Written by Carla Baker, head of information management at Intellect
The coalition government has undoubtedly brought about fundamental changes to the education landscape. The expansion of the academies programme and free schools, the end of the £55bn Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, and a reduction in government funding for higher education are all having a significant impact on the sector.
With the demise of Becta, the government agency set up in 1997 to lead the national drive to ensure the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning, it is unclear what role the current administration views ICT playing in 21st Century schooling. Technology has transformed the way in which children learn at school and is being used more widely across the educational spectrum. Learners are now able to use communication tools such as e-mail, virtual chat rooms and collaborative online forums to aid their educational experience. They are increasingly using social networking and recreational technology skills that they have learnt in their social setting in an educational environment, and more importantly they are at the forefront when it comes to adapting to new technology and finding clever ways to use it in innovative and unusual ways.
In addition to these more familiar collaborative tools, schools are increasingly using an array of technologies aimed at improving performance and speeding up processes, and biometric technology is a good example of this.
What is biometrics? For a number of years schools have been using biometric technology for a range of activities such as registering pupils’ attendance, managing library book loans and cashless catering.
In essence biometrics is a method for uniquely recognising humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioural traits. In terms of technology, biometric is about the range of technologies used to measure, analyse and record one or more unique characteristics – fingerprints, retina and iris patterns, voice, facial shape and behavioural characteristics such as handwriting and typing patterns.
There are a number of schools that have implemented biometric systems as a means of identifying staff and pupils. For example, schools are increasingly using fingerprint recognition technology as a cashless catering system for school meals; parents pay in advance for children’s lunches effectively creating a school lunch account. Pupils are identified at the till by fingerprint or palm recognition technology and the cost of their meal is deducted from their own lunch account.
Pupils at Churchfields School in Swindon pay for their meals using a biometrics fingerprint system. Not only does this mean that catering staff do not have to handle money, which consequently makes the process faster and more efficient, but children that are on free schools meals can’t be identified by their peers and so are free from stigma.
Purbrook Park School in Hampshire use fingerprint technology to enable pupils to access their school meals account, as does Hove Park School in Brighton. The use of the technology means that children do not have to bring cash to school to buy lunch. There is the added benefit that parents are reassured that their children are not spending money on junk food on the way to and from home. And unlike swipe cards there is no physical product to be lost, stolen or damaged.
Barnwell School in Stevenage use facial recognition technology for student registration. The benefits are that portions of class time are no longer spent taking the register so teachers can spend more time on what really matters, teaching their pupils. Administration time is also saved as staff no longer duplicate work by consolidating attendance records as it is now done automatically via the system. The same technology is being rolled out in ten schools in Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Data security concerns However, there have also been a number of concerns raised about the use of biometric technology, specifically around data security. Take fingerprinting as an example; it’s a common data protection misconception that the automated fingerprint recognition systems stores images and other biometric information. The systems use complicated encryption algorithm (or unique data sequences), which means that information cannot be accessed or ‘reverse engineered’ - data kept on file can only be used to verify an identity against another scan through the same system. Biometric systems should be self contained and the information contained within them cannot be accessed by other applications, thereby limiting potential security concerns. It is also important that the biometric information collected by the school is only used for the purpose specified when it was collected, and schools must have a process in place to ensure that all those involved – children, parents, teachers – are fully consulted and consent had been given. Conclusion Technology has transformed the way children learn, access information and collaborate with their peers and teachers. It’s clear that using biometrics helps speed up internal processes by replacing archaic paper based systems. More importantly, these systems are being implemented in a secure way, and as long as schools implement the correct processes and governance arrangements the use of biometric technology should not pose a security concern to parents or staff.