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Connecting Learners, On Campus and Off

Considerations for purchasing, using, and maintaining digital signage and video and web conferencing technology
University Business, September 2012

What technologies and features do higher education favor for digital signage and video and web conferencing deployments? And what can be done to ensure that these technology purchases are used wisely? Here’s what is happening on the AV technology scene.

Digital Signage

Higher education cares about digital signage. The evidence is in the variety of signage installations now appearing across U.S. campuses.
At Baylor University (Texas), for example, digital sign deployments use mini computers that run behind an LCD screen. The signs are managed by campus users over a network using hardware-agnostic software. “Anyone who needs to update their sign content has the content management software on their PC,” explains Conner Krey, technology project manager of classroom technology services.

For its digital signage, Augustana College (Ill.) uses standalone boxes that come with software. “The box sits behind the sign,” says Shawn Beattie, educational technology manager. Each box comes with 256MB RAM and SDHC card storage, and supports several media formats, display resolutions, and connectors. Multiple content zones, looping play lists, playback schedules, synchronization for video walls, touch screen interactivity, and RSS ticker feeds are a few of the features. Other boxes come with twice as many capabilities.

"The sign software is free and requires no programming knowledge. We can easily train a department secretary to update the signage,” says Beattie. The staff member can refresh content over the network via wired or wireless connection. 

Adelphi University (N.Y.) uses a signage application that runs on a Windows server. “Users update content over the network using a content editor application on their workstations,” shares Joseph Battaglia, director of budget, planning, and project management for the office of information technology.

For its 26 digital signs, the university has purchased monitors with high NIT ratings, such as 1,500-NITs, so content is visible even in bright, direct sunlight. Each sign has a locally attached media player connected via HDMI or VGA. The media players can be small form factor PCs, or solid state media players that fit into the back of the monitor. “The content comes from the server to the players over the network,” explains Battaglia.

The University of Pittsburgh is moving to new sign software with an interface like Windows, with intuitive menus. “The software shows you images on your PC of what the sign will look like,” says Brian A. Vidic, director of The Swanson School of Engineering’s technology group.

The software will allow university officials to display signage content on desktop computers and slate tablets. “We will be able to put announcements into screen savers,” says Vidic. The software works with the University of Pittsburgh’s existing hardware, so the school can keep what it has and build on that.

Baylor, which uses the same software package that the University of Pittsburgh is adopting, has no central technical person to manage it, but that’s OK, Krey says. “Someone with only a little technical knowledge can manage the sign for their area.”

The system also enables Baylor administrators to display slideshows, PDFs, Word documents, Excel sheets, web pages, and PowerPoint presentations. The food court uses it to create menus months in advance and schedules them to run at the appropriate times, to alert students to menu changes. Plans are in the works for signage in dorms to track energy usage, Krey says. It’s a move more and more colleges and universities have been taking in recent years. And as is common at other institutions, the idea would be to hold competitions to see which dorm can use the least amount of energy.

Middle Tennessee State University’s signage software package supports template designs and stores creative assets that the school’s graphic designers use to manipulate sign content. “The graphic designer uses whatever development tools he commonly would to create assets for the sign. The designer uses the content manager software that comes with the package to develop the templates,” says Barbara J. Draude, assistant vice president of academic and instructional technologies.

“We converted a teacher’s wall of fame into a digital hall of fame, with an underlying information station,” says Draude. The top half of the interactive signage displays photos, biographies, and videos of famed teachers. The bottom half is a virtual concierge where people access a digital campus map and directory, campus news, and athletic information. A content player PC that runs the software directs the content. “The content player PC can be built into the monitor or located close to the sign,” notes Draude.

Baylor has commercial-grade LCD screens designed to stay on 24 hours a day. “They don’t have to cool down,” says Krey. These LCD screens also enable administrators to lock out the physical control buttons so the average user walking by and seeing the buttons cannot power off the unit or change the input.
MTSU also uses mini computers that sit behind the display. “We store the content assets on the content manager server and the content player PC—the mini PC—calls them over the network to display on the monitor,” says Draude. The display comes with interactive overlay technology, which helps provide the campus map and directory. “If the monitor does not support a touch screen, then an interactive overlay can be placed over it to give the interactive capabilities to the sign,” says Draude. The HD technology and resolution are the most valuable assets of the monitor. “We can integrate the sign with our event planning system and websites via RSS feeds. Events appear on the sign automatically,” says Draude.

Baylor officials are looking into using a campuswide emergency system on the digital signage. Software would allow them to centrally take control of the signs in an emergency. “If there is a chemical spill in the science building, for example, we can change all the signs to an emergency message predefined to tell people to stay away,” says Krey.

Web and Video Conferencing

San Diego State University uses video conferencing technologies based on the H.323 standard in its 150-foot video conferencing facility. There, faculty teach remote students and meet with faculty at other campuses and universities. “The H.323 technology is much more robust than web conferencing technology. In that facility, we have touch-to-talk microphones that activate one of four cameras that point to the person speaking,” says James P. Frazee, department head for Information Technology Services.

Video conferencing allows graduate students at Baylor University to connect to their classes while completing out-of-town internships.

San Diego State also has a collaborative web conferencing software suite that’s more affordable than H.323 technology and easier to use, says Frazee. “The faculty use it to provide media-rich environments for live online learning sessions—classes they can archive—and to add remote guest speakers,” Frazee explains, adding that the software enables faculty to ask an audience multiple choice questions via a polling tool and get results back from students in real-time.

For fixed video conferencing, Baylor uses commercial grade hardware endpoints equipped with microphones and, for systems purchased in the last four years, HD cameras. The endpoints come with commercial grade software and are located in classrooms and meeting and conference rooms.

Endpoints display far side camera and computer content in a variety of formats, such as picture-in-picture or side-by-side. “The endpoints all have access to a global directory, so it is easy to dial other campus endpoints,” says Krey.

Graduate students use video conferencing to connect to their classes while working their out-of-town internships. These students use the equipment to
do their dissertation and thesis defenses when either they or someone on their committee is away, says Krey. Baylor University’s School of Nursing faculty and staff in Dallas use it to connect to meetings on campus so they don’t have to drive. Applicants for staff positions who live outside the area can be interviewed using the technology.

Baylor also uses web conferencing/ unified communications software that runs on Macs, PCs, and iOS devices with capabilities such as presence, IM, group chat, click to call, softphone, call history, voice mail integration, desktop sharing, and, of course, video. One user can be connected with the web conferencing/unified communications software to another user at one of its fixed video conferencing endpoints. The technology is used to deliver remote guest speakers.

With the help of partner Dobil Laboratories, the University of Pittsburgh has standardized on interactive enterprise web meeting software to interact with the corporate world in a structured way, says Vidic. The software enables meetings and videoconferences on any computer or mobile device running virtually any web browser. It also allows users to collaborate and share dynamic content.

Many of the University of Pittsburgh’s instructors use another enterprise web-based conferencing product that is suitable for classroom use and distance learning. It also works on virtually any browser and has no hardware sensitivity, says Vidic. “This software has a very low learning curve,” says Vidic. University of Pittsburgh’s constituents also use a popular, free web conferencing application. “It is often used for faculty-to-faculty communications and single-user, direct-video teleconferencing,” says Vidic.

Indiana University makes extensive use of AV technologies in its immersive classroom. Telepresence typically involves cameras that jump immediately to whoever is speaking.

"I wanted to see the whole class,” says Stacy Morrone, assistant vice president for learning technologies and a professor. In the immersive classroom, using an automated camera positioning system, the default camera angle is a wide-angle shot of the entire class. “The system locates the current speaker, who then appears on screen as in typical telepresence, but the camera moves to a wide angle before going to the next speaker,” Morrone explains.

The technology package for the immersive classroom includes a 1080p HD videoconferencing system, the camera system, a graphical user interface control system, ceiling microphone arrays, two backlit LCD TVs, a workstation, and a document camera. “The integrated package is easily duplicated by AV integrators without any special customization or programming,” adds Morrone. “The only buttons to push are mute microphone and send content.” Remote students are projected at life size on the 80-inch displays. 

AV Replacement Planning

Higher education should replace AV equipment about every three years based on a depreciation model and a solid preventive maintenance contract, advises David Danto, director of emerging technologies for the Interactive Multimedia & Collaborative Communications Alliance. “Anything that isn’t failing within three years should be maintained. Schools can make well maintained items last longer than three years through servicing. This equipment can be marked as a cost save on the following budget,” says Danto.

But, keep a sharp eye on TCO, adds Danto. “If a projector can be made to last longer than it should, you need to weigh that against the quality of the image as compared to current models, and the cost of lamps.”

AV is a product area where schools tend to use purchasing consortia, says Kyle Judah, chief executive officer of RecoVend, a free service that helps higher education search for products and services. “These consortia offer a standard agreement, source vendors in a category, and buy in bulk to get discounts.”

Administrators should analyze the campus’ existing equipment, usage, and needs and factor that into replacement planning. “Gather metrics on AV technology utilization (portable items requested, device run rate compared to room utilization for rooms with permanent equipment), satisfaction (through timely surveys of users), and similar metrics,” says Danto. Then, don’t buy new technology for a room where the old technology was not in demand.

Getting More Out of AV

To get more out of AV, schools need to look at how the technologies work together, says Danto. “Develop a unified communications strategy and know where you want to be in three to five years.”

To help each piece of AV technology go that extra mile, stay current on service and maintenance records, says Judah. “If the school does not service and maintain equipment on time and on schedule, this will affect equipment life. Make sure the service company uses continuing education to stay up to date on what the equipment requires in service and maintenance,” he adds.

For the greatest productivity, schools should share best practices between departments on how to use the equipment, Judah says. “Those who are more technologically adept should share their best practices.”

By researching what the market has to offer and creating careful plans, higher ed institutions can do AV well—and make significant improvements in communicating both messages from officials and course content.