Blackboard tests native NFC at two universities

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

WASHINGTON—Using campus cards to unlock dorms and pay for meals and laundry could become a thing of the past if educational technology company Blackboard has its way.

A new Blackboard pilot program is moving native near field communication (NFC) beyond access control and enabling students to use the contactless technology in many aspects of life on and off campus through Blackboard Transact, a contactless commerce and security solution.

Teaming up with Quinnipiac University and Tulane University, which were already using Blackboard Transact contactless hardware, the company is giving participating students the chance to use native NFC smartphones where they’d use campus cards—for dormitory access, laundry, meal plans and some off-campus purchases.

Noting that NFC-enabled smartphones have been used in some high-profile access control pilots, by HID at Arizona State University, and by Ingersoll Rand at Villanova University, Jeff Staples, vice president of marketing for Blackboard Transact, called these pilot projects “an opportunity to get what we expect will be a more real-world scenario.”

Founded in 1997, Blackboard works with K-12 schools, higher education institutions, and government and business organizations. It offers products ranging from interactive learning platforms and online courses to analytics and student services. 

When Blackboard solicited interest in the pilot, it felt Tulane and Quinnipiac offered a good chance to test acceptance and learn about the experiences of students living in campus housing, using campus meal plans and relying on NFC, Staples said. Both universities also offered support for the system with some off-campus merchants, where students could use the NFC-enabled phones, said Staples.

Exact numbers are unavailable, but Staples said hundreds of students are taking part. 

For this pilot, students got new SIM cards at university card offices before downloading and credentialing the necessary app over the air, said Staples. After the market launch, he said, users will not need to swap SIM cards, he said.

The company has offered credential-related services, mostly security and payments, to schools for years, said Staples. In 2008, Blackboard began a massive hardware design change, reflecting what Staples calls its “institutional and wholesale” commitment to NFC.

“As we went through piece by piece of our clients needs, and looked to bring our devices into the next generation, we anticipated [that] long term, contactless was a bigger and bigger demand from our clients and our market,” Staples said. 

Since 2010, Blackboard devices have supported magnetic stripes, contactless and NFC technologies, Staples said. Most Blackboard clients now have some array of contactless devices on campus, he said.

“Because this hasn’t been done by us or anyone else we know of in this wholesale, immersive fashion, we do treat it as a pilot,” said Staples. “We are absolutely looking at this as a soft launch, assuming our expectations are validated and reception is favorable.”

The pilot began in October and runs through May.