity and all the things that you would expect to see in a sort of broadcast-like simulation.

Alesia Hendley: Right. So, for instance, a principal of a school can have overall access and monitor, say, what the teachers are putting out in their specific classrooms or for that week to their teachers, and that can all be monitored and also controlled within the web browser.

Sean Matthews: It’s an enterprise platform, so it includes multiple layers of authentication and authority and/or user rights. So what’s interesting in this particular deployment is that the school district has designated certain areas on the screen for use by the district itself, so that only district employees can actually post to certain sections of the display. And then the local school is given basically the other half of the display. Now you can imagine that each school, whether it be high school or even middle school, has its own look and feel. You know, they often have their own little mascots, even down at the elementary level, and their school color choices may be different. It doesn’t always roll up to the local high school. So, you know, one group can be tan and brown, let’s say, and the other could be purple and yellow. And then of course the individual principals, as you just noted, they can edit what they’re allowed to edit and upload to, but then the school district controls the rest of the surface space for their own announcements.

Alesia Hendley: You got it, because the school district overall has probably control over all IT devices, correct?

Sean Matthews: That is correct, yes.

Alesia Hendley: So security was probably a huge factor when it came to deploying these across the district.

Sean Matthews: Yeah. I mean, you can imagine security fits into the puzzle and, like most of these enterprise platforms, ours is very robust in the security arena. We do use Windows appliances; it’s a Windows 10 IoT Enterprise-compliant product, and we chose to do that because of the ability to update the platform more efficiently and effectively without having to do firmware updates. So, that’s kind of our deal, and it separates us from a lot of people. But across the board we employ all the security analyst and platform tools that we can use to ensure that nothing ends up on screen that shouldn’t be there.

Alesia Hendley: Right. Kids these days are learning technology, like earlier and earlier. So, I’m pretty sure the kids that are in grade school, it seems like they might be able to get into a system like this if they had the access, and create their own content if need be. Like AV clubs and newspaper clubs, they can also create content across the solution like this, right?

Sean Matthews: Well, they can. However, you can imagine that those user’s rights are very constrained. So, they might only be able to create content but not publish content. So the publishing process would then go through basically a chain of command, through a hierarchy, so that, you know, maybe a student might roll up to a teacher, that teacher might roll up to the principal or the vice principal, and so it doesn’t get approved and/or delivered to a screen until it goes through that process. So, you can really control who can do what and what they can publish to.

Alesia Hendley: That’s very cool, having that enterprise-grade solution where it’s tiered for clients, like you said, just as a security purpose. Now, this is a broad question, but what I’ve always envisioned digital signage as, when it came to, like a K-12 setting, is, like, for active shooting. And this can be used for emergency alerts as well, correct?

Sean Matthews: It could. In fact, you bring up a really good point. You know, that’s unfortunately a very negative aspect that we have to deal with in society. And certainly, protecting children is a key component to what goes on at schools. It’s something that you don’t want to have to think about.

What’s interesting about this particular deployment is they’ve chosen not to yet implement the alert notification protocol, which is based on what’s called CAP, which is Common Alerting Protocol, which is typically triggered through third party devices. Often text messaging providers produce CAP-compliant triggers that can trigger displays into a different mode of operation. But in this particular case, they really felt like that what they’re doing (and you can imagine that the law enforcement community is involved in this county operation); they are really relying on audible commands from intercom systems in that particular campus and discreet messages to teachers who are subscribing to their SMS database, so that they can communicate sort of “behind the scenes” to certain parties in the school if there were an active shooter on campus. So, they chose a slightly different approach.

But to your point, the technology can be used. And if you think about situations like a fire, kids all know what a fire alarm is, but you could use the displays to provide instructions; i.e, use only the stairwells, exit the building at closest exit, gather in the playground or you know, whatever. So that’s often what those screens are used for, that sort of instructional guidance.

Alesia Hendley: It’s an unfortunate situation that we even have to think about things like this. But there’s a lot of situations where, unfortunately, situations like this are happening in the schools, and then the parents roll up and they have no information. Platforms like this could really help communicate across the board, not just the school district but the entire community within that district as well.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, most definitely. A lot of times you’ll have cable access channels that have one of our media players (or somebody else’s media player) at the cable head end. And of course, the output of that channel, that media player, can be routed through that community channel, and it ends up on a local cable system or something like that. So a lot of different ways you can get content out to bigger communities via a bigger vehicle.

Alesia Hendley: Right, right. So, how many schools in Hall County District are actually up and running with AxisTV? Because I know there’s a lot of upgrades and re-installations that are taking place throughout this year that I’ve read about. So how many are actually live right now?

Sean Matthews: There’s something running at every school; it’s about 200 endpoints or 200 displays right now, and that number is growing every single month. But that program will continue to expand there until they believe every school is fully saturated with all of the crossroads and hallway intersections and bathroom entrances and all the places that they thought were most applicable to students passing by and gathering information. It’ll continue throughout the course of this next year and probably for another 14 months.

Alesia Hendley: So, where are you seeing the highest volume so far? Are these being deployed, like we’re putting some screens and media players in classrooms, cafeterias…? How does that look?

Sean Matthews: So right now, you are seeing obviously deployments in cafeterias, but primarily outside of cafeterias at major hallway intersections. So as students are walking down the halls, they’re walking towards these displays and they’re seeing the information conveyed over a greater distance versus just in the administrative office. The only purpose of there being displays in the administrative offices are really to provide information to parent-visitors, and that’s really what the purpose there [is]. But primarily at hallway intersections and other gathering places. Obviously, water fountains and other common areas is where you’re seeing these displays.

Alesia Hendley: That’s excellent. That’s really, really interesting. And the deployment is continuing to grow, which is spectacular, across the district. So, what would be your personal advice to other school districts around the country on how to deploy digital signage?

Sean Matthews: Well, I do think that standardizing on one solution obviously is better, because that way it provides some centralized control and centralized access. But also, what’s interesting about this deployment is the school district’s actually chosen to use Twitter as an easy way for the local school to publish with having no knowledge of digital signage whatsoever. They’re actually employing a third-party product called Screenfeed that is connected to our CMS. And as the principals and other authorized personnel are tweeting to the particular accounts, the playback design around Screenfeed is showing the actual tweet, and any accompanying picture that’s associated with that tweet, and it’s an animated delivery of that information.

So what I think is really cool, and it’s, I believe, pretty good advice to anybody who’s trying to deploy this on a large scale in a school district where a person’s normal job is to be that of a teacher or some sort of administrative person, using Twitter makes it very easy for them to put relevant information on screen without having to be digital signage experts.

Alesia Hendley: The power of Twitter is very, very exceptional. And I’ve been saying this for a long time. Twitter is one of my favorite social media platforms, and it’s become a place where people go for their news, their weather, their daily entertainment. It’s so powerful. And schools already harnessed social media, so it’s very exceptional that they can take what they already use to manage their content and produce it out to their whole district.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, I think again, you hit it dead on. It’s a really cool platform and primarily because, even this digital signage medium, which could be a big large-format display, but the fact that you have people passing by, you’re really looking for short, concise but animated and relevant content. And what other better way to deliver that than via Twitter?

Alesia Hendley: Right. I agree with you, I agree. And the fact that you can take that content…. So, a lot of teachers and administrators, they get a little nervous when you put new technology in their classrooms and in their schools; not just digital signage, any kind of technology that they have to use. It’s new and it’s a little bit frightening when you have to already deal with so much in a classroom already. So making them comfortable to where they don’t have to feel like an expert, but they can share the information, and to share it right – there’s a huge objective met for the teachers and the administrators alone.

Sean Matthews: Yeah, and you know, to be fair, I think that if you looked at our web interface… (you can judge any interface by how effective or easy it is to use.) I think if you look at a technology like ours where someone is uploading and scheduling the delivery of content to various endpoints – that’s not something that you do on a daily basis, right? So, even though we try to make ours as simplistic as possible, it’s still different, right? It’s not something that you do every day.

And certainly, to be really fair, if somebody looked at our design tool, which is really designed for designers and people that are tasked with creating compelling layouts, it has more of a Photoshop feel, which would be certainly much more overwhelming than using something like Twitter.

Alesia Hendley: Right, right. Absolutely. So, on top of ease of use and communication, what other main objectives were met for the Hall County School District deploying digital signage across all of their schools?

Sean Matthews: Well, one of the key drivers for them was they were looking for a way to empower teachers with some vehicle or medium that they could visually and accurately depict work samples of student exemplars. I mean, what they wanted to do was take student work and reinforce to other students that, “If Johnny can do this or Susie can do this, you can do it as well.” And they’re doing, I think, a phenomenal job of delivering those examples throughout their district. And other kids are saying that, “Wow, look what they’re doing at that school” or “Look what my peer was able to accomplish.” They’re showing authentic evidence, really, of learning on a daily basis. And it just simply wasn’t possible before with all these disparate systems and no real vision for saturating a school with this visible medium.

Alesia Hendley: Absolutely. And so, it’s not only igniting inspiration for other nearby counties and school districts, but it’s igniting inspiration in students to realize what digital signage is, and it might possibly have an effect on our whole entire industry in the future.

Sean Matthews: I mean, you and I, we all know this, that it’s one thing for a teacher or a parent to say something to a student like “You can do it” or, you know, any sort of social reinforcement from a parent, or again a teacher. But to see your peers do it, it’s a different level of social reinforcement that provides students often with the confidence to go out and try it and realize that it can be done because it’s being done by others. And so that piece of social reinforcement and engagement is happening, and we believe some of it’s a result of our technology being there.

Alesia Hendley: I definitely have to agree with that. Like, I grew up when Apple products were just starting to come out. Yeah. We had the really cool desktops with the colors in the back. And when you’re in an environment with technology that’s constantly changing, and then you’re a part of it and the whole community is a part of it, it can really affect, not only your technical skill, but ignite some passion in you and possibly, like I said, change an industry and get into an industry and build a career. So, that’s exciting! You’re not only helping schools communicate, but you’re helping districts communicate overall. And that’s a beautiful thing.

Sean Matthews: And again, we’re excited to be a part of this. And, as you noted early on, the K-12 market is not one that’s been quick to adopt this technology, primarily because of budgeting cycles. And it’s just not inexpensive to run out and hang a bunch of displays and put media players and a CMS and all that stuff in place. But like others in the K-12 market space, we have pricing that’s designed for that market to reinforce adoption. And we’re glad to see it take place here, and we’re optimistic that we can replicate this in other districts around the country.

Alesia Hendley: Awesome. Well, I look forward to it because I think it’s needed, not only for emergency alerts, but the content creation is something that is powerful within schools. Especially since students can get involved. So Sean, thank you so much for bringing this to the table and highlighting this K-12 project. I’m excited about it even though I’m nowhere close to that age group anymore. Being involved in that space and having this type of technology deployed in a school district is very amazing.

Sean Matthews: I thank you for taking the time, having me on your show, and I look forward to bringing something new and exciting to you here in the near future.

Alesia Hendley: Absolutely. You’re always welcome, Sean! This was another great episode. Thanks for joining us. And folks, if you’d like to find out more information on this K-12 digital signage deployment, please be sure to visit digitalsignageconnection.com. And if there’s a project you would like featured on Digital Signage Stories, you can let me know. Just tweet me at @thesmoothfactor or connect with me on LinkedIn. But the absolute best way to contact us directly on digitalignageconnection.com, and this has been another episode of Digital Signage Stories. We’ll catch you all next time.