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Textbooks and technology; public schools and universities embrace benefits of RFID

09/13/10 | John R. Johnson | email

School's back in session, and RFID technology is being used to monitor students and staff and to track equipment more than ever, from K-12 to the college level.

Adoption is becoming so widespread that it appears the industry is finally over the PR nightmare of 2005, when the Sutter, Calif. school system began tracking elementary school students without conferring with parents first. A firestorm of controversy erupted, and RFID for educational purposes took a huge step backwards.

This year Northern Arizona University will begin to use RFID to track attendance at larger classes on campus, thanks to $85,00 in federal stimulus funding. And numerous public school systems are considering adopting the technology for everything from making sure students board the proper bus to enhancing security when it comes to who enters the building.

Has technology finally meshed with textbooks? It appears that way.

"We definitely see an increase in our business in the sector and have identified education as a primary target vertical market," says Holly Sacks, senior vice president of marketing and corporate strategy at HID Global. "The goal in the K-12 markets is most definitely campus and student safety and security."

You can also add sustainability and promoting healthier lifestyles among students to the list. A ride-your-bike-to-school program in Nebraska, administered by the non-profit Boltage, relies on an RFID tag affixed to the back packs of children who choose to walk or bike to school. They pass under a solar –powered RFID reader at the school, which reads their unique ID number when they arrive.

The reader connects to the Internet, and uploads data daily. Each student has an account on the web site where they can see all their trips, and the school can run reports to support specific incentive programs.

And the New Canaan, Conn. public school system is investigating the use of RFID tags with student and faculty ID cards in an effort to increase security at its school buildings. Joanne Kelleher, director of marketing at SecureRF Corp., says the school system is also interested in tagging high-value school equipment like laptops, to provide for better accountability. The RFID tags could be used to track where students and faculty are located throughout campus, and as a locating device in the event of a major disaster.

SecureRF Corp. initially suggested that the school system adopt the technology, which could be funded by a $100,000 grant Secure RF is seeking from the National Science Foundation. SecureRF has not been awarded the grant yet, and company officials say the earliest a pilot could happen is next spring.

The research project is designed to provide data that will allow the school system to evaluate the outcome and determine if RFID will meet the community’s threshold for privacy. If the pilot is deployed, RFID will first be used at the high school, and only with the consent of parents and with students that opt-in.

While security and student safety are the primary movers at the K-12 level, RFID has many converging applications at the college level. Tom Bauer, director of public affairs for Northern Arizona University, notes that the school has been using RFID for many years to assist with admittance to dorms, athletic events, and places like the library and cafeteria. The classroom attendance is just another add-on application.

NAU has set aside $85,000 to deploy the classroom attendance technology, which has been installed in four classrooms. Testing to see how well the system works will begin in the upcoming weeks. Eventually, the school hopes to have 20 classrooms equipped with the automatic attendance-taking technology.

"This is going to help professors to save valuable classroom time by not having to take a roll call," says Bauer, noting that each professor will have the option of using the system, and that it will not be required. "Secondly, we're hoping that it encourages attendance because engagement in the classroom leads to more student success."

The program has been met with some resistance on the NAU campus. About 1,650 students have signed up for a Facebook page called NAU Against Proximity Cards. However, Bauer says “there have been some exaggerated claims, and we’re trying to get the correct word out. Nobody is being tracked. You can still choose not to go to class. We’re just trying to get the correct information out there, and sort through the bad information, such as using RFID as tracking a device.”

Sacks says that the benefits of deploying RFID technology campus cards basically come down to security, convenience, and cost. Security is realized by using student ID cards as credentials to control access to secure facilities and campus IT networks.

"High frequency RFID campus cards can, and are, used to support multiple identity-driven student service applications," she says. "These include class attendance, library resource check out, student laundry equipment use, cafeteria and book store purchases, local public transportation. Cost savings are realized when all these application are enabled on a single student ID cards."

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