class attendance
An app designed to track students' class attendance is causing some controversy. Source: Shutterstock

The University of Missouri’s decision to track class attendance through an app that uses sensors to record when students enter and exit a class is causing quite a stir.

According to KRCGTV, the university is currently tracking certain students this semester through SpotterEDU to monitor their attendance.

Despite the increased media attention over this issue, it’s not exactly a new measure taken by the university, as they have been tracking the attendance of freshmen student-athletes and athletes in academic trouble for four years now.

The tracking of attendance this semester is a pilot-test expansion of the programme for other students in various courses and class sizes.

The move has garnered a mixed reception from students and the public, with some citing privacy and ethical concerns.

The University of Missouri is not the first university to use Spotter EDU. According to the Daily Orange, over 40 colleges and universities are now using the app.

Dr Jim Spain, the University of Missouri’s vice provost for undergraduate studies, told KRCGTV that student-athletes reacted positively when their attendance was being tracked.

He said, “In fact, they’ve had record academic success across all of their student-athlete groups and they contribute a lot of that success to the use of the technology.”

He also said that the decision to test it on other students was not one that was taken lightly.

“We visited with faculty council executive committee to get their input and visited with our undergraduate deans to get their input, we visited with MSA Leadership to get the student leadership input so we tried to really engage our stakeholders.

“When we launch it this spring, all of the students in the class will know what’s going on, it’s going to be totally transparent. We anticipate a positive response on academic performance.”

Understanding that the move not sit favourably with some students, the university is open to further discussions from concerned students.

Spain said, “We’ve heard concerns from some students about the surveillance aspect of the technology, we’re sensitive to that.”

“In fact, I have a meeting coming up this week with a student who’s reached out to me and expressed some concern and I want to understand those concerns better so we can address those and not put anyone in an uncomfortable position.”

Raising ethical and privacy questions

The app doesn’t work like Find My iPhone, which relies on GPS to track one’s every movement. Instead, it uses iBeacon technology, which is Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth low-energy wireless technology, to ping devices when a student is in the classroom.

Spain explains, “Your device will ping off that beacon and it only pings so the only time the technology knows where you’re at is 30 minutes before, 30 minutes after the class schedule but only when you’re actually in the classroom. You have to be in the classroom for it to know where you’re at.”

Spain said that using the app to track attendance in class is merely using technology to do something that’s always been done.

He said, “It’s really an electronic way to do what we’ve done for years and years. When students come into class I’ll pass out a sign-out sheet for students to sign in or I’ll pass out an index card and they’ll do a one-minute writing so we can take attendance.

“Some faculty will use attendance quizzes so this is really not different from what we’ve been doing, it’s just an electronic way for us to do it.”

But some are worried that apps like these infringe on students’ privacy rights.

Sara Baker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said that these types of apps have the ACLU questioning the sort of privacy rights that students are giving up when they attend public universities.

Although admitting that she has not fully researched how the university is using the technology, she said that “any time you use surveillance technology, the question always is who is watching the watcher, and that we have deep privacy concerns about this.”

She also said that there is always room for abuse when it comes to technology. There are worries that students are being tracked wherever they go on campus and over who has access to the data gathered.

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