Today's universities are enterprises in the true business sense. Perhaps more than commercial organizations, the actions, plans, and management of universities come under the microscope of alumnae, donors, trustees, parents, activists, and the press.
We live in an era of great uncertainty for many in our workforce. At this moment, entire industries are being impacted by technological advances and the emergence of low-cost labor markets.
In theory, if you walk into a McDonald's anywhere in the world a Big Mac is the same. But does that theory hold true for degrees from institutions of higher education and, more importantly, should it?
American institutions with branch campuses overseas are saying yes.
"They want us to do what we do best," says Andy Nazarechuk, dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas-Singapore campus. Charles Bowman of Texas A&M University at Qatar echoes the sentiment. TAMU's agreement with the Qatar Foundation specifies that the overseas program will be "substantially equal" to the program on the main campus, notes Bowman, the interim dean.
These leaders aren't talking about student and faculty exchange programs or a semester abroad. Their operations are full-blown, brick-and-mortar establishments, often with their own support staff, that offer full degrees. "It looks just like mine," Bowman says of the diploma certificate.
Overseas education, these institutions recognize, is a billion-dollar business. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a U.K.-based initiative that tracks activities and developments crossing the traditional borders of higher education, there are an estimated 80 "branch" campuses operating in the world, with 50 percent being run by U.S. institutions. Institutions in Australia, the U.K., and Ireland are also pursuing these efforts.
As programs expand to overseas locations, concerns about maintaining quality standards grow. "Following few, but high-profile, cases of substandard provision, many host (and source) countries seem to be increasingly concerned with the quality of transnational education," says Line Verbik, deputy director of the observatory.
According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 29 of 53 accrediting organizations that responded to a 2001 survey indicated they were operating internationally. Nearly one-third of responding organizations said they were accrediting U.S. institutions or programs operating outside of the United States. In other words, there is an interest in international quality review.
How are these reviews done? "We treat each type [of campus] the same way as we do U.S. campuses," explains Jean Avnet Morse, executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one accrediting organization. "We expect all to be included in the institution's self-study report." Whether the commission is reviewing a U.S. institution (in the states or abroad) or a non-U.S. institution seeking American accreditation, Morse says, all of them "are held to the same standards. However, we review every institution, including U.S. institutions, in the context of its own mission and we apply our standards appropriately."
Obtaining accreditation is one more item on the checklist for IHEs opening branch campuses. It both protects the institution's reputation and makes the degree worthwhile for the students. Often the host country requires it.
TAMU, for instance, committed to seeking accreditation when it was invited to join Education City in Qatar, Bowman says. Established by The Qatar Foundation, Education City is a 2,500-acre campus on the outskirts of Doha that hosts branch campuses for five of the world's leading universities, as well as many other educational and research institutions. TAMU officials are finalizing their first report to the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body, and are waiting for their first class to graduate in 2008, so they can apply to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
UNLV leaders submitted the school's Singapore program to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in February 2006 and received approval in March 2006. The Singapore program is included under the accreditation of the main campus and will be included in the comprehensive evaluation scheduled for 2010. Singapore does not have an accreditation program, Nazarechuk notes, but the school is one of six that has been accepted as an "institute of higher education" there, which gives it the right to grant degrees. Educational institutions that have not received that ranking are limited to granting diplomas and certificates.
Having the host government's support often plays an important role in ensuring a program is successful. With Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) operations in Qatar, Australia, Korea, Japan, and Greece, Senior Vice President and Provost Mark Kamlet knows firsthand about government regulations. His Qatar campus is subject to the same requirements as Texas A&M. In Australia, a law that used to restrict the right to grant degrees to Australian institutions was changed, allowing Carnegie Mellon to set up shop. According to Kamlet, Australian officials have adopted becoming an education magnet for the Pacific Rim as part of the country's strategic goals. But in Greece, which still has a homegrown degree law, Carnegie Mellon gets a little rebellious. Although there is no chance for Carnegie Mellon to get local accreditation, the program is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which is fine with Kamlet, who adds that the name Carnegie Mellon is all students need.
Troy University (Ala.) officials are not quite so cavalier. "We would be reluctant to go in unless the degree is recognized by the host country," says Curtis Porter, associate vice chancellor for international affairs. As a cautionary tale, he offered that a British university once opened a program in Turkey that wasn't recognized by the government and the graduates couldn't get jobs. "You have to be sensitive to the local climate," Porter says. It's important to be recognized by the local government and any ministry of education in case the host country decides to start reviewing programs.
Jack Hawkins Jr., chancellor of Troy, explains that he and his colleagues assess the market in a potential country to make sure the degrees they offer will be used, but they are careful not to go beyond the standards of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' accrediting program. "The degree has to be quality," he says.
To achieve that goal, Troy has established one curriculum that's used worldwide. Troy has had an international presence since 1974, when it established programs on military bases in 10 countries. Although it still maintains some of those programs, it has expanded its civilian operations to various countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to using a single curriculum, they involve their U.S. faculty in the overseas programs as much as possible. "We've been doing things at a distance for 40 years," Hawkins says. "It's part of the culture."
Using the same curriculum and faculty from the main campus are the two primary ways schools seem to maintain their standards overseas. Any changes to the programs offered are very minor tweaks. Quality control starts when a program is first suggested.
When Carnegie Mellon officials initially discussed a program in Australia, Don Marinelli, director of the Entertainment Technology Center (covering CMU's Pittsburgh and Australia campuses), says he "was adamant in stating that ETC-Adelaide had to be a genuine extension of ETC-Pittsburgh and not a lesser 'foreign campus,' per se."
"We don't cut them any breaks," Kamlet says of Carnegie Mellon's Qatar students. As a quality control check, the Qatar campus uses the same exams as the Pittsburgh campus. The curriculum is "exactly the same," but the students have fewer electives from which to chose because of the smaller staff. Although classes aren't modified, the Qatar students receive more attention from faculty than their main campus counterparts, partly because of the difference in learning styles between the two countries and partly because "they aren't used to how much work it is," Kamlet adds.
The admissions process is more involved in Qatar because the staff is less knowledgeable about the students' background and what aspects of their academic and extracurricular lives will make them successful in college. However, Kamlet says the Qatar Foundation has been insistent that no students are admitted because of family connections; Carnegie Mellon officials are happy to comply, as that practice could be bad for the school's reputation.
Bowman calls TAMUQ a "boutique operation." His faculty members give students more one-on-one time, which they can do because of a lighter teaching load compared to faculty at the main Texas campus. The admissions process is also different, requiring a personal interview and an English proficiency exam for every applicant. Although students sometimes need help with the language, he says their math and science preparation is "very good."
Texas law establishes a core curriculum every student must satisfy to graduate. They have had to modify parts of the health program to accommodate cultural mores, Bowman says. "We're trying to teach people good health habits, but there are some things you don't talk about in Islamic culture"-sexually transmitted diseases, for one.
The faculty is split between people from the main campus and direct hires. "We hire the same quality as the main campus," Bowman stresses. TAMU, like all the Education City schools, has academic freedom, as well as full control over faculty, admissions, and granting degrees. The Qatar Foundation reviews deans before they are appointed, and then reviews student performance, as well.
The Singapore Ministry of Education does review the qualifications of professors in its Global Schoolhouse-Singapore's initiative to draw world-class educational institutions and 150,000 international students to the country by 2015 in order to educate workers, boost the economy, and create jobs-as a way of ensuring quality. "It's a formality for them because the full-time faculty is qualified," says Nazarechuk. But the practice "protects UNLV's reputation too." They will be using a mix of U.S. and locally hired faculty.
Although the curriculum in Singapore is the same as that offered on the main campus, students can take a wider variety of general classes (i.e., humanities, fine arts, and natural sciences) not normally taken by local students. Nazarechuk explains that the Singapore education system is based on the British model, so student's studies are "more field specific." Admissions standards are the same for GPA, English proficiency, and years of education, putting local students at a disadvantage. "We increased the number of courses to provide them with access to these required classes; this way students can transfer in the courses that meet our requirements and take the classes that they need to obtain the bachelors of science degree here in Singapore," he says.
"Schools here are starting to adjust," Nazarechuk notes, with local students having the opportunity to take general courses at their local school, as well as realizing they should take them if they want to attend a U.S. institution.
So far, Carnegie Mellon has not had a problem with the differences in early education between America and Australia. "Since all ETC students in Adelaide are currently either from America or Canada, we are not confronting that issue at the moment," explains Marinelli.
Kean University (N.J.), which won't open its new campus in China until 2007, has already laid the quality ground rules. President Dawood Farahi says a signed agreement "contains a clear understanding that the university's curriculum is totally in the domain of Kean." All courses will be identical to those taught in the states, and newly hired faculty members will be properly credentialed and provided with cultural training. China will not be reviewing the professors' credentials. Although Kean officials worked with the government to establish performance measures for students, they are not adjusting the programs. But some course offerings may be different, such as the addition of Chinese history in place of a Western Civilization class. "It took a long time to explain why general education classes are important to a Western education," Farahi says.
"We're going to do it in an American way," Farahi says. From admissions and curriculum to guidance counselor access, Chinese students will have the same experience as their American counterparts.
Since 9/11, there has been a slowdown in students coming to study in America. Reasons range from travel safety concerns, to visa restrictions, to a desire to stay close to home where the economy is booming and there are job opportunities.
Although students may not want to travel to America, they can still get an American degree. UNLV's Nazarechuk points out that degrees from American institutions are well respected around the world. "Times are changing," he says. "We have to go to them."
Carnegie Mellon's Kamlet agrees. "A lot of other countries are growing good universities," he says. "For Carnegie Mellon to be involved in the future, we have to be a player now." And to remain players, IHEs have to continue to deliver the quality American programs students expect.
"I believe that we have received inquiries from all continents except the poles," says Jean Avnet Morse, executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, regarding U.S. institutions getting involved in overseas activities.
According to Line Verbik, deputy director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, "the United Arab Emirates accounts for close to 20 percent of international branch campuses, almost completely due to the number of foreign institutions (currently 15) established in the educational free-zone Knowledge Village." Qatar comes in second, with approximately 9 percent, followed by Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, and China.
So, what are desirable qualities for a host country to have? Here's how a handful of U.S. institutions have approached their search for a place to set up shop:
Troy University (Ala.) looks for good local infrastructure, government support with clear regulations, locations that place a high value on American degrees, and qualified students who are able to afford the program. "We're a people university. We won't price ourselves out of the market-here or abroad," says Chancellor Jack Hawkins.
Kean University (N.J.) officials had affordability in mind as well when they decided to open a campus in China. Education is a commodity in China, President Dawood Fahari explains. "The value of higher education in China is different. The families start to save for higher education almost at birth." Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, where Kean's campus will be located, graduates 350,000 high school students, so there will be plenty of candidates. China requires foreign institutions to partner with a local university. "A lot of things in China are based on personal relationships and how people interact," Fahari says.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas leaders recognized that "any program overseas includes a certain degree of measured risk," says Andy Nazarechuk, dean of its Singapore campus. A number of hotel chains have corporate headquarters in Singapore, so the university knew there would be demand for its hospitality degrees. He says Singapore views education as an industry, so there is a large support structure. The support of the university's leaders in Nevada is as important as the support of the host government. "Parents want to send their students to a safe place for a good education," Nazarechuk says. Trust in the government, clear regulations, good infrastructure, cultural diversity, and a high percentage of English speakers won UNLV over. "And the food is great," he adds.
Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) recognized the great degree of economic growth in the Pacific Rim, says Provost Mark Kamlet. "It's part strategy, part opportunity." Demand for the degree, enthusiasm of the university departments that will be running the programs, and having a local champion, government support, and clear regulations make launching an overseas campus go more smoothly. "The most complicated [regulations] have been from New York state," he notes.
Everybody's Going Global ... Or So It Seems
Eckel says there are three models IHEs use when offering courses overseas:
"going it alone" with a branch campus or program
partnerships with local institutions
"The definition of a branch campus is still less than straightforward and lacks global consensus," says Line Verbik of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Her organization defines it as an offshore operation of a higher education institution that fulfills the following criteria:
The unit should be an independent establishment operated by the institution or by a joint venture in which the institution is a partner (some countries require foreign providers to partner with a local organization) in the name of the foreign institution.
Upon successful completion of the study program, students are awarded a degree from the foreign institution.
Or, as Carnegie Mellon Provost Mark Kamlet puts it, they can get a degree from "little free-standing mini-Carnegie Mellons."
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A rise in identity theft is presenting employers with a major headache. They are being held liable for identity theft that occurs in the workplace.
These days, young adults are instant messaging their friends as fast as they're calling each other on cellphones about something someone just downloaded to a video iPod-all while eating takeout food that was ordered online.
They elevate the walking-and-chewing-gum thing to a whole new stratosphere.
As Millennials go through college, their techie ways are changing how institutions of higher education interact with them-and feed them. Dining services departments across the country are putting the internet and related technologies to use in ways that would've made Buck Rogers proud, and full.
Today's web kiosks, podcasts, websites, and digital signs aren't themes for some sci-fi television show-they're reality.
To see where food services is going, take a quick glance back in time to when things were simple: when operating hours were posted on a cafeteria's exterior doors, when a deep inhale revealed what food was being served, and when, if a class ended after the kitchen shut down, students were basically out of luck.
Were students simpler in those days? Probably. Satisfying Millennials means giving them what they want, when they want it. And technology can play a crucial role in making that happen. "My generation goes online; our students live online," says Charles Maimone, associate vice president for Administration at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Today's students have a greater need for constant information and access. Their desire to know not only what's in their food but also from where it comes rules many of their daily dining decisions. "In my opinion, students are much more astute regarding food and food options these days," says Dean Lowden, vice president of support services for Chartwells Higher Education Division, a food services provider to some 235 campuses across the country. "They're very familiar with brands, and quality," says Lowden.
Colleges and universities are turning to technology to make students' dining experiences as streamlined and fulfilling as possible. Bolstered by start-to-finish programs from companies such as Aramark, Sodexho, and Chartwells, as well as software tools developed by colleges themselves, IHEs have many options for coupling tasty treats with useful technologies.
Of course, higher education is not the only realm ripe for pairing food services and technology. Many private-sector restaurants are employing high-tech tools to improve their customer experience.
Look no further than Legal Sea Food's newest baby, LTK Bar and Kitchen in Boston, for proof. "LTK" stands for "Legal Test Kitchen," and in this case the kitchen's not testing food but innovative technologies.
A glance around LTK's swank dining room shows several faces alit with the glow of Sony LCD touch screens no bigger than sheets of paper. Folks watch baseball and surf the internet. A server gives a tech tutorial to a diner, and soon she's fiddling with the kids' website "Club Penguin" while someone else logs into a Netflix account.
The restaurant's servers scuttle around with personal devices that they use to transmit orders to the kitchen. Some diners hook up their own iPods to docking stations provided by LTK.
It's all very technical, yet completely comfortable and-at 10:30 p.m.-completely full.
With such private-sector efforts aiming to entice students, "universities have to be competitive and utilize dining halls to [do] that," says Michael Paulus, a resident district manager for Chartwells. Dining services, says Paulus, "is the biggest bang-for-buck, reaching every student."
Forcing healthy eating onto an 18-year-old is like whipping a chronic procrastinator into shape by handing him a planner and an organizing system, right? Not always.
Chartwells has actually had the opposite issue on its hands: Students today demand tons of nutritional knowledge. The company and its client schools have faced "a constant request for nutritional information," says Lowden.
That's why providing nutritional information has been a driving motivator behind Chartwells' Pulse On Dining platform, designed by the company through a partnership with LifeCourse Associates, the consulting company of authors Neil Howe and William Strauss. The platform incorporates technology through a system of web-based kiosks that display menu options, dining hall hours, and nutritional information, typically at points of entry to an institution's dining facilities. Marywood University (Pa.) was Chartwells' first school to implement Pulse On Dining in September 2005; today the platform can be found at 60 IHEs, from Purdue University (Ind.) to Berkeley College (N.Y. and N.J.) and Canisius College (N.Y.), with some 170 more planned for the next few years.
Here's how it all works: At the kiosks, students can use a touch screen and check their meal plan balances, see the day's menus, or even send a special dietary request or feedback to the dining director. A password and log-in system lets them create nutritional charts for themselves and track nutritional intake throughout the day, including calories, fat, and protein.
As part of the Pulse On Dining platform, Chartwells' DineOnCampus.com website mirrors what students see at the kiosks. By visiting the dining link on their school's site or by going to DineOnCampus.com and choosing their school from a pull-down menu, students can access information from the privacy of their dorm rooms at any hour of the day.
Chartwells' technological tools provide an opportunity for point-of-sale purchases, too: The company partnered with Dancing Deer Baking Company (founded by Wheaton College, Mass., graduate Trish Karter), to develop SendMunchies.com, a website that lets students buy gift items such as all-natural, handmade brownies, cookies, and cakes. The items are promoted as gift possibilities that could be sent to loved ones, friends, or colleagues.
Of course, tech tools can be put to different uses, depending on the needs of a campus and its students. At the University of Utah, one of Chartwells' first client schools to go online with DineOnCampus.com about a year and a half ago, kiosk and website use are king-but so are visual graphics and individual iPod docking stations that promote campus-specific podcasts announcing daily menus and campus activities.
"With this demographic, we really have no choice," says Paulus, who works with colleges and universities in Utah and Colorado. He has implemented LCD "video menuing" screens and video welcome boards that greet students at points of entry to dining halls, displaying real-time menu options, similar to the information boards found in airports.
With such techie tools in play, the University of Utah has been able to cut its printing costs by about $4,500 (those printed materials also inundated students with so much information that they would just ignore it, Paulus says).
Now, Paulus gives an image file to the Utah marketing department. Soon after, the image goes up on screens. That's a refreshing change from the paper-clad bulletin boards of yore. "We're just bringing about the tools and technology our students are using every day," Paulus says.
Eighty-five percent of the College of William & Mary's 5,000 undergrads live on campus. As a result, says Maimone, the school's associate VP for Administration, dining services have to keep up with what is an increasingly sophisticated clientele, a group that responds best to having lots of healthful, ethnic food choices that are prepared at open cooking stations (rather than carted out in aluminum warming trays from some secret room out back).
With sophisticated palates comes a need for sophisticated ways to satisfy them. Enter CampusDish, a program launched by Aramark Higher Education in 2006. CampusDish includes an internet portal that offers nutrition and dining information; the program can be accessed from students' personal computers or through well-placed web kiosks in dining facilities.
"We're particularly proud of William & Mary because the idea of CampusDish came out of a graduate student project two years ago," says Dominic L. Boffa, CIO of Aramark. "They actually gave us the suggestion, and how it should be used."
At William & Mary, wireless dining halls give students access to the CampusDish website from their personal computers; at dining sites, students can respond to surveys (created by the school) about dining services, and add money to or change their meal plan accounts.
By using a student ID card online and at the school's first kiosk, which in August was placed in front of the University Center Court (one of two dining facilities), a student can also purchase food items-even order a Domino's pizza-with the cost being automatically deducted from a meal plan account.
CampusDish is now operating at more than 140 IHEs across the country, and more than 80 web kiosks will debut at Aramark schools this fall. One growth area for many of these schools: food-related podcasting. At the close of the academic year this past May, there were some 53 podcasts about menu options, dining services hours, and everything in between being broadcast at Aramark client schools.
The University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Furman University (S.C.), and East Carolina University have all launched podcasts filled with dining information. At East Carolina, a range of 34-second to two-and-a-half-minute podcasts have covered topics such as "Transfat 101" and "Commuter Meal Plan at East Carolina." Each podcast has been accessible via Apple's iTunes.
At a brainstorming session of a student board of directors for the food and facility management company Sodexho USA, students admitted that after waking each day, they often have about 20 minutes to get to class. That means choosing between showering and eating.
Their ideal? An LCD touch screen in the bathroom that would let them order their breakfast, which would then be delivered to the seat of their first class. "But it would have to be something with a not-too-strong aroma as not to intrude on their classmates," says Jeff Pente, senior director of culinary development and systems for Sodexho.
Daffy desire? Maybe. But Pente says anything is possible with the right imagination and technology.
Click on the home page of Sodexho's Balance Mind, Body, and Soul program and you'll find a laundry list of health-related links that today's mindful student wants, from food facts, recipes, and a nutrition calendar to a Body Mass Index calculator, information about special diets, and an opportunity to talk online with a dietician.
Created to provide information promoting balance through healthy living, Balance Mind, Body, and Soul can be accessed online from any computer or at a web kiosk in a dining hall.
The program is in 800 of Sodexho's schools and has been at Lehigh University (Pa.) for two years. There, the mind and soul parts of the program force a strong push toward organic foods: Student surveys helped Lehigh include on its site and at kiosks information on sustainable farming and other details about the process of growing and making healthy foods. "Balance Mind, Body, and Soul, is more of a way of life and living, and helps us all with busy day-to-day conflicts," says Bruce Christine, general manager of Dining Services at Lehigh.
Students can walk up to a flat LCD screen and be tempted by beautiful graphics of food. The graphics entice students to click on links and learn more information about things like dark chocolate, stone fruits, and pomegranates-tasty things that make them feel great.
But the program also allows students to access information on staying fit, both mentally and physically. Reading about the benefits of pickup basketball or relaxation exercises to calm the mind are just a couple of possibilities. Students need to de-stress, and that "can be as simple as a 15-minute [break] at the end of the day," says Jodie Stancato, unit marketing specialist for Dining Services at Lehigh.
Students at Ouachita Baptist University (Ark.) can also tap into Balance Mind, Body, and Soul information through a new web kiosk on campus. Some students have seemed a little wary of using the tool in high-traffic areas, notes Ron Cooksey, general manager of Dining Services.
As a result, the kiosk is located in a cozy spot. "We made it into a den area, near the kiosk, with chairs that made it more comfortable," Cooksey says. Students are able to access sensitive information about caloric intake and other topics with a sense of privacy and comfort.
At Cornell University, a homegrown program called Webfood, developed by Cornell alum Peter Krebs and four business partners in 2002, encourages students to order food ahead of time from their computers. Webfood allows Cornell Dining to control the number of online orders it accepts at any given time, so that excellent service to students in dining lines is not jeopardized by long waits-which back in Kreb's day could be up to an hour long.
According to Colleen Wright-Riva, director of Dining and Retail Services, Cornell launched Webfood at Bear Necessities & Caf? on the first floor of the Robert Purcell Community Center. Student response was so strong that in 2003, Webfood was bought by Ithaca-based CBORD Group, a company that provides food service software, nutrition service software, campuswide ID card programs, cashless dining, and housing management systems. Nine other IHEs purchased the Webfood program this past summer alone.
Also at Cornell is the six-year-old in-house web-based program called E-Dining. Geared toward staff and faculty but available to all, the program allows users to place orders, schedule food pickups or deliveries, and pay for food on the internet from Ciabatta's or Martha's Caf?, two campus eateries.
The goal of Cornell's programs is to streamline life on campus. "Our intent with both Webfood and E-Dining is to provide ease of ordering and convenience to our customers," says Wright-Riva.
So, technology is here to stay in the food services realm. Dining directors and staff should still keep up face-to-face contact with students to balance out tech tools (and make sure students don't become obsessed with eating or nutritional information, which could be a sign of possible eating disorders).
Cooksey at Ouachita Baptist says keeping a watchful eye on students is something he and his chef do daily, largely by engaging in conversations in the dining facilities. "We know who's eating, and not," he says.
Paulus of Chartwells notes that dining builds community and invites students to come together. Lowden agrees. "There's a place for technology, but it's certainly not going to take the place of socializing."
Technology implemented in the dining realm is like that used in any other area of campus life-it can give students a sense of knowledge, empowerment, and efficiency, but it also requires a human touch. That, and some delicious food to back it up.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a Boston-based freelance writer who frequently covers food-related topics.
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.