The worldwide demand for higher education and lifelong learning has never been greater. Colleges and universities around the globe need to scale up their offerings to cater to a mass influx of students, for whom a degree is their passport to the 21st-century workforce.
You may have heard that the most popular show in the world during the 1990s was the bathing-beauty vehicle "Baywatch," but the current leader may come as a surprise.
The annual Educause conference is the premier teaching and technology showcase for higher education, and this year's expo, held in Dallas in October, was no exception.
You might call 2006 the year of the redesign for institutions of higher education. Duke University (N.C.), Brown University, Ball State University (Ind.), Humboldt State University (Calif.), Virginia Tech, and Centenary College (N.J.) are among the group of IHEs who redesigned their sites. Over the past few months, many other new website looks have been announced or unveiled.
Expect some opposition and criticism from staff, faculty, students, alumni, and even donors for changing "their" website.
If you haven't redesigned your site yet, chances are that process will come your way soon. Selected from the suggestions of a few higher ed web professionals behind recent successful website redesigns, the following tips should help in the endeavor.
Don't embark on a website redesign only to keep up with the neighbors. You should expect some vocal students, upset faculty and staff members, angry alumni, and even puzzled donors to criticize, oppose, and fight you for messing with "their" website. That's why you need to come up with quantifiable goals for your redesign. "Clearly define the purpose of the redesign, and put it in writing," advises Andrea Arbogast, web manager at Humboldt. She rolled out a redesign this August. "I have found a short document with the redesign's purpose to be invaluable. There is usually a very concrete reason for taking on a redesign, and being able to articulate it easily has saved me a lot of grief," adds Arbogast.
You wouldn't renovate your house without researching the city code, thinking about the needs of your family, or browsing magazines for inspiration. So, do your homework as well before jumping into a web redesign project. Find out as much as possible about the current state of your website by analyzing web traffic data and feedback from users. Also take the time to learn more about your target audiences' needs and expectations by setting up online surveys, focus groups, face-to-face interviews, or usability tests.
"Before we began any work on site architecture or design concepts, we devoted several months to research," explains Michael Dame, director of Web Communications at Virginia Tech. "We interviewed members of our primary audiences-students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni-to find out how they use the university's website. Our findings informed later decisions regarding site architecture, navigation, and design."
If you plan to tear down the walls of your website, make sure you rebuild a compliant and functional web presence for your institution. Technologies, standards, and user expectations have changed a lot over the past few years. Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act defines ground rules to assure your website is accessible to disabled users. Make sure your redesign is compliant.
A website redesign is a project and should be managed as such with a defined scope, a given budget, and a defined set of resources. Set up a realistic schedule and manage expectations. Aggressive timelines will force you to cut corners or bypass necessary consultation. "You need at least one person who is a wizard at organizing people, details, and workflow," says Lisa Cameron-Norfleet, program manager of developer relations for the Office of Web Communications at Cornell University, who worked on its 2004 web redesign.
A website redesign is the best time for a content audit. Once you know more about your users' expectations and needs, start to review and reorganize your website content. After auditing your web content, you'll be able to assess the gaps between the current state of your website and the information architecture that will best serve your users.
Any change in the design of your institution's website will get noticed. That's why it's so important to get as much buy-in as you can before and during the process. "Real transparency is key," says Ben Riseling, web operations manager at Duke. "Was this audience group consulted?" is the question that he heard repeated the most.
While communication and buy-in are critical to the success of these projects, redesigns by democracy or by committee should be avoided. They don't work most of the time. "Our redesign blog was a crucial tool in showing our audience what was in the works and establishing a conversation about the new site. You have to be careful to set the tone of such a blog, though. We made sure it was very clear that we would listen to all ideas, but that the site was not being built by a democracy," says Cameron-Norfleet.
Make sure that the new design works by having a few members of your target audiences test your ideas and layouts as soon as possible. Test your paper or interactive wireframes (the documents showing the information skeleton of your pages) before picking the fonts or the photos. Try to launch your redesigned home page in private or public beta first. "About six weeks before launch, we posted a 'sneak preview' section on the university's website to inform and solicit feedback. And, a month before launch, we opened up the staging site to all faculty, staff, and students for testing and further feedback," says Dame.
If you plan to fix your website information architecture, navigation, design, and content, you might want to kill two birds with one stone and couple your redesign with the implementation of a web content management system. "Getting a site on a good CMS makes it easier to maintain and also enables it to seamlessly syndicate content," says Riseling. Beyond the power of syndicated content, a good CMS will make your next redesign implementation a breeze by separating content from design. Next time around, you will be able to focus only on redesigning the templates used by the application to produce on the fly the thousand of pages composing your website.
When it comes to redesign, bigger isn't always better. Major overhauls often generate a lot of resistance from constituents and can even upset your most fervent users. That's why some major names on the web, such as Amazon and eBay, don't redesign their websites anymore. They prefer to roll out any major changes slowly. Small changes prevent these companies from disorienting or losing their customers. Another benefit of the incremental approach lies in the eyes of your budget holder: Most of the time, small changes can be implemented quickly by your team and cost less.
If you're looking for more tips, you can read all the information and advice gathered in preparation for this column at www.collegewebeditor.com/redesign.
If we build it, will they come? That was the $16 million question Temple University (Pa.) executives, administrators, and trustees pondered before they gave the go-ahead to construct the largest student computer center in the country.
"It wasn't a slam dunk," recalls Timothy O'Rourke, vice president of Computer and Information Services at Temple, a public research university. "Nobody was going in this direction. The trend has been to equip students with laptops and wireless connections. I would get questions from faculty and the trustees on the order of 'Why would you do this?'"
However, after rounds of discussions and presentations to the Board of Trustees, the consensus moved to, "Why not do it?"
Construction started in March 2005. "We didn't go into this blind," O'Rourke says. "We did student surveys and found that only about 5 percent of students carried laptops to school, so we did believe there was a need for such a facility."
Students-both campus residents and commuters-did not want to bring their laptops to class.
Still, O'Rourke remembers his angst up until the day the TECH (Teaching, Education, Collaboration, Help) Center opened its doors on January 6. "I feared no one would come," he recalls.
But they did come-in droves. During the 2006 spring semester, the center recorded more than 432,000 visits from 20,000 individuals. The busiest day occurred on April 26 when 8,000 people entered the center. This fall semester, the daily attendance is expected to average 6,000 visits per day.
"The numbers have blown us away," O'Rourke remarks. "The traffic has far exceeded anything we could have imagined. It has been a tremendous success."
The 75,000-square-foot TECH Center sits in the heart of Temple's main campus in North Philadelphia, which serves 25,000 students. The building, which once served as a mainframe center for Bell Atlantic, met the needs for conversion because of its footprint and location.
The two-story facility also houses Temple's new 4,200-square-foot Welcome Center on the first floor, which tacked on another $1 million to the project (see "The Wow Factor," p. 46). The first floor also consists of various breakout rooms where students can collaborate on projects. Equipment includes flat-panel wall displays and desks with computers set up for group interaction. In addition, the campus Help Desk is located here, offering 24-hour support for the entire campus community. A Teaching and Learning Center offers training and technology support for faculty and teaching assistants, coupled with a faculty breakout room and lounge. Finally, the first floor houses the WHIP internet radio station (staffed by students) and, of course, a Starbucks cafe that's open 24 hours a day Monday through Thursday, with limited hours on weekends.
The second floor consists of an information desk staffed by a librarian to assist students, an internet lounge, and a service desk where students can go for support, reserve breakout rooms, and rent loaner laptops. There is a section solely for print operations consisting of high-speed laser printers, color printers, and plotters.
General computer areas are subdivided by different color schemes, each housing PCs and Macs, print stations, and popular software programs. In addition, the center offers free music and cable TV feeds. Various specialty labs house computers, special applications, and ancillary equipment. A video editing lab, a music lab with keyboards, a graphics/CAD lab, and a language lab round out the second floor's technology offerings. Moreover, there are two quiet rooms, as well as various breakout rooms reserved for collaborative work. Each room contains a flat-panel wall display and desks set up for group/computer interaction. Some labs are equipped for multimedia presentations, with surround sound and large screens.
Finally, various couches, coffee tables, and cozy chairs are scattered throughout the floor, so students can read, use a laptop (the building is wireless), or even nap between classes.
Even the sole vending machine is unique. Rather than containing the basic student food staples-snacks, candy, and gum-this machine dispenses memory sticks, ear buds, pens, paper clips, batteries, and, of course, Excedrin and NoDoz for those late-night term paper deadlines.
A side note: Food and beverages are allowed in the Internet Zone area, and beverages (with lids) are allowed in the computer areas. "We haven't had any problems with spillage on keyboards, and no stains on the carpet," says David Matthews, a lab manager. He attributes the success of the beverage policy to the large work stations and adequate spacing between stations that give students more room for the business at hand and less opportunity to knock over drinks.
According to Clarence Armbrister, senior vice president of the university, the idea of a large computer facility was born from various discussions throughout the university examining what the university needed to do to equip students for the 21st century.
"The TECH Center is the outgrowth of forward thinking from Tim O'Rourke,"Armbrister says. "When we initially went to the trustees with the idea, we were questioned if the university really needed the facility-considering the investment and the changing pace of technology. We went back and I got together with the academic side of the house and Tim examined the technology side, and we finally came back with a plan that encompassed what we thought would be a facility for 21st-century teaching, collaboration, and technology. And that's how the TECH-Teaching, Education, Collaboration, and Help-acronym came about."
Armbrister notes that other factors contributed to the idea of the center, including the knowledge that students-both campus residents and commuters-did not want to bring their laptops to class. Also, because students can't afford specialty software, the university wanted to give them access to high-end applications. And since previous computer labs were dispersed throughout the campus, consolidating the labs into one facility opened up those labs for additional classroom space.
Armbrister adds, "We also realized that students change majors all the time, and technology and applications cross over various disciplines, so now all students have access to all applications."
Tom Halligan is the former editor in chief of University Business and an alumnus of Temple University.
Paul Lipsky's students have an endless appetite for broadband-especially wireless broadband.
As an assistant professor at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), Lipsky teaches students how to master 3D animation and multimedia production tools. His students have designed rich full-motion graphics for CBS Sports, ESPN, and Nickelodeon.
Of course, sharing massive 3D files between servers, desktops, and notebooks on NYIT's Old Westbury, N.Y., campus requires very high-speed connections. The college's current network-which includes a mix of fiber optics, Ethernet, and WiFi-has plenty of horsepower for the near term.
But Silicon Valley engineers (across dozens of networking companies) want to provide institutions with an even better option. It's a major WiFi standard upgrade known as 802.11n. Compared to today's WiFi gear, 802.11n offers 10 times the speed and far better signal coverage (see "Know Your Options," pg. 40). In theory, students will be able to use 802.11n wireless connections to share 3D graphics, movies, and other big files as quickly as if they were on a wired network.
With 802.11n, students and professors will more easily graduate from wireless e-mail, text, and voice to full-blown videoconferencing. Already, many of today's students use popular free applications like Skype to trade instant messages and make zero-cost phone calls over the internet. In a year or two, it's highly likely that students and professors will increasingly use free videoconferencing features built into Skype and other applications. "You can't ignore the student trends," says Lipsky. "They're always looking for faster, richer communications systems. Especially wireless systems. Students are all about freedom and mobility."
Videoconferencing, of course, requires bandwidth-lots of it. And as more and more students embrace video chats and lectures, universities will be forced to regularly evaluate, adjust, and enhance their wireless network designs.
That could be challenging. Most universities currently use wireless gear based on the 802.11g, 802.11b, or 802.11a standards. Without going into the technical nitty gritty, those standards are fine for most wireless applications. But for truly intense multimedia applications, universities will need to stick with high-speed wired connections (like gigabit Ethernet) or eventually switch to 802.11n wireless, according Ed Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators, a technology consulting firm in New York.
Now, for the twist. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), an organization that oversees WiFi standards, had expected to complete and ratify the 802.11n specification sometime this year. But due to lingering technical hurdles, the final standard won't be completed until early 2008, the IEEE estimates.
In some ways, the delay has left vendors and institutions of higher ed in a lurch. Confident that the 802.11n standard was nearing completion, many vendors in mid-2006 jumped the gun and introduced wireless gear based on a draft of the standard. The pre-802.11n networking gear is widely available from Belkin, Buffalo Technology, D-link, Linksys, and Netgear. Similarly, Dell supports the draft standard in some of its latest wireless laptops.
But since the standard isn't fully baked, IHEs that mix and match today's pre-802.11n gear could wind up with a recipe for disaster. "Without certified testing using a completed standard, there's no guarantee all this hardware will interoperate," says Golod.
"With any prestandard products, there will be tons of interoperability issues," agrees Tom Chomicz, a network security engineer at CDW-G, a division of CDW that focuses on government, higher education, and K-12. "I think 95 percent of customers will continue doing 802.11g for the time being."
Still, nobody predicts a wireless meltdown. Most of the initial pre-802.11n gear targets homes and small offices, where customers typically use a single-vendor solution, avoiding interoperability issues.
"The popularity of the 802.11n draft-compatible hardware will remain restricted to consumers and the small office/home office space," affirms Amit Sinha, chief technology officer of Atlanta-based wireless security company AirDefense. "Large enterprises will wait for WiFi-certified and standards-compliant hardware. Enterprise adoption will definitely be delayed because of the standard delay."
To be sure, college and university IT leaders continue to monitor 802.11n's maturation closely. Most expect to use 802.11n within a few years but are deploying established WiFi hardware with vendor-specific enhancements in the meantime.
"We are watching the developing standard to see how it will affect our institution," says Keith Nelson, director of telecommunications and networking information technology services for The University of Texas at Austin. "User demands and what the industry supplies will drive adoption of the technology."
Nelson says it's too early to predict all of 802.11n's benefits, but he expects it to provide more bandwidth, better spectrum allocation and sharing, and a better overall user experience. But for 802.11n to truly succeed, he says, it needs to interoperate with existing standards such as 802.11g. "We have more than 1,700 wireless access ports already installed," says Nelson. "If 802.11n does not provide good backwards compatibility, its deployment will be delayed."
The situation is similar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is taking a wait-and-see approach to 802.11n. At least for the short term, UI officials doubt laptops will have enough power to maintain high-speed connections with 802.11n networks, says Mike Smeltzer, director of network communications for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services.
Smeltzer expects to give it a closer look in the future. "Where we think it might provide some serious gain is for point-to-point and outdoor mesh backhaul links," he says. "Either way, we'll most likely wait until the standard is finalized before buying into the technology. The big challenge will be getting power to the multiple transmitters in a way that works with points of entry and laptop batteries."
Meanwhile, a group of wireless vendors, working within an umbrella group known as the Wi-Fi Alliance, is striving to stamp out 802.11n interoperability concerns. The organization plans to evaluate and certify WiFi products with baseline 802.11n capabilities in the first half of 2007-about a year before the draft standard is finalized.
Technology managers should check in with their networking partners for a complete 802.11n product road map. At the same time, they should determine which departments or campus settings-if any-have demanding applications that require pre-802.11n's enhanced bandwidth and wireless signal range. In most cases, IHEs will discover that today's mainstream 802.11g equipment meets the vast majority of customer needs, according to John DiGiovanni, director of marketing at Xirrus, a WiFi startup in West Lake Village, Calif.
Industry giants such as Cisco Systems and Symbol Technologies (recently acquired by Motorola) dominate the WiFi sector. But WiFi startups also continue to deliver innovative technologies.
Xirrus, for one, has received a patent for its WiFi array systems, which deliver 2.5 times the range and 13 times the throughput of typical WiFi systems, according to The Tolly Group, a network testing firm in Boca Raton, Fla.
Xirrus, Meru Networks, and other fledgling companies are evangelizing about all-wireless campuses that require little, if any, network wiring. Meru's true believers include U of I, which began deploying Meru controllers and about 800 wireless access points across its 1,458-acre campus earlier this year, with the network's completion projected for early 2008. Additionally, Meru's "dual-speed" wireless technology vastly improves the performance of newer laptops, which come equipped with 802.11g technology, according to The Tolly Group.
Still, Urbana-Champaign can't go completely wireless. "We have users with actual needs for gigabit connectivity," says Smeltzer. "WiFi is a way off from being able to meet their needs. So we are continuing to deploy wired connections with a Meru wireless overlay for mobility, but not primary connectivity."
In the future, Urbana-Champaign officials expect wireless to be able to support more of the institution's primary connectivity needs and reduce the need for wired connections, "but we are not at that point yet," he says.
The university is two years into a five-year plan to provide all interior public spaces on campus with WiFi coverage. By the end of 2006, some 61 percent of all classrooms on campus will have WiFi. Complete WiFi coverage is expected by 2009, says Smeltzer.
Meanwhile, Cedarville University (Ohio) uses Meru's wireless technology for current applications and as a potential bridge to future 802.11n technologies. With Meru's WLAN System, administrators there expanded wireless coverage to include all residence halls, classrooms, open-seating areas of major academic buildings on campus, and conference centers.
Asserts David Rotman, associate vice president for technology and CIO at Cedarville: "Key objectives for our campus included improved mobility, ubiquitous access to the numerous applications offered on our network, and lower costs." The Meru Networks WLAN System addresses all of those requirements.
As of mid-September, 1,500 student-owned wireless devices were already registered on Cedarville's wireless LAN. The university plans to deploy Voice over WLAN in the near future.
As voice and video move onto wireless networks, IT leaders should familiarize themselves with 802.11e, another wireless standard that ensures quality of service (QoS) for delay-sensitive applications like wireless Voice over IP and streaming multimedia.
Still, vendors continue to blur the lines between standards and their own innovations. "Many of the services that 802.11e provides are already available from Meru," notes Smeltzer. "We expect them to implement the formal standards based versions available in 802.11e over time."
Colleges and universities will certainly take their time as they evaluate the evolution of 802.11n. But don't wait too long. Students don't stand still. Skype, Google, Microsoft Live, MySpace, and other multimedia applications will demand next-generation WiFi networks.
Will you be prepared?
Joseph C. Panettieri (email@example.com) is VP of editorial content at Microsoft Communications (www.microcast.biz). He has covered Silicon Valley since 1992. Read his daily blog, The VAR Guy, at www.techiqmag.com.
The internet and e-mail are a blessing and curse. Both improve communication and access to information; they are the de facto communication and entertainment tools of modern life.
But when personal communication and entertainment cross into professional hours, the employer can suffer. Online shopping, gaming, and chatting are fairly innocuous ways to waste time.
Other network-based activities can be more problematic for colleges and universities. For example, if faculty or staff use the university network to gamble, download music, or view child pornography, it can harm the university's reputation or possibly result in a lawsuit. Any of the scenarios cost time and money. At the same time, higher ed operates with a sense of freedom unmatched in the corporate and K-12 arenas.
Objectionable content to the corporate or K-12 world can be considered academic research.
The business world has tapped into software solutions to help curb online behavior and catch those who fail to abide by policy. The Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College (Mass.) says 90 percent of employers observe electronic behavior. Virtual oversight can go several steps further. More than three-quarters of employers watch web surfing. "About one-third of large commercial enterprises monitor [or sift through] staff e-mail," says Craig Carpenter, senior director of corporate marketing with Mirapoint, an IT security company.
Higher ed has been slow to embrace high-tech surveillance tools. Monte Robertson, president and CEO of Software Security Solutions, surveyed the company's higher education customers and found that none scanned e-mail for content. Carpenter hypothesizes that higher ed is reluctant to deploy surveillance software because it smacks of censorship. Academic freedom is a right in the university environment, explains James Hammond, vice president of Information Technology at Winthrop University (S.C.).
Content that is objectionable in the corporate or K-12 environment can be considered academic research. For example, a faculty member may view child pornography websites to conduct research for a psychology or sociology course.
"Higher ed cannot draw too many lines in the sand because it encroaches on academic freedom," continues Hammond. Academic freedom can become a rallying cry for monitoring foes. The University of Southern Mississippi endured a firestorm when its president directed a lawyer to monitor some faculty e-mails during an internal investigation.
The ideal solution balances academic freedom and protection. Most colleges and universities do require faculty and staff to agree to policies about e-mail use. The typical policy specifies that the employee does not own e-mails and permits the employer to read e-mails.
At this point, however, few universities enforce these policies with monitoring software, says Carpenter. Is higher ed flirting with danger by not using surveillance solutions? "Absolutely," opines Carpenter. But the tide could turn as universities wrangle with compliance issues.
One reason behind the near-universal business use of surveillance technology is the need for regulatory compliance. Similarly, universities could begin to adopt technology to boost compliance. FERPA (Family Education Rights Protection Act) will influence universities, predicts Carpenter. "Universities have not gotten their arms around FERPA and need to develop an understanding of its requirements," he says.
Initially passed in 1974, FERPA protects the privacy of student information such as health records and grades. Surveillance technology could be used to identify FERPA breaches. Winthrop currently complies with FERPA through policies that describe how to handle and release sensitive information. In addition, software "flags" alert users to sensitive information and tell any employee how to view the information.
Similarly, the post-9/11 SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) requires all colleges and universities receiving government funding to monitor foreign students' e-mail communications and transmit student information to the Department of Homeland Security. Surveillance programs could help colleges comply with SEVIS by tracking and organizing online communication and activities, says Chronicle Solutions Chief Operating Officer Sophie Pibouin.
But sweeping changes and a draconian monitoring system may not fly at most colleges and universities. Instead, higher ed may be best served by adapting surveillance solutions and developing policies to meet their unique needs rather than simply mirroring corporate practices.
Colleges and universities do have a number of options for monitoring e-mail and internet use. In fact, some may already own options. A number of higher ed customers, for example, rely on Mirapoint's Email Server and Edge Security Appliance for protection against spam, viruses, worms, and hacker attacks. Those features comprise 95 percent of the product's functionality. The other 5 percent? E-mail surveillance. But few higher ed users opt to turn on the surveillance functionality.
One plus of the surveillance system is that it can be used on an as-needed basis. Winthrop University relies on Mirapoint's Email Server and Email Security Gateway for multiple purposes, including monitoring ingoing and outgoing mail for spam and viruses. University policy defines e-mail as private except in the case of an ongoing legal or internal policy investigation.
At Winthrop, if campus police present a valid request or an employee is suspected of violating policy, the university maintains the right to wiretap a mailbox. For example, if a full-time faculty member begins teaching at another university without securing appropriate approval, the university could launch an investigation and tap the employee's inbox. The university might turn on surveillance functionality if a faculty or staff member is engaged in activities that conflict with the university's mission.
"We monitor for investigative purposes only."- James Hammond, Winthrop University
In addition to e-mail monitoring, the system can create rules to scan for specific objectionable words or block attachments or certain addresses. "We don't monitor e-mail as a preventative measure, nor do we regulate objectionable words or contents. We monitor for investigative purposes only," says Hammond. The combination of policy and technology is a good fit for the university's needs.
Another software option is Chronicle Solutions' netReplay system. The company recently launched the network content recorder. The system plugs onto the network behind the firewall and can record all user digital communication, including e-mail, web pages, and chat messages. The netReplay system can also categorize communication to streamline network monitoring. For example, the system administrator can define policies and set the device to send an alert if a user accesses a child pornography site.
Some systems, such as Mirapoint's Email Server and Edge Security Appliance, wrap monitoring functionality into a larger package. Security, mail hardware, software, and support cost approximately $1.25 monthly for each user at a site with 10,000 users. Others, like netReplay, represent a new system. Its costs include the price of the appliance, a fee per user monitored, and an annual maintenance fee. Chronicle Solutions, a provider of network monitoring solutions, says it extends a significant higher education discount.
Employee surveillance can be a touchy subject. Poorly defined and communicated policies could have a negative impact on employee relations or lead a to a media fiasco. One need only recall the recent Hewlett-Packard corporate scandal to imagine the media and public relations nightmare that can occur in the wake of a poorly conceived surveillance program.
And like any technology, surveillance systems are not perfect. It is possible to increase the odds of a successful deployment. Insiders offer the following advice about optimizing a monitoring system:
Make sure surveillance tools are available. "Understand the local monitoring policy, or in the absence of a policy, make one," says Hammond.
Don't take faculty and staff by surprise, says Pibouin. The university needs to clearly define and communicate monitoring policies. It helps to market the system as a means of protecting employees and the university's reputation.
Be sure to research the system's accuracy and reliability, says Robertson. Calculate all costs, and investigate legal ramifications and requirements.
An online monitoring or surveillance policy that outlines the rights of the university is a 21st-century essential. Colleges and universities can tap into fairly new software solutions to support the policy and simplify the process of sifting through online communication if a need arises. The combination of a well-articulated policy and carefully deployed software need not impinge on academic freedom and can protect the university, staff, and students-without breaking the bank.
At Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, the importance of enhancing e-learning services was heightened after the devastating effects of Hurricane Rita, which hit the Houston and Beaumont areas in September 2005. To date, the university has spent more than $30 million in recovery efforts.
Need to direct new students to unfamiliar buildings on campus? Nothing does the trick like a map. Now imagine that map presented in color and blown up to fit on a 42-inch screen. Add to this image descriptive headlines and text and changing inset graphics that can provide close ups of the section of campus where the building is located, along with pictures of the destination, and it's clear just how effective digital signage can be.
Digital signs started appearing on campuses a few years ago, with some promoting sales in bookstores and other retail outlets and others providing information for those passing through the student union or dining hall. In this fashion, higher ed was catching up to hotels, financial institutions, big box retailers, and other sectors that provide information to the public. Once these industries began showing how convenient it is to digitally change information and create a multimedia presentation that can grab attention much easier than paper posters and bulletin boards crammed with out-dated paper flyers, higher education administrators saw the logic in using this new technology.
It has helped that plasma and LCD flat panel screens are now more common and have come down in price. Spurring the trend, too, are new services that ease the headache of content management and planning for overworked higher ed public affairs and promotion departments.
Basically, digital signage enhances any area on campus where large groups of people pass by or congregate, says Rosemary Abowd, an analyst with Pacific Media Associates, a company that provides research on multimedia and large screen displays. (See sidebar on technology trends and pricing.)
Few people know about the technology's benefits better than Charlie Salas, associate director of the LBJ Student Union at Texas State University. He's a client of The University Network, or TUN (pronounced t-u-n), a digital signage service for colleges and universities. At TSU, 42-inch, flat panel digital signs that hang in the LBJ Student Center and the campus recreation center help promote campus activities and vendors. TUN, as well, provides national advertising aimed at students, and allows TSU to share in 20 percent of the national advertising revenue. "We receive a check for about $200 every quarter," says Salas, who adds that the impetus for installing TUN's digital signage system in 2004 was not really to make money. The real goal was to be able to more easily inform students about services and activities. Certainly, though, the revenue checks are a nice by-product of the digital signage installation.
Salas wanted to cut through the media clutter on campus and get students' attention. "Our students are into gizmos and high tech," he says. "Digital signage gives you a connection to students that you can't get with other advertising."
Texas State participates in one of two types of programs that TUN offers. While TSU takes advantage of the revenue-sharing model, the company also provides a separate service that does not share revenue, but instead, installs more digital signs on campus. The difference is one screen versus up to three per department, says Denise Stephenson, senior vice president of University Services for TUN.
In addition, TUN, which is a division of InFocus, provides creative and production services for its more than 160 higher education clients. Those who receive a portion of the national advertising revenue are guaranteed three new, 20-second spots per week, while those who have installed more screens can run up to five spots. These promotions are campus-specific.
Each week Salas and TSU staffers send TUN basic text, logos, and images related to the news and events they want to promote, and the TUN creative team does the rest. Of course, TUN can change information quickly if there is an emergency on campus.
"We can run public service announcements," explains Stephenson. Last year, the company created informational spots for campus customers affected by Hurricane Katrina. It also has created missing persons announcements.
The benefits for TUN are obvious-by signing on college and university clients they can deliver the college audience to national advertisers, such as 1-800-Flowers, The Gillette Company, Paramount Pictures, and Columbia Sportswear. But the program also helps colleges and universities that might not be able to pay the estimated $25,000 to purchase and install several flat-panel displays, nor be able to pay the additional cost to install the creative and content management software.
While Salas doesn't offer any bottom-line ROI metrics on the digital signage's effectiveness, he does have a telling anecdote. A national ad for cellphone ringtones featured a hard-to-forget-one might say obnoxious-jingle, he recalls. "People were humming that stupid song throughout the building," he says. That day he made a mental note that digital signage is definitely reaching the TSU audience.
St. John's University (N.Y.) took a different approach one year ago, when staff there decided to install digital signage. Instead of having an outside service handle the content, the team there brought it in house. St. John's signed with NEC to purchase five, 46-inch LCD digital signs, which were up and running in January, along with the creative and management software that drives the digital signage system.
To date, St. John's has spent $82,885 on its digital signage program, which its technical staff views as a larger investment in technological innovation.
"We put these in high traffic areas where students pass through the lobbies," explains Joseph J. Tufano, CIO for Information Technology at the university. Those specific areas include the University Center, the dining hall, and the library. A team of people, led largely by Joanne Novarro, director of internal and external communications, changes the creative everyday.
"This is really a challenge," Novarro admits. But an ever-flowing mix of digital media is a necessity on campus. "Students today are really savvy and we have to constantly change the content, or we will lose them."
Since installing digital signage, the team at St. John's has produced some ambitious segments. Coverage of a campus Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 25 included live broadcasts that featured survivors and their families.
The team has also altered digital signage to speak to varied audiences. For example, welcoming signage for an accepted students day-where those contemplating enrolling at St. John's were on campus-was edited to list the differing undergraduate majors offered on the Queens and Long Island campuses. Other notices and campus maps also were broadcast to help make the day easier on the newbies.
Digital signage also is used to notify students of emergencies or schedule changes, such as campus closings because of bad weather, notes Tufano. This is a strong point of the NEC system. The company recently announced a partnership with XTEND Communications Corp. to be able to push digital signage content such as emergency text messages to cellphones, e-mail clients, even PDAs. NEC is calling the service its Emergency Campus Notification Solution.
The new technology allows users to reach students and staff who might not be near a digital signage screen, or even on campus.
The University of Connecticut has set its three new 42-inch Sony LCD digital signage screens in the Neag School of Education to receive cable TV feeds, says Gary Hendrickson, the school's director of technology. "There is a network on campus that carries 82 cable channels," he explains. The connection allowed students and staff to watch live coverage of the recent terrorist plot involving commercial airlines that was uncovered in London.
Of course, most coverage is not so urgent, yet important to running a smooth campus operation. Notices that welcome new education students, instructors, and visiting department lecturers are interspersed with announcements about student activities.
Sports news is also a popular feed, especially with many Red Sox fans on staff.
The creative is managed by a browser-based software that allows for content editing and broadcast scheduling. Janis Palmer, the school's communications director, either directly creates the material that is eventually broadcast, or reviews everything and gives a final OK.
The digital signage was added when the Neag School of Education underwent a $350,000 renovation two-and-a-half years ago, explains Hendrickson.
"This was part of the planning from the beginning," he says. "We spent a lot of time looking into the future and asking: 'Where is technology going to be?'"
Like St. John's, UConn is also looking to take the logical next step, which will be to push the digital signage information to iPods, cellphones, and other individual devices. A scan of campus will show that at any given moment most students are using cellphones, PDAs, or MP3 players.
"We are looking to keep up with students; they are innovators," Hendrickson says.