Campus cards upgraded

Upping security and student convenience with NFC-enabled devices

Campus cards accomplish many tasks—from purchasing meals and vending machine snacks to unlocking dorm rooms and other campus facilities.

A growing number of colleges and universities now offer even greater convenience, having replaced less-secure swipe cards with “contactless” cards and mobile devices that perform the same functions.

In two to three years, this technology—known as near-field communication, or NFC—will be mainstream in higher education, according to research from Educause published earlier this year. NFC allows smartphones and campus cards to share information with technology readers only centimeters away. Chips embedded in each device enable contactless communication.

So why make the upgrade from swipe cards to NFC technology? It’s about security and convenience, says Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance, an industry association that promotes the technology. And with convenience comes higher student compliance with technology on campus, he adds.

NFC will have colleges and universities not only switching to contactless cards, but also preparing to adapt to mobile phones as well, which Vanderhoof says is inevitable. “It’s what’s students prefer,” Vanderhoof says. “Students will often lose or forget cards, but they never leave their phones behind.”

To prepare for future NFC adoptions, Vanderhoof recommends updating security systems, campus payment options and compatible readers to enable the technology, a process many schools have already begun. Following are three key actions institutions can take to get the campus community on board when going “contactless.”

Near-field communication basics

SOURCE: Educause

  • Near field communication (NFC) is short-range wireless technology for smartphones and similar devices.
  • NFC lets two devices that are both equipped with NFC tags share information (contact information, photos, credit card information, etc.) when they come into close proximity, typically between 4 and 10 centimeters or less.
  • NFC is most commonly used for mobile payments.
  • Similar to Bluetooth, NFC works in a much shorter range, yet it’s easier to use and typically consumes less power.

Create a rollout plan

Data breaches at other institutions and security concerns related to campus cards drove Georgia Institute of Technology officials to update the university’s card system, says James A. Pete, senior director of campus services.

“Swipeable cards and cards with bar codes are easy to replicate to steal student information,” he says. “Vendors are also pushing toward NFC and we didn’t want to be left behind.”

Now implementing NFC technology, Georgia Tech plans to consolidate all access control systems—such as those that control parking and building access—within the next couple of years.

Some point-of-sales systems will soon have contactless capabilities and students will get NFC-enabled campus cards in the spring.

“By doing this a little at a time, it allows us to continually look at other technologies like NFC-enabled smartphone access,” Pete says. “We’re getting ready for this without such a large overhaul to roll it out completely in one shot.”

Support in-between stages

When the card swipe system at Michigan Technological University was aging and replacement parts were becoming harder to come by, CIO Josh Olson and his team saw an opportunity to move on to something better.

After initially issuing contactless cards to the campus community, Michigan Tech added a magnetic stripe to the new NFC-based cards, Olson says. “This allowed us to introduce the ‘tap’ readers to areas on campus in stages, while allowing the older swipe-based technology to continue to work.”

Michigan Tech students, faculty and staff can now use the cards to access buildings, parking lots and residence halls, and also purchase meals in the cafeteria. The cards have also helped in managing the number of students using the campus gym room and in making free seating more efficient at sporting events.

When choosing a system for the university, user-friendliness, security and vendor support played a major role, Olson says. Maintenance time and costs were also important; swipe card readers require regular cleaning while contactless cards last longer. “It was important to find a balance between functionality and security,” he says.

Get students involved

To find the right NFC system and win student buy-in, Santa Clara University in California held Q&A sessions and contests, and distributed beta-tested sample cards. This helped generate buzz on campus back when the university began the switch to NFC from magnetic stripes in 2009, says Nirmal Palliyaguru, director of ACCESS and conference services.

Stronger security and the ability to adapt to new technology were some of the reasons Santa Clara updated to a contactless solution. “Our students had been making more fairly significant transactions on campus with their cards and we want to ensure they had the confidence their information would be secure,” he says. “We also wanted a system that we could build on over time.”

First, officials implemented contactless point-of-sales systems and later added dorm and building access. The university plans to switch to mobile phone access within the next year or two. “The efficiency that NFC brings in itself is invaluable,” Palliyaguru says. “We see it as a service that gives back to students and the community.”

Lauren Williams is special projects editor.


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