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.
"We're number one" was once an accurate claim among U.S. education leaders. That is clearly no longer the case, according to "Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education," released this fall from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.