Nathan Cochran, Marie Witt and Douglas Berger
University of Pennsylvania
Mobile technology speeds up operations, eliminates paperwork and makes the right first impression.
Move-in day is the first impression of a university for many residents and their families, which means it can be an especially stressful time for administrators.
We have to ensure that the typically hectic, crowded and confusing process is handled smoothly and efficiently and services are delivered in a warm and welcoming manner. Manage move-in poorly and the frustration and dissatisfaction your resident’s experience can have a negative impact that will take a long time for not only you, as a housing professional, but the institution in general to overcome.
But managed successfully, move-in can create a sense of pride in the institution and leave both parents and students feeling secure and comfortable.
Each year, the University of Pennsylvania welcomes more than 6,700 residents in 11 college houses. Located in the densely populated urban neighborhood of West Philadelphia, crowded streets, limited parking, on-going construction and historic structures create an especially challenging environment in which to quickly unload the hundreds of vehicles that pass through during the seven-day move-in period. We are always looking for innovative solutions to speed and simplify the process.
When we took a comprehensive look at our operations, we found that managing traffic wasn’t the problem. Where our process broke down was in the paperwork. In all, move-in required 29 independent steps from the moment students arrived on campus until they were fully checked into their rooms. The system utilized 7,000 data cards, and 14,000 custom printed labels in addition to the 15,000 keys we issued annually. Although we had recently transitioned to an online housing assignments program, there was a disconnect between our new streamlined assignments technology and the paper-based registration process, a legacy of our previous system. We needed a technology that would easily deliver information from our database to our complex “on the street” operation. Like so many of our students have already done, we “went mobile.”
Using wireless devices allowed us to overcome the limitations of data lines and power sources. We quicklyzeroed in on the Apple iPad as it is both functional and familiar to our staff members. But identifying a mobile device was only part of the solution. We realized that typing in information would bog down the process as much as the paper forms had. We needed an easy means to input our data. And, as our campus places a high value on data privacy and security of information, safeguards needed to be established to ensure compliance with campus guidelines and comfort among our administrative leaders.
The solution was to embrace the technology options more fully. Working with our housing database vendor we were able to leverage our Web portal through the mobile technology, enabling us to swipe a student’s ID card to obtain the necessary information relieving us of the burden of manual data entry. In addition, to account for the fact that some students, such as the majority of our freshman, arrived without a University ID card, we leveraged Quick Response (QR) code technology. Using Microsoft Word, we were able to transfer relevant information to a QR code that could be labeled on each key package. This code, when scanned with the built-in iPad camera, was able to perform a resident check-in with the same efficiency and ease as a card swipe. Our staff was able to check-in residents literally standing on the side of the street!
Lastly, we utilized built-in technology that allowed us to disable any device and wipe it clean of data. We also branded each device with our departmental information and registered them with Penn’s Department of Public Safety. The good news is – we didn’t lose a single one!
Of course, this innovation did not come without a cost. But we expect that the cost for purchasing 30 iPads and all related expenses (such as customizing our software and database) will be offset in just two years. This includes savings from a reduction in our operational and printing costs as well as finding other uses for the iPad. We now deploy a mobile strategy for on-call staff to access our key system and our mobile database 24 hours a day allowing our building operations team to go almost completely paperless.
The benefits of this mobilization of our move-in process were numerous. Since staff members were not tied to their desks for the month prior to move-in preparing thousands of paper data cards, they had more time for room inspections. Additionally, lines at our check-in stations were totally eliminated, allowing our staff to more actively welcome and engage all of our residents and their families, which greatly enhanced the overall move-in experience. Daring to transform our existing process, leveraging the latest available technologies, and having a staff willing to embrace the initiative were key elements to our success and enabled us to provide the experience we sought to achieve for our campus community.
— Marie Witt, vice president, Penn Business Services; Douglas Berger, executive director of Penn Business Services; and Nathan Cockrum, strategic planning, reporting and assessment coordinator, Penn Residential Services contributed to this column.