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Biometrics removes barriers to lending and exam entry at Southport College

The use of biometrics is becoming widespread and can be controversial. However, Southport College has shown that it can provide real benefits and be popular with users too.

Southport College was the first further education college in the UK to install biometrics in its library. Located in the North West of England, the college took the decision to introduce fingerprint recognition on its Heritage library management system in 2006. The initial aim was to reduce the cost and administration headache of user cards, but the benefits from their implementation were much greater than this. During the first year of implementation, lending in the library more than doubled. Acting college librarian, Kath Halfpenny explains:
"We previously used library cards but found that many learners were losing them or forgot to bring them and were then unable to borrow books. We wanted a system that would encourage students and staff to use the library and make it as easy as possible for them to check out items. Biometrics also complements the college’s strategic plans for expanding its use of technology."
The previous library card system using barcodes was costing the college £600 per year in replacement cards alone. The associated administration time was also considerable and queues could form whilst cards were searched for in bags.
The decision was therefore taken to install biometrics. The college used the Heritage library management system which had introduced a biometrics module provided by Biostore the previous year. The module and fingerprint scanners were purchased and installed in the summer of 2006 in time for the 2007 academic year. New and returning students were then required to scan the index finger on each hand three times to register.  The multiple scans ensures accuracy whilst using two fingers allows for a finger being out of action. It only takes 30 seconds to register each student; very much quicker than the 10 minutes under the old system. It also allows the library staff a short one-to-one session with each student where they can show them how the system works.
The college communicated with all students when the system was introduced, explaining that the biometrics system does not actually store a fingerprint, but instead creates a numerical code representing it. Hence fingerprints stored for educational purposes cannot be recreated from the string of numbers stored in the database. The number string is stored in a separate database from the application, so in the case of the library system only the borrower’s code links the two systems.
Of the 2,500 students who registered with the library in the autumn of 2006 only four objected and instead used a library card. In 2007 there were only two objections.
The set-up costs were £1000 for two PC stations and the Heritage biometrics module (Biostore) from IS Oxford.  In just two years the cost savings have already paid for the system. Savings in staff time spent on administration are additional.  
Users can also check out one of the library’s 20 laptops through the biometrics system. This has removed another labour-intensive administration task which has allowed library staff to spend more time on supporting students, thereby making the best use of the library facilities. They are also now able to gain more meaningful statistics on library usage – previously data was skewed by card sharing.
The college is considering linking its Heritage library management system to the college administration system in the future – currently they upload details into the library system using a CD. 
New academic year brings biometrics to new areas
From September 2008 the college will introduce fingerprint recognition to its on-site online testing centres. This will provide a new method of student identification for learners taking tests in key skills such as literacy, numeracy and communication. Inspectors currently insist on photographic identification before learners can take their tests and many students forget to bring such ID, making them ineligible for the exam. 
Nesta Taylor, information services manager, says, "Biometrics is a proven alternative to photographic identification and will help remove additional concerns from students about remembering appropriate photographic ID at such a stressful time. It will also reduce complex and time-consuming administration tasks such as producing lists of exam candidates complete with photographs.  We anticipate that students will welcome this new development: new and prospective students have often heard about the fingerprint system at the library before they join the college and see it as a very positive and helpful system."
It can be complex and time-consuming to administer all the different data authentication methods which are now used for security and identification in colleges. Biostore provides a single central biometric database that can communicate with any college application from library to registration and cashless catering. This allows the college to select best-of-breed applications and avoids maintaining several separate databases and the associated rekeying of data, security risks and problems if they are not all up-to-date.
Compass, the college’s student records system supplier, is writing the middleware software to link student records with the Biostore biometrics data store held by the library. This is a first for Compass who will initially pilot it for online exams in four out of five of the college’s onsite testing rooms. 
Biometric registration will also be introduced for 1,500 first time students who will be registering for the academic year 2008/09. The college’s future plans include further use of fingerprint recognition for second year re-enrolments, to extend biometric exam registration to all online tests (off-site as well as on-site) and even to record student attendance at classes.

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