Locks and keys ring up huge costs for education institutions. When a student forgets a residence hall key, someone has to let the student in. When a student loses a key, a locksmith has to cut a new key and re-key the lock. On a campus with thousands of students, such problems can use up hours of expensive time.

No wonder many facility directors and public-safety directors have turned to automated access-control systems with magnetic-stripe cards, proximity cards and, most recently, smart cards.

Smart cards can provide a host of on- and off-campus services beyond security. In addition to serving as identification credentials and opening access-controlled doors, they can facilitate purchases at vending machines by accessing debit accounts, checking books out from the library and much more.

Around the corner

An emerging technology called near field communication (NFC) enables smartphones to do everything a contactless smart card can do—and then some.

Devices enabled with NFC can communicate with each other. An NFC-enabled smartphone, for instance, could pay for merchandise in a store. The buyer would open up a credit card app and present the phone to an NFC-enabled credit card reader. The phone would transmit the credit card number to the reader, which would process the transaction with lightning speed.

On campus, NFC technology can play a role in campus safety and security. By enabling contactless smart card access-control readers with NFC, students, faculty and staff could use smartphones to gain access to residence halls and other buildings across campus.

Why is that a good idea? The system is simple to administer and to use. It eliminates the cost of buying and printing tens of thousands of smart cards, which can cost $2 to $10 or more per card. It enhances security, and students want it. NFC-enabled smartphones can do anything a smart card can do.

An easier way

To start up such a system, a system administrator would create an electronic mobile key, enabling access to appropriate doors, for each member of the campus community.

The keys are stored in a secure cloud environment accessible only by those with an activated PIN number. Next, e-mail invitations would be sent to the community explaining the system and inviting everyone to enroll. The invitation would include a unique PIN number for each recipient.

Upon receiving an invitation, a student could do nothing and continue using a card, or he or she could download an access app and enroll in the system by using the PIN number to log onto the cloud and download the mobile key created by the administrator.

To use the app to enter a residence hall, a student would open the app and tap the phone on the reader—which, of course, must be NFC-enabled.

An NFC-enabled campus can replace a one-card offering with a one-phone system that does everything a one-card program can do. Enable the campus laundry facilities, vending machines, library checkout desk, cafeteria and other campus facilities with NFC, and smartphones can replace plastic.

Moreover, NFC can make a smartphone into an educational tool. The campus art gallery, for instance, could have an app that visitors can download upon entering. During the walkthrough, visitors can tap their phones on enabled NFC buttons to call up audiovisual presentations about artists and their work.