Can colleges meet students’ preference for digital communication?

Many campuses should improve digital communication with students, experts say.

The effective delivery of information is important in almost any environment. No matter the setting – corporate, health care, or a university – poor communication can lead to unintended and potentially dangerous outcomes. Because of the unique requirements of a university, the need to communicate successfully through effective information delivery can become critical.

Whether a routine matter, such as a sporting event; an important concern, such as class registration; or a critical instance, such as a campus emergency, understanding the most effective and timely manner in which to relay messages to students is an issue worthy of investigation.

In addition, as new and emerging digital technologies are embraced in higher education, their position within the communication mix introduces added intricacies. Of particular interest is the emerging technology of digital communication networks (DCN, also referred to as Digital Signage).

The Platt Retail Institute, in conjunction with its affiliate, the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, recently released its research report titled “Communication Effectiveness in Higher Education.”

We found that students prefer to receive information through newer digital media channels including text messages, digital signage, eMail, and a school’s website. Fully 97 percent of students responded that they prefer to receive information via digital channels, rather than from a non-digital source.

Students indicated that digital channels are effective for communicating school-related messages. Another   noteworthy finding is that universities continue to use various older, less effective mass media delivery channels such as radio and television.

Results found that both students and administrators rate these channels as only moderately effective methods of communication.

In spite of this, 43 percent of administrators continue to use radio to communicate both academic and entertainment-related information. Moreover, 57 percent of schools still use television to communicate academic information.

Underwritten, in part, by Black Box Network Services and Onelan, the objective behind this research was to gain insight into the issues surrounding communication delivery on college campuses.

The study addressed two major questions. First, of the methods currently being used by universities to communicate with their students, which are effective? Second, how can emerging digital technologies be deployed to enhance the administrator-student information flow?

To answer these questions, PRI surveyed university students and administrators. Students were asked to answer questions relevant to the effectiveness of various communication channels that are used to deliver academic, emergency, and entertainment information.

School administrators similarly were asked to evaluate whether or not a given channel was effective for communicating the three information types to students.

The study found that some communication channels are not being used efficiently, as their inherent strengths and weaknesses are not being considered.

This could be interpreted as an inferior use of both the channel and university resources. It was found that in some instances, schools failed to use channels that they indicated were highly effective.

Even when administrators deem a channel ineffective for communicating a specific type of information, they still choose to use the channel.

While a channel’s effectiveness is of great importance, it becomes an afterthought if the message is not relevant to its intended target. Today, students need to deal with an abundant amount of messages sent to them daily from different sources.

They must determine the relevance of each message and identify which sources of information are reliable. It was found that universities often relay considerable irrelevant information to students, with the unintended consequence that relevant/important messages tend to get crowded out.

That is, when the majority of information a student receives from a source is not relevant to his or her needs, the level of attentiveness to messages distributed by that source will decrease significantly.

The final objective of this research was to understand the various applications of digital signage in the university setting, and the reasons why the technology is being adopted as a communication platform.

At the Clarian Health Simulation Center, Indiana University’s medical and nursing students and staff train in simulated hospital environments like surgical suites and emergency rooms.

Digital screens are located throughout the facility in places like the computer lab, classrooms, and simulation rooms. Video feeds connect all computers and screens so that no matter where students are located, they can observe activity from the simulation rooms.

St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania and Tulane University in Louisiana have both created simulation trading rooms to imitate the Wall Street experience for business students.

These rooms contain screens that display stock prices, exchange rates, financial news, and student portfolios. Digital signage’s functionality as a way-finding mechanism has helped Santa Clara University to reach current students with updated class information, last-minute room changes and other important campus communications.

The University of Illinois, with some 53,000 students, faculty and staff, uses DCNs for various objectives, including:

  • Emergency messaging
  • Way finding
  • To realize potential increases in retail sales
  • To create a revenue stream through advertising
  • For student/faculty recruitment/retention
  • To increase program awareness and participation
  • To increase alumni donations
  • To facilitate intra-campus collaboration
  • Reduce printing costs

Another way to use cross-campus messaging is by creating an emergency alert system with digital display.

When West Chester University in Pennsylvania deployed a 22-screen digital signage network, one of its major reasons for doing so was to increase campus safety. The screens are installed in 13 different locations across campus and run on software that allows emergency information to override all other content.

Similarly, at East Carolina University, its 100-screen deployment can be taken over quickly in an emergency situation.

The ability to easily manipulate target-specific content on multiple screens is one of the underlying properties found to drive a university’s decision to install a DCN. Also, being able to display content in real time is especially advantageous when communicating emergency information.

Students responded favorably to the idea of using of digital signage on campus. Seventy-one percent of students reported having seen digital signage, and 49 percent felt that the screens were helpful.

We found that emerging digital technologies, principally digital signage, maximizes communication effectiveness with today’s digitally savvy and responsive students.

Steven Keith Platt is the director and research fellow at the Platt Retail Institute.

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