Magic Bands Go to ETSU

East Tennessee State University has grown from a teacher’s college in 1911 to a full-blown university in 2016. With 11 colleges on four campuses, the university offers a range of curricula from business to medicine. The University is proud to have held costs down while maintaining a high standard. As the University gets deeper into the 21st Century, though, it seeks ways to utilize technology to create a “friction free” situation for faculty, administrators and students. It should be no surprise that it was Disney who brought the concept of electronic tracking and payment to the mass market. Caleb Kraft, writing in the Electronic Engineering Times opens his article with “Disney is no stranger to technology.” From the beginning, when the original Disney Land was opened in the 1950s, the theme park was at the cutting edge. The animatronics that drove many of the exhibits are crude by 2016 standards. It was impressive in its time and Disney has continued to be a leader (Kraft, 2014).

With the MagicBand, Disney takes the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) process commercial. The good news is that the MagicBand is assembled from off-the-shelf technology. In that same article it is noted that the only “proprietary” component is one chip which has a “standard” part number except for a “DN” suffix which, presumably, means custom made for Disney. It would be easy, then, to have the equivalent device manufactured at a reasonable price. The hardware is priced reasonably, and the basic operational software is available. The problem is the “middleware” where the application is customized for the user (Violino, 2005).

The question is whether or not it would make sense to invest in this technology for a college or university. The initial cost, the transmitters and receivers would be significant. In addition, there is the cost of that “middleware.” Not to be ignored is the requirement for a full-time, dedicated Information Technology (IT) specialist. One of the keys to making the device work is that it must be simple enough that it does not require training itself. A simple, one page “quick start guide” should be all of the documentation required. Or, as Creager (2014) suggests, make everything simple enough that a seven-year-old can lead the way.

Assuming the answer to the core questions – “does this technology make sense in a college or university setting?” – is “yes,” then it is interesting to speculate what applications this technology could have for the school? There remains significant “friction” in the system. With engagement of the stakeholders in the University we can address this. Students, faculty and administration must be on board. But just consider how well things could work.

First, and most obviously, the School Equivalent of the MagicBand (SEMB) (no citation, I just made that up) would function as your student identification in all that you do. Do you need to get into Dossett or Powell or Carter or Centennial Hall? Hold the SEMB to the door and hear the “click” as it unlocks. When you want to get into your own room? Do the same thing. Is it time to do your laundry? Gather it up and head down to the laundry room. Your SEMB will unlock the washer, unlock the detergent vending machine, and unlock the drier. It will not fold your T-shirt collection. Not yet anyway. But the guys and girls in the engineering college can work on that one. The Doctor Sheldon Cooper (The Big Bang Theory) T-shirt folding machine is already available, through Amazon, for twenty dollars or less. Surely the nerds in Dr. Keith Johnsons Department of Engineering Technology, Surveying and Digital Media can automate that task. Do you need a soda? The SEMB will handle the billing.

When you head to the Market Place, the Treehouse, the Atrium or the Cave the SEMB will, again, handle the billing. More importantly, the SEMB will be linked to the kitchen system. This will allow the finest possible tuning of inventory in the kitchen, minimizing waste. Your personal preferences can be tracked and if you are not eating things that are good for you the food police will send a notification to your laptop reminding you that your diet is important, especially at your age.

Since not everything is available on the internet (yet), students still spend time in the Sherrod Library. When you walk in the library will recognize your SEMB. Sit at one of the carrels and, again, the SEMB logs you in. The carrel terminal will come on and your library history will be on the opening screen. Now you can search for that article, “Analysis of Sixteen Utterly Boring Things” by Isaiah Lott that was published in the American Journal of Boring Stuff back in 1987. The laptop has already told you that this isn’t available through JStor or any of your normal sources so you are stuck looking the old fashioned way. Since the system traces everything, you are informed, from the carrel terminal that issue is not on the shelf. Fortunately, since the SEMB tracks everything, you also know that your classmate Roger has it and he is in carrel 26. You can walk down, ask if he is using it right then and borrow it. When you are done and have returned the issue to Roger, or to the desk, you just walk out with the other books you needed. No need for a tedious check out procedure. That is already taken care of by the SEMB.

The Professor has no need to worry about those mundane tasks like taking roll. As you walk into the classroom or the lab or the lecture hall just wave your wrist and you are logged in. When you turn in an assignment via the internet, the BlueTooth connection on your laptop has you logged in. If it is an assignment that you have to turn in as a hard copy the SEMB will log and bill your printer time.

You will need to be careful with the friends you choose and the access you allow them. Remember, with the SEMB in place, your location is available if you are logged in to some place fitted with a receiver. You will allow some friends to have “full” access. For those in your inner circle, your location will be visible and they can simply come find you. Most, though, you will limit to your cellphone number and email address.

If you are on a work study program the concept of a time clock is obsolete. Wave the SEMB and you are “clocked in.” When you leave the SEMB clocks you out. Be careful if you are required to use an ETSU vehicle though. The SEMB has you linked to the GPS. If you are speeding they will know. And by all means do not stop at a bar.

If you have a Physical Education requirement the SEMB will log you in and out of the BCPA or the pool (it is perfectly waterproof). You can track steps or miles walked, run or swum. Do you care about “calories burned? The SEMB can take care of that for you.

Those long lines to register are a thing of the past with the SEMB system. Your laptop recognizes the SEMB and logs you in. You can sit at the laptop, choose your classes, get registered, and have everything confirmed before your coffee is cold. If at some point there is an issue with your schedule your SEMB will notify you to check the laptop.

All of this makes student life easier. The days of the paper class schedule or the combination lock are in the past now. Your locker at the gym? The SEMB handles that. There is no need to carry a heavy load of books any more. Your laptop or iPad is linked, via the SEMB, to the university system and in turn to the online sources your professors use.

The SEMB system is important to the university administration as well. At the most basic level, reports of census, broken by class, college, time of day, day of week or any other cohort that administrators deem worthwhile, or simply interesting, can be drawn. No need to review a paper record to see if Survey of Twelve Boring Things 305 is actually being attended. The SEMB has provided a report of number of students, by name if that matters, how regular they attend, what grades they are getting and the rest.

For counselors, the system provides the type of information they had only dreamt of as little as two years ago. How are their students doing in class? There it is on the screen with the click of a mouse. How is John doing in his major? A quick check shows that he still needs to get three core requirements taken and that one of them has to be taken next semester or he will not meet the prerequisites for the next level. With a click of the mouse and a few keystrokes he can send a message. And John, through the little “buzz” on his SEMB knows, in about a second that he needs to check.

The fiscal office no longer has to work through a mountain of paper or a maze of spreadsheets. The SEMB is tracking every cent charged against every student’s account. If a student is getting close to his limits the notification is automatic. If he or she has overspent the fiscal department can be notified immediately and action taken.

Reports are now largely automatic as well. The Department of Education requires beginning of semester, mid-semester and end of semester reports including basic counts and breakdowns by race, age, sex, religion and seventeen other categories. Nobody remembers why, but they do and since they provide a significant fraction of the University’s funding the reports must be filed. With the SEMB system in place, not only can these reports be filed, they are filed with a level of accuracy and timeliness that would have been impossible only two years ago.

Is the Disney MagicBand technology suitable for the University setting? The answer is “probably yes.” Students who have grown up with computers, cell phones, iPads, xBox gaming consoles and the like will be comfortable with the system. For us, it is natural.

Faculty will accept the technology as well. For them this is a truly labor saving system. Those mundane tasks, keeping attendance records for example, become automated and free faculty for the job of preparing for class and teaching. This is, presumably, what they want to do anyway and why they invested all of those years, first in school themselves and then establishing themselves in their discipline. The ease of scheduling meetings will provide another benefit.

The primary resistance can be expected to come from the administrators. This is not a question of technical ability. Every office has computers these days and staff is fully familiar with how to handle the technology. Rather, the issue is in the nature of bureaucracies. Things have been done “this way” for years. Systems are in place and understood. Many processes, whether preparing reports or providing support, have reached the point of being almost automatic. Any change will result in disruptions and, as nature abhors a vacuum, bureaucracies, by their nature, abhor change.

On balance, implementation of an SEMB-like system would seem to be a benefit to both the suppliers and consumers in higher education.

The system could track parking too.