Technology (Innovations for Education)

Seeing is Communicating

visual communication

PHOTO COURTESY OF X20 MEDIA

Visual communications applications within higher education facilities continue to grow. As campuses begin to exploit the benefits of any-screen information delivery, an increasing number of institutions are implementing facility-wide systems that allow administrators, students and staff to directly engage with both internal and external sources of information. When combined with the ubiquity of portable screens, availability of increased bandwidth and emergence of next-generation technologies such as near field communications (NFC), the growing shift towards visual communications infrastructures is creating new opportunities for the way campuses inform, protect and collaborate within classrooms, throughout campuses or across remote locations. Used traditionally as a tool to promote specific school initiatives, screen-based broadcasts now range from publicizing carefully crafted campaigns to supporting student-driven content, alerting campus populations in the event of emergencies, ramping up recruitment efforts or facilitating the provision of distance-learning programs.

The Immediacy of Information

As a crisis management tool, visual communications systems allow campuses to easily transform messaging into emergency notifications — allowing security staff to immediately alert thousands via place-based screens, desktops or directly on mobile devices. As a result, campuses can react more effectively to unexpected situations and reduce response times whenever evacuations or adjustments due to inclement weather are required. Using new IP-enabled management tools and pre-set content broadcasts, content administrators can quickly target specific locations to more efficiently address their alerts.

For everyday campus activities, visual communications assets provide users with convenient wayfinding capabilities. Using a combination of dynamic software and interactive technology, staff, students and campus visitors can easily locate and download maps of custom routes by scanning quick response (QR) codes directly to their tablets or mobile phones or by simply tapping a handheld device to the screen to transfer mapping information via NFC technology. As a result, wayfinding content can now be taken on the go rather than remain static on a permanent display.

Higher education facilities have started making more significant investments in larger-format visuals such as towering video walls to “wow” visitors or promote on-campus events. Often applied as a branding or recruitment tool, sponsored content can also include highlighting successful research initiatives, faculty profiles, clips from sporting events or be used as a vehicle to promote content created by students. Large media walls are also becoming important for ensuring continued alumni funding by publicly acknowledging donor contributions.

Creating a More Collaborative Campus

By leveraging the new trends by which people virtually communicate, visual communications becomes a highly empowering collaborative tool. For instance, by embracing social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, campus administrators can more actively entice audiences to interact with targeted content in a timely and relevant manner. Campus material can then be shared across online channels more effectively while students and staff become invested in the creation of peripheral conversations as their contributions appear across widespread visual communications networks.

Within physical classrooms, visual communications technology is allowing campuses to create more collaborative learning experiences for both instructors and students. For example, university finance labs are now using screen-based setups to display stock tickers and real-time display information in order to create realistic trade-floor simulations. Visual communications also allows institutions to enhance the provision of distance learning programs — enabling offsite students to access and engage directly with lecture slides, classroom video and virtual chats. We’ve seen projects of different sizes and scopes and facilities are able to customize their solutions to fit a variety of needs. For instance, a studio space can be used in the same manner as a traditional lecture hall. As the professor presides over a semicircle of screens, each one a stand-in for an off-site student, the unique configuration allows virtual participants to view each other via an interactive webpage. To recreate the participatory experience of in-class learning, students are able to contribute to classroom discussions via virtual hand-raising and exchange views through virtual question-answer sessions — allowing the visual communication application to provide the same degree of collaboration that is found within traditional classrooms by increasing interaction between multiple remote participants. Through these types of collaborative solutions, higher education institutions are able to leverage a cohesive mix of online, virtual and interactive technologies, creating innovative visual communication capabilities that both expand and enhance the way today’s learners engage with each other as well as with the content being presented in class.

Increasingly part of the campuses’ communications ecosystem, visual communications systems are also shifting from push-based digital signage installations to systems that absorb audiences by tailoring experiences according to location, audience and specific device. For instance, a content administrator can now select a different set of video clips for viewers on mobile devices, as opposed to content being sent to a massive videowall display. By selecting highly customizable channel management and scheduling tools, campus media managers are able to recreate the efficiency of a broadcast booth setup, thus curating content streams that can be timed to reach the right viewer at the right time on the right device. As a result, communication strategies are able to reach higher response rates from users, thus encouraging higher interaction rates and more collaboration.

Furthermore, today’s generation of students is connected to their schools, their communities and their peers like no other contingent before them. Therefore, they have come to expect levels of collaborative capabilities that increase with every new app, social platform, and newly developed device. For schools looking to immerse their student, staff and faculty communities into genuine synergies, collaboration via integrated visual communications systems becomes essential. By allowing users to actively exchange with the various display screens that surround them — whether it be participating in online classrooms, downloading class schedules to mobile devices, submitting papers via virtual kiosks or conferencing face-to-face with support staff or professors — campuses can ensure that their academic culture remains at the forefront of today’s collaborative possibilities by weaving visual communications into their daily applications.

Looking Ahead

Looking towards the future, students will increasingly demand connected capabilities that form a natural extension to their on-campus experience. Opportunities such as giving online viewers the power to directly control on-screen content, the ability to search and save records from alumni centers or the capability to virtually browse athletic achievements directly from a school’s trophy case will make the campus of tomorrow an entirely interactive experience. However, creating the collaborative backbone to tie-in each innovation will remain a top priority, making visual communications technology the key to tomorrow’s collaborative success.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

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