Few would argue that the explosion in investment from the education sector in audiovisual (AV) technology has been anything other than a bean feast for the channel. Schools have not only been hungry for the technology that turns learning into an interactive experience, but with Becta funding available they have also had the cash to feed their appetite. With the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project also gathering pace, there is little sign of this slowing down.
At the same time, however, it could be said the channel is facing a new problem. Growth to date in this sector has been founded upon the provision of low margin products such as PCs and projectors, bolstered by interactive whiteboards. Yet as schools approach whiteboard saturation point and the prices of units are forced down through fierce competition it seems that education will become a much more crowded and less profitable market.
This can be avoided by resellers applying the same value that made interactive technology such an enormous success – innovation – into other areas, creating a 'value added' offering to schools that sets them apart from the pack. Essentially, this means being early adopters of the next technologies set to revolutionise the school environment.
Communication is one area in which schools are likely to face further pressure to improve their performance. Furthermore, with many new architect-designed BSF schools in progress, head teachers and Local Education Authorities (LEA's) will also be on the look out for measures that showcase impressive buildings in their best light. This could therefore be the opportunity for digital signage systems to cross over from the out of home advertising sector, where they are enjoying growing success, into education.
Digital signage presents a number of significant benefits both for schools and resellers. For schools it is a way of communicating information instantly across an entire campus, replacing existing noticeboards with dynamic, eye catching screens that can show everything from lunch menus to pupils' work and details of after-school clubs. A network could even provide a money spinner for the school were it to show (carefully screened) advertising as well.
For resellers,offering digital signage as part of an overall education package not only gives their offering an 'extra something' to set them apart from the pack, but it also gives them the opportunity to put their AV expertise to good use. As digital signage networks require installers who understand the intricacies of networking and getting products such as screens, projectors and PCs to work seamlessly with one another, this means this technology is very much within the AV channel's comfort zone and ripe for exploration. Also, from a business point of view, providing a whole solution rather than individual products to schools is an excellent way to achieve maximum value from a relationship and, if maintenance contracts can be agreed, perhaps gaining a continuous revenue stream along the way.
Where resellers would be advised to put some advance work in, however, is in selecting a suitable technology partner with whom to investigate the market. Since its origins in the late 1990's there has been a mushrooming of companies offering the scheduling and broadcasting software used to deliver content to a screen or group of screens. Many of these will have been developed for specific applications so it is essential that resellers test a system's suitability for the school environment. Key considerations include how easy is it to 'swap' out units that have been damaged or stolen. For example if a system stores content locally on individual units and does not keep a back up on the server then this could cause major problems and inconvenience at a later date. There is also the issue of scalability. While most systems can cope capably with a few screens, what happens if a school decides to expand its network? Indeed it is often this factor that sorts the 'men out from the boys'.
While it might seem obvious to point out the importance of keeping an eye out for new products and services and selecting the right providers, the truly successful businesses are those that respond rapidly to changing environments. Being in the technology marketplace means we are naturally always on the look out for the 'next big thing' and digital signage is no different. After some years spent in the shadow of other educational technology, it is now set to find a home in schools across the UK and beyond. The question to the channel is who is going to take advantage of this opportunity while there is still some real money to be made?
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