RFID Goes to School

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The technology earned mixed grades when first deployed in schools. Now, its use is growing, slowly but steadily, with applications focused on improving teacher efficiency and ensuring student safety.

  • TAGS

In the United States and many other countries, governments acknowledge that students are their best assets. But approaches to improving education vary widely, with issues ranging from school types to classroom sizes and teaching methods. Still, there are several issues on which governments and educators agree: We must improve attendance rates, keep kids and teachers safe, and devote more time to teaching and less to administrative tasks.

To address these issues, schools, including colleges and universities, are beginning to implement RFID identification, attendance and alert solutions. When schools first introduced personal-identification applications, parents and privacy advocates were afraid that students' safety could be compromised. Technology providers acknowledged those concerns and have taken steps to secure personal information, as well as to explain how the technology works. As a result, more schools and parents understand the benefits of tracking children, and RFID's use in the education sector is growing, slowly but surely.

ScholarChip, a New York-based provider of RFID attendance and payment solutions, has issued close to 750,000 RFID tags in various formats—ID cards, fobs and stickers. Students hold their RFID-enabled ID badges to readers as they enter the school building, and again as they enter classrooms, where readers are mounted on teachers' desks.

Meanwhile, some schools are adopting RFID solutions to better manage valuable assets. Mexico's Universidad Regiomontana, for example, is using RFID to prevent theft of laptop computers it issues to staff and faculty. The Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, in Texas, is tracking state-of-the-art equipment to improve inventory management. And universities in the United Arab Emirates are RFID-tagging diplomas, to ensure the documents' validity. In addition, some parents and educators have developed innovative applications to help students learn and improve their health.

Automating Attendance

In early 2005, Brittan Elementary School, in Northern California, invited a now-defunct startup to install an RFID-based automated attendance-tracking system. The school wanted to test whether the technology, which would collect the identification number encoded to the RFID-enabled school IDs issued to students, would give teachers more time to teach and provide accurate records on student whereabouts, which would prove useful in the event of a student disappearance or other emergency.

But the school earned poor marks for failing to make parents aware of the technology test, how the system would work and what steps would be taken to ensure their children's privacy and security. The student IDs contained passive ultrahigh-frequency tags, which can be read from several feet away. Although the IDs contained no student data, some parents feared a predator could read the tags and collect information that could endanger their kids.

Parents who opposed the system raised the issue with the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization, in turn, joined with technology and privacy watchdog groups the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and sent a joint letter to the school's board requesting it reconsider its use of the technology. The groups' involvement and the letter attracted national media attention. The school quickly decided to remove the RFID equipment and hasn't deployed any type of RFID technology since.

The incident also spurred a national debate on whether RFID should be deployed in the education sector and, if so, how best to address privacy concerns. Legislators in California and Rhode Island introduced bills designed to regulate the use of RFID in education, but none of the bills passed into law.

In 2008, California made skimming (surreptitiously reading) RFID-based identity cards a criminal offense.

ScholarChip, a New York-based provider of RFID attendance and payment solutions, credits its success to "a lot of education for parents," including handouts that describe how the technology works, says CTO Maged Atiya. The reaction to the technology has been positive, he adds, noting that many parents are familiar with the technology because their employers require them to use RFID key cards to access their workplaces. ScholarChip uses high-frequency (13.56-MHz/Mifare) passive tags that have a read range of just a few inches. "We made clear that these are passive tags, without a long read range, as compared to the active tags used in electronic tolling, such as E-ZPass," he says. Only a unique ID number is encoded to the card; the numbers associated with student names and other information is safeguarded in secure databases.

ScholarChip has issued close to 750,000 RFID tags in various formats—ID cards, fobs and stickers—to students in schools ranging from small private and charter schools to the School District of Philadelphia, in which it works with 68 secondary schools representing roughly 35 percent of the district's student population. Students hold their RFID-enabled ID badges to readers as they enter the school building, and again as they enter classrooms, where readers are mounted on teachers' desks.

ScholarChip's software sends the tag number, along with the time and location it was read, over a secure virtual private network to the school's electronic student records system. Here, the tag numbers are associated with each student's attendance record, explains Timothy Loranger, IT director at Franklin Towne, a charter high school in Philadelphia with nearly 1,000 students.

When that school deployed the technology in 2007, its goal was to reduce the amount of time teachers spent taking attendance, which had been a manual, paper-based system, and to save administrators' time logging the attendance records. Now, students can also use their ID cards as debit cards to purchase food in the school's cafeteria. Parents go online to replenish their payment accounts, and students simply hold their cards up to readers at the cashier stations to pay for meals.

"We used to have long lines in the cafeteria, and now it takes less than 20 minutes for students to get to the cafeteria, get food and sit down," says assistant principal Eugenia Koo. "Instead of waiting in line, they can use more of their lunch period for relaxing and recharging and getting ready for the rest of their day." The software also calculates and applies discounts for students enrolled in government-free or reduced-lunch programs.

In addition, there is some evidence that students are less likely to cut class, since they know their attendance is closely monitored. The system enables the school to send automated notifications to parents when students are absent or late for class. Since 2007, Franklin Towne's average daily attendance has increased from 86 percent to 96 percent—one of the highest rates in the state, Loranger says. "Parents have embraced the system," he adds.

To help reduce truancy, the city of Vitoria da Conquista, in Brazil, is investing US$600,000 in an RFID-based smart-uniform project, designed to track public schoolchildren. A survey by the Brazilian Federal Department of Education revealed that Vitoria schools have the highest dropout rate in Brazil. So far, 20,000 students have had RFID tags sewn into their uniform shirts. When children enter and leave school, they walk through an RFID portal that reads the tags, which contain their name and a personal ID number. The information is transmitted to software on the school's server, and the software sends a text message to parents' mobile phones, letting them know their children have arrived at or left school. Parents are also alerted if their kids have not shown up 20 minutes after classes begin. Although it's too soon to know how effective the solution is, Coriolanus Moraes, municipal secretary of education, says by 2013 all 43,000 students from city schools will be wearing RFID-embedded uniforms.

Safeguarding Students

Brazil's RFID solution also promises to improve students' safety, because parents will know in real time that their children have arrived at school, as well as what time to expect them home. In the United States, Zonar's RFID-based fleet-management solution is designed to ensure that elementary and secondary school kids who ride school buses arrive and depart safely. The Electronic Vehicle Inspection Report system (EVIR) includes handheld readers and RFID-tagged engine and safety components, to verify that school bus drivers perform safety inspections each day. Zonar also works with schools to implement its ZPass solution. Students are issued personal ID cards with embedded passive 125-KHz RFID tags, which have a very short read range. They are instructed to hold the card up to a reader mounted inside the school bus door as they enter and exit the bus, and to wait for a beep that tells both student and driver the card has been read. The data is transmitted to the school in real time.

Schools across the United States are drawn to the system for the safety, accountability, security and administrative efficiency it provides, says Chris Oliver, Zonar's VP of sales and marketing. The ZPass solution has been installed in 3,000 buses, with the cards issued to roughly 150,000 students. Zonar recently introduced a subscription-based mobile application parents can use to log into the ZPass system to see when their children's tags were last read, and they can set up the system to receive a text message each time the tag is read, showing the child's location.

Another solution, KidGopher, ensures that only appropriate custodians are allowed to pick up students at the end of the school day. Parents or other authorized guardians are issued an RFID-enabled card they present to a teacher at the school, who reads the card using a handheld device. A photo of the guardian then appears on the teacher's iPad, which authenticates the guardian. The RFID solution, deployed at North Springs Elementary School and Catawba Trail Elementary, both near Columbia, S.C., gives parents and teachers peace of mind that students will be safely escorted off campus. The system also links into child-safety databases, says KidGopher CEO Neil Willis. Should law enforcement determine that a parent or guardian is a potential abductor, the KidGopher system alerts teachers and instructs them not to allow the suspect to pick up or make visual contact with the student.

In the United States, Zonar's RFID-based fleet-management solution is designed to ensure that elementary and secondary school kids who ride school buses arrive and depart safely.

In Case of Emergency…

The ability to quickly and accurately track student and teacher attendance is a key reason West Cheshire College, a vocational school in northwest England, turned to RFID technology in 2010, as it was planning and building two new campus facilities. But it also wanted the ability to know where students and faculty were located in real time, in order to find them quickly in an emergency. In addition, the school hopes to analyze data to better understand traffic flow and facility use in its new, high-tech buildings. "There is a wealth of powerful data and research to uncover yet regarding how learners learn through using modern state-of-the art buildings," says Kevin Francis, building services area manager at West Cheshire College. "We aim to be at the forefront of knowing our learners better."

The college deployed a real-time location system (RTLS), from Zebra Location Solutions. Full-time students are issued RFID badges when they register for classes, to be worn on lanyards along with their student IDs. West Cheshire College relies on government funding for a large part of its operating budget, and the school must provide records of how much time its students spend in class. The RTLS makes record keeping automated and accurate. Teachers are also issued RFID tags, which automatically track their attendance and work hours. The majority of the college's operating budget is spent on teacher salaries, and the school must also account for the teachers' time.

The RFID tags serve double duty, because they can also track students and staff members, including those who have first-aid training, for emergency situations. Customized evacuation plans are designed for students with special physical or cognitive needs; in an emergency, administrators can use the RTLS to monitor their whereabouts.

"On a year-by-year basis, the public sector funding allocation process demands that taxpayers' money is spent with due diligence in all sectors; part of our responsibility is ensuring that we develop systems that improve the efficiency of the services we run," says Francis, who counts the RTLS among these efficiencies. "If we can become more efficient in our delivery model, we can better service the needs of learners and better address our ultimate objective, which is to support learners to develop skills and qualifications in areas to enable them into employment or higher education. If we retain more learners and more of them achieve, that is a win-win and a massive ROI for all concerned."

At West Cheshire College, in England, RFID tags serve double duty: They're used to quickly and accurately take attendance, and locate students and faculty in real time, in the event of an emergency.

PinPoint, from RF Technologies, is being used in two Wisconsin schools to give staff members a fast and effective way to summon help in an emergency, such as an eruption of violence in class. Staff members are issued RFID-enabled pendants worn on lanyards or carried in pockets that communicate with the school's Wi-Fi network. Pressing a button on one of the devices transmits a distress signal to the school's central office. By analyzing the tag's signal, the system can determine the staff member's location in the school.

Lessons Learned

In 2008, a Chicago high school failed to inform parents, teachers and students about an RFID-based system to ensure that only authorized pupils leave the campus during lunch. When students discovered the RFID tags embedded in their IDs, they protested. After the school newspaper ran an article describing the RFID technology and how it works, and explaining how the school was using it, the protests ended.

Before Brazil's Vitoria schools adopted its RFID-tracking solution, the city's education department held several meetings with parents to explain how the attendance system would work and what actions would be taken to avoid privacy issues, says Ronaldo Costa Jr., IT manager of the city's department of education and coordinator of the Smart Uniform project. Parents were very positive about being able to monitor their children in real time, he adds.

Clearly, it's essential to inform parents, teachers and older students about any RFID-tracking solution being deployed at a school, as well as to explain how the technology works and what mechanisms are used to protect students' identities. For the most part, privacy concerns are being addressed, according to the educators and vendors interviewed for this story.

Parents are increasingly interested in how they can use technology to monitor their children's safety in school, says ScholarChip's Atiya, who is working with schools to begin using ScholarChip badges in combination with school bus systems, to track students getting on and off buses each day. A smartphone with Near-Field Communication (NFC) capabilities will be mounted in each bus; students will hold their RFID badges up to the phones, which will act as RFID readers through the NFC interface. Parents are asking when the application will be available, Atiya says. They want to make sure their children get to and from school safely.

RFID's Extracurricular Activities

Here's a sampling of innovative RFID applications that are helping students learn as well as stay fit. You can find out more about these applications on this Web site.

Children at the Louisiana School for the Deaf are learning sign language by playing with RFID-enabled toys. A child uses an RFID reader to scan a toy's tag, bringing up a computer video of someone demonstrating the sign for that item. (See Deaf Children Learn to Sign by Toying With RFID.)

In New York City's Special Education District 75, children previously unable to speak due to autism and other disabilities are starting to put together sentences, thanks to the Logan ProxTalker. The device comes with RFID "sound tags"—each containing a word or phrase, and usually a corresponding image—and a reader. When a child moves a tag over the machine, it announces the word that tag represents. (See RFID Gives Voice to Nonverbal Children.)

Boltage's mission is to make walking or biking to school a way of life. To that end, the multistate program uses RFID to monitor which kids walk or bike to school, so it can reward those who are adopting healthy habits. The prototype system was called Freiker, for FREquent bIKER. (See RFID Motivates Schoolkids to Bike It.)

BaeJong-soo, a professor at Seoul National University, in South Korea, has developed an RFID homework helper for local elementary school students who are stumped by math concepts. RFID tags are embedded in a textbook. When a student holds a small handheld device containing an RFID reader over a specific lesson, it triggers an explanatory audio file that plays through a speaker in the device. (See RFID Technology Meets Education on YouTube.com.)

Additional reporting by Edson Perin, in Brazil.