What You Need to Know When Shopping for an ID Card System
Determining your schools’ needs will help you zero in on the right choice for your district. By Maged Atiya
Being in school every day is vital for a student’s success, and with state funding associated with attendance, it is also important financially for school districts to minimize absenteeism. Improvements in ID Card System technology are helping to streamline the attendance process in timely, cost-effective ways.
Many districts have discovered that implementing such a system is well worth the commitment and investment, and others are finding that it’s time to upgrade their current systems.
There are a number of important factors to consider when you’re shopping around for an ID Card vendor/partner; here are some key elements to think about.
Dumb Cards or Smart Cards?
What do you want your card to do, how much functionality do you need, how secure must it be, and how fast does the card need to be read?
Dumb cards: These are cards with a magnetic stripe or bar code on them that usually do only simple things: they can open a door or pull up a food service or library account. Staff members typically swipe these cards to enter a building, which is easy enough to do. However, the wear and tear of swiping reduces the card’s lifespan.
Smart cards: These cards provide a host of options. They are contactless and use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology; students tap their cards onto a reader and they are logged in, quickly and easily. Readers can be installed on buses, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gym, or in the auditorium, which makes tracking students extremely efficient. In fact, some configurations can process a thousand students in just minutes.
Smart cards are coded with a unique ID number that is assigned to one individual; it’s the back-end computer that maintains all the information on that person. This means that additional functionality can be added quickly, all at once, at any time, on the base computer. School districts can start with a straightforward ID system, and add features at a later date when budgets or needs change.
Some smart card companies can interact with legacy card programs—those ID card systems that are already in a school district. So the upgrade to smart technologies doesn’t always mean the existing service cannot be used.
To Cloud or Not To Cloud?
We hear all about “the cloud”—and we know it’s important—but do you need a cloud-based ID card system?
In a non-cloud-based system, your data resides in a server somewhere in your school district. It is maintained by your IT department, and if you needed to expand your memory or upgrade your processing speed, then the district would buy a new, bigger computer/server.
If you want to upgrade functionality or software, your IT person has to go from school to school and manage each computer. And if there was a flood, fire, system crash, or security breach, all of your data could be lost and you’d have to start from scratch. Maintaining a traditional land-based system like this can be very costly—in time as well as in money spent.
Cloud computing means that your data resides virtually, in off-site servers, with backup systems in place, so if something happens, your data is safe and always available. Improvements are also simple to make: because the program resides in one place, it has to be upgraded in only one place, and added functionality can be transferred to every school instantly. This service-based process is more streamlined and cost effective.
Cloud services offer significant advantages, but make sure that your vendor/partner uses the highest level of data security available. There are international security standards (PCI, FISMA, SSAE16, to be specific), which are used by banks, credit card companies, hospitals and others, so look for them in your cloud-based ID card system.
Sadly, it seems as though we hear about school lockdowns on a weekly basis. ID card systems can certainly help keep your buildings more secure, but there’s more to it than just knowing who came in the front door.
When there’s an emergency, look for an ID card system that can ensure that:
- All doors in a building or across the district can be locked down with a single command, which can be issued from any wireless device or any computer. This immediacy improves time to action and can save lives.
- An accurate location report is available on a tablet or computer that shows which staff members and students used their card for attendance and therefore can be identified in the building, in a specific room, which can help first responders react fast.
To automate the process even more effectively, some districts provide their local police and fire departments with precinct- or school-specific ID cards that allow them immediate access into school buildings.
Active or Passive RFID?
School districts have to strike a delicate balance between protecting students when they are on campus, and protecting a student’s right to privacy. You can defend yourself from litigation by making sure your RFID-based ID card system is passive, not active. You can also save yourself some money, too.
Usually battery-powered, active RFID tags have a transmitter and their own power source that is used to run the card’s microchip circuitry and to broadcast a signal to a reader (the way a cell phone transmits signals to a base station). This allows a student’s or teacher’s card to be read at any time—the card can be hanging around a person’s neck, held onto his or her belt loop, or in their backpack, and the reader can pick up its signal, as long as it is within a certain range.
Because the card transmits data, badge holders can be tracked and found anywhere, at any time. And while this may be an enticing scenario, schools have to consider student privacy rights as well. Also Active RFID cards require a battery and are heavier, more expensive, and need significantly more maintenance.
Passive tags have no battery. Instead, they draw power from the reader, and require a student to take an action, like tapping it on a screen, for the card to be read. This process makes it easy to track where students are, and you can get an accurate count of how many students (or teachers, or staff) have checked in at any particular time. However, because it is a passive process, these ID cards do not infringe on privacy. Also, passive cards are less expensive and last longer, hence they have lower overall cost.
Technological advances with ID card systems can make a host of administrative processes easier and more efficient. Here are just a few examples of what’s already happening in school districts across the country.
Attendance: An automated ID card system that generates a list of late/absent children; the parents of those children are then called by an automated system that reports them as absent, making the process more streamlined so office staff can focus on other tasks.
Classroom: Students tap their cards upon entering a classroom, so teachers don’t have to take attendance and substitutes always have an accurate count. Children tap out if they leave the class early and tap into the main office/nurse/guidance office, etc., which makes student movement easy to track.
Visitor Management: When a visitor arrives, there are visitor management modules that determine if he or she has been to the school before. If the person is recognized, a paper badge can be printed; if he or she isn’t in the database, the system determines if there are any district-defined exclusionary alerts regarding the person, while simultaneously checking for a match against the sexual offender database. An automatic alert is sent to the district, making the school even more secure.
Location and Time Clock Management: Staff members use their ID cards to open locked doors to enter school buildings or portable classrooms. Students with disabilities or injuries use their cards to access building elevators. Facility staff members use time clock kiosks to sign in and out of work, which keeps track of their time spent, their current location, and any overtime hours they work.
Students: ID cards are used at cafeteria registers and at libraries to check out books. The database carries personal schedule information, and cards are checked by hall monitors using mobile devices to verify that students are going to the correct class for the proper period.
Accountability and Control: ID cards are tapped for events that take place in buildings after school and/or at night. Students tap in to attend a sporting event, dance, concert, or any other school-sponsored program, which adds accountability and control to event administrators and lets them know who is in the venue for that event.
It’s important to plan ahead. With the pace of technology advances, make sure you find a partner that understands the needs you have today, what you might want in the future, and how you can plan to get there. And now that you’re armed with these important ideas, you can find an ID card system that works best for your schools.
Maged Atiya, Ph.D., is ScholarChip’s founder and principal partner, responsible for managing system and application developments with an eye towards emerging technologies. He founded the company to provide school districts with fast and powerful computing in order to centralize security and operations into a single low maintenance system.