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Online photo submission eases campus card office burden

Say Cheese!

Andrew Hudson   ||   Oct 16, 2014  ||   , ,

Online photo submission is helping solve an age old problem. 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 online photo submission 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.

Going off campus

If building a solution in house doesn’t sound like an attractive option, there are alternatives. Enter MyPhoto.

MyPhoto is a Web-based photo upload application developed to specifically to streamline student photo submissions. It’s a solution that could put this valuable service within reach for campuses of all shapes and sizes without the need to devote internal developer resources.

“We’ve found that universities need a better way of getting their photo IDs to students, and the MyPhoto app helps with that issuance,” says Alan Jacubenta, owner of MyPhoto and parent company Mango Bay Internet.

Jacubenta started the Cleveland-based Mango Bay Internet in 1997, to provide website development, Internet marketing and IT solutions. It wasn’t until he was approached by Emory University in 2010, however, that he discovered the need for a reliable online photo submission application.

“We did some research, proposed a solution based on what Emory University needed, and we came up with a five-step process,” Jacubenta explains. As of August of 2013, he says Emory reported a 95% acceptance rate amongst incoming freshmen.

The five-step process for photo upload

Anyone who deals with 18-year-old college students knows that in order for them to participate a system has to be quick, easy and painless, an idea that Jacubenta had in mind when developing the MyPhoto process.

When a student first visits the MyPhoto portal, they are greeted with the detailed instructions of the upload process. “We realize that most students aren’t going to read this, but for the few who do take the time, we outline the entire process in detail,” says Jacubenta.

The second step is to login with a university account. “Once the student logs in, we pre-populate our application with some data from the institution – first and last name, email address and in some cases the school the student will be attending,” explains Jacubenta.

The third step sees the student select their desired photo, crop and edit it via the interface that enables them to modify the photo to the specifications from the university. Once the student has successfully cropped and edited their photo, they are asked to confirm that they are satisfied with the selection to complete step four.

He notes that built-in cropping is something of a Holy Grail for online photo submission. As an added level of quality control, MyPhoto can display a set of unacceptable photos to better aid the student in cropping and selection.

“We can also place a sample university ID photo next to the submission window so that the student can compare and match the aspect ratio and dimensions of the photo to best meet the university’s parameters,” says Jacubenta.

The final step is to issue the student a tracking number, which matches their university-issued student ID number. For peace of mind, the student can check the status of their photo at anytime throughout the process.

While this may seem like a lengthy process, it can take as little as two minutes.

Behind the camera

While online photo submission is designed to be a student-facing system, the campus card administrator’s experience is equally important. The system will only be as efficient as the people who have to use it, and as Jacubenta explains, the card office administrator has not been overlooked.

“The approve/deny process is user friendly. It shows not only the student’s submission but is also accompanied by a thumbnail of the photo,” explains Jacubenta. “The solution also features search and archival functions that enable administrators to sort submissions by name, pending status of the submitted photo, the semester in which the student will be arriving on campus as well as what college the student will be attending.”

The administrator can conduct a search using any of these parameters and export that queried list to an Excel document.

In addition to sending custom email messages directly from the application dashboard, the cropping tool is also made available to the administrator for last-minute edits. Jacubenta explains that a number of universities offering self-submitted photos still require system admins to manually crop photos outside the photo upload system, rather than within the application itself.

“Our software enables a card office admin to crop a photo without having to take the photo out to external editing software,” says Jacubenta. “This is great for those photos that only require slight adjustments or cropping, as it saves time in the editing process on the part of the admin.”

Another control feature of MyPhoto is the ability for the master admin to issue and manage the privileges of sub admin accounts. This gives a card office the ability to allow multiple employees to interact with the system and approve photos.

The first thing the admin sees when logging in to the MyPhoto dashboard is a quick view of any status-pending photos in the system. According to Jacubenta, admin users will typically go in and mass approve these photos, with the exception of the few unacceptable ones. There is also an “archive all” option that enables the admin to clear the dashboard of photo submissions at the end of a semester, a la spring cleaning.

A focused solution

Paying for a third-party solution doesn’t necessarily mean forfeiting creative control over your application. In fact, the team at MyPhoto strives to do just the opposite, giving the university as much or as little control over the creation of their photo upload portal as they desire.

Jacubenta works with each implementation individually, tailoring the MyPhoto solution to each university and its specific requirements.

While LDAP and Active Directory integrations are included in the base price of the MyPhoto application, special requests are common. As an example, MyPhoto has been integrated with Oracle databases following specific client requests, he explains.

The one-time license fee is currently set at $9874, with annual maintenance, support and update packages available as add-ons. “We feel that the cost of our solution versus the cost of assets to build this system internally, gives us a really good offering and a competitive price point,” says Jacubenta.

The application is customized to match the institution’s website. Once a design has been approved and technical requirements addressed, the site is made live. The entire process, start to finish, takes about four to six weeks pending any special requirements or implementation challenges, says Jacubenta.

Looking down the lens

MyPhoto is also looking at adding features to the application. In the future Jacubenta is contemplating the ability to turn the dashboard off completely, giving a university the power to cut off photo submissions at a certain date and time. He is also considering built-in metrics and reporting functions that could show a card office admin the time and cost savings resulting from the online submissions.

The system already supports photo uploads from desktop or laptop computers as well as from smart phones and tablets. Advancing the mobile compatibility will be a continued priority in the future.

Picture perfect

While online photo submission seems a no-brainer, it is vital that a university consider the options at its disposal.

Building a solution in house is great for those universities with plenty of resources, capital and strong relationships between card services and campus IT. This method can pay dividends when the right personnel are employed, but can be costly in both labor and resources.

For card offices that may not have developer resources at their disposal, companies like MyPhoto offer a viable, plug-and-play alternative that provides a comparable solution without the upkeep.

Whether the decision is made to support photo submission via an in-house or a third-party solution, it can provide a great customer service and reduce the burden on card office staff. It is a great way to spread the issuance workload out over slower summer months, allowing personnel to better focus efforts as students arrive on campus.

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