Say 'Cheese'

Published in: CR80News, Oct. 14, 2014

Online photo submission eases card office burden

We’ve all been there. Whether it’s a bad hair day, a stain on your shirt, the dreaded blink or just an ugly smile, everyone has had a bad experience on picture day.

But what if there were a way to avoid this age-old embarrassment altogether? What if you could guarantee the picture-perfect ID photo? Well, you can.

Universities nationwide are starting to enable their students to self-submit their ID card photos online. It’s a practice that’s not only giving students a controlled freedom over the likeness that appears on their ID card, but it’s also helping to streamline card office processes for universities large and small.

The question may become not whether to enable online submission, but whether to build an in-house solution or purchase a system from a third-party vendor.

The Backdrop

The University of Nebraska at Lincoln has been offering online photo submission since 2009 thanks to a system developed by internal university IT resources. Despite slow initial adoption, the card office hasn’t looked back.

“Prior to self-submitted photos, students came in for new student enrollment with their parents,” says Julie Yardley, manager of the University of Nebraska’s NCard Office. “During that orientation event, group leaders would take roughly 20 students at a time and bring them to the card office where we would take a photo, print the card and issue the photo ID to the student before they left the office.”

Working in a university card office in between June and August is hardly an enviable position. School may be out for most students, but for a campus card office the summer months are more akin to a late season push for the playoffs than a summer vacation – a sentiment that is echoed by Yardley.

“During orientation, there were days when we had between 250-300 students visit the card office in a day,” says Yardley. “It takes the printers about two minutes to print a card, so you’re dealing with a time constraint – plus the printers get hot and have to cool down a bit.”

There are 25,000 students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and between graduate, international and new student enrollment – along with the Nebraska’s dental, nursing and law colleges – Yardley estimates that the NCard office will serve about 6,500 new students over the course of the summer.

“We start printing cards for the summer by the end of April, with the last-minute photo submission rush happening around the first week of June,” Yardley explains.

It’s this rush at orientation where online photo submission pays dividends for card office employees. “In August we have a ton of people that would have to come to the office because there wasn’t another way to get their photo to us,” Yardley explains. “It made an already chaotic month even worse.”

“If even half of those students submitted their photo online, you’re saving wear and tear on the printer by not producing 250 photos and printing the same number of cards in a single day,” she explains.

Once a university makes the decision to offer online photo submission, the trick is getting students to use it. Without widespread adoption, the job of the card office employee remains just as challenging as ever.

As Yardley explains, a turning point for the online photo submission program at Nebraska was the inclusion of new student enrollment. “Now, when every new student enrolls, they automatically get an email telling them that they can submit their ID photos online along with the link to our website.”

Sweet Home Alabama

The University of Alabama is in its fourth year using its in-house photo submission application and reports tremendous adoption rates.

For Jeanine Brooks, director of the Action Card at the University of Alabama, the decision to build an in-house solution just made sense. “It allowed us to utilize campus resources – existing servers, application access via campus portal as well as the university’s trained and knowledgeable personnel.”

An in-house solution also gave the card office flexibility for expansion, the ability to quickly react to requested process changes and easy integration with the student information system, she adds.

“Online photo submission enables us to allocate our resources throughout the summer appropriately. Before we had a time crunch,” says Brooks. “Now we have photos coming in daily, so we can spread the work out and reduce overtime.”

Brooks cites a tight relationship with campus IT as being pivotal to the building, maintenance and growth of Alabama’s online photo submission system.

At the end of year three of photo submission, 91% of incoming Alabama freshmen were submitting their ID photos online. It’s an impressive statistic when you consider the size of the university – 34,582 students enrolled and 70,000 active cardholders.

Including parents in checklist reminders has proven vital to increasing online photo submissions, Brooks says. Staff found that the best time for reminders was one to two weeks prior to an orientation session, with specific emphasis that photo upload is required before the session.

It’s rare, however for a student to check their email on a daily basis, so Brooks also used social media, mobile apps, texts and phone calls to spread the word about online photo submission.

In the near future, Alabama has plans to launch a mobile app for orientation and use it as a means to further inform students of the online photo submission process. Using the smart phone app will enable the card office to leverage pop-up reminders, social media connections and in-app to-do lists to make sure students are informed in advance.

Building In-House

Liberty University sees roughly 3,000 students at the beginning of each academic year – 1,600 of whom participate in orientation programs. For the Lynchburg, Vir.-based institution, the convenience of self-submitted photos has been a blessing.

In 2012, Liberty decided to rewrite its photo submission program, citing the prior version’s poor user interface and low student adoption. Since Liberty card services launched the new system, the adoption rate has surpassed 80%.

Staff strategically opted to launch the new product in the middle of a semester.

“Any school looking to adopt a system like this will find that it can be very disruptive to card service operations,” explains Tony Erskine, senior IT developer at Liberty University. “To attempt it in August would be folly.”

Liberty set a target date of October, knowing card services would get a trickle of students in the beginning so that the load on the system could be increased steadily over time.

“Online photo submission adds the convenience of 24/7 customer service because students aren’t tied to Liberty’s card office hours of operation,” says Deborah Nightingale, director of card services at Liberty University. “Its also an operational advantage in that it alleviates the number of students that have to visit the office.”

Nightingale says the in-house development was key to the system’s success.

“Important to the process was card services’ engagement while the application was being built,” says Erskine. “Card services did not simply provide a list of requirements, they participated actively in the process to ensure that IT was solving the correct problems.”

The system enables admins to send tailored emails to students detailing the problems with a submitted photo. “The messages aren’t generated manually,” says Erskine. “The denial process has checkboxes for all the guidelines and students will get a bulleted list of where they went wrong with their submitted photo.”

On the backend, meanwhile, there are pre-created list of reasons for denying a photo, with admins having the ability to add or remove reasons on the fly. The user interface also makes sorting submissions easy for campus card employees, something that Nightingale sees as a luxury.

“Photo submissions can be sorted by date of when cards need to be mailed out or picked up, which enables card services personnel to see which card requests are more pressing or urgent,” says Nightingale.

Students, meanwhile, have the ability to crop photos at the time of submission, and once card services receives the photo, card office employees have the ability to re-crop if necessary.

Erskine explains that building an in-house solution isn’t without its challenges, and both monetary and resource costs can be daunting. He stresses that a university must consider these costs before attempting to build out their own solution.

“The technical learning curve was steep and posed a challenge to IT,” Erskine explains. “It’s a big application and some of the members of the IT team were relatively junior – so there was a reasonably high labor cost in getting everybody up to speed.”

In The Mail

As with other universities, Liberty sends emails to students that direct them to the photo upload application. Once there, student initiates the process by creating a card request.

At Liberty, however, students have the option to have their printed ID card sent to their home or permanent address before they ever set foot on campus for orientation. It’s an interesting take on the ID issuance process that Liberty has built directly into its photo upload process.

“They upload the photo that they selected along with a scanned image of their drivers license or other government ID,” explains Erskine. “Then the student decides how they want to receive their card – pick up at card services or mailed to them at home – and finally agree to card services terms and conditions.”

Mailing IDs prior to a student’s arrival on campus introduces new challenges in ID vetting. To safeguard this process, several data points are examined.

“Students must first be authenticated with Liberty’s single sign-on system to prove that the student is who they say they are,” says Erskine. “The next step is to upload a photo of their government ID, which card services examines to make sure that the ID photo matches the actual person.”

As an added precaution, Nightingale insists that Liberty does not mail ID cards to any address that isn’t already in the university’s banner system; only approved school addresses, permanent home addresses or the like. Nightingale explains that the cards that are mailed to students at home are sent in an inactive state, leaving the student to activate the card once it arrives to their home address.

It seems to be a popular option as Nightingale estimates that some 9,000 students received their IDs in the mail as of fall 2012.