University of Missouri tracks student attendance with phones

Posted at 3:46 PM, Jan 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-30 16:48:00-05

COLUMBIA, MO — The University of Missouri is tracking all new students on campus this semester through a cellphone app to learn whether they’re attending class.

It’s a test expansion of a program the university has used for four years to track class attendance of freshmen student athletes and athletes in academic trouble.

Supporters of the program say it helps attendance, which in turn improves students' academic performance. Critics worry that the university could someday add uses for the program that will violate student privacy, The Kansas City Star reported.

The expanded use of the program began Tuesday on a test basis. Faculty volunteered to use the program in their classes but students won’t have a choice about participating.

Every student in the program will be told that attendance is being monitored, said Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies. The university will help students who don’t have a phone participate.

The phone app, called Spotter, uses short-range phone sensors and campus-wide WiFi networks. When students cross a classroom threshold, their cellphones ping off of a beacon hidden in the room. The app notifies students they are not in class, in case they are there and forgot to turn on their Bluetooth.

“It’s the way of leveraging technology to provide us with timely information,” said Spain. “It has been proven that class attendance and student success are linked.”

Dozens of schools across the country use similar technology, including Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse universities.

“We have deep privacy concerns about this,” said Sara Baker, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

While Baker acknowledges she has not researched how Missouri is using the technology, she said “any time you use surveillance technology, the question always is who is watching the watcher?”

She said such programs could eventually be used to monitor students who are participating in protests, for example. She also worries about who might gain access to information tracking students.

University officials argue that Spotter tracks only student attendance, which professors have done for years.

Micah Linthacum, a freshman forward on Missouri’s women’s basketball team, said athletes are used to having their attendance tracked, often by people who randomly visit classes to see if athletes are there.

“It’s definitely effective,” she said. “Then coaches decide on punishments or not. It’s good. It’ll keep you accountable.”

The Spotter app was developed by former Missouri assistant basketball coach Rick Carter. He said the tool is not invasive, noting that Spotter doesn’t track where students are if they aren’t in class.

Last semester, of the 540 student athletes at Missouri, 90 were required to be monitored. University officials report that since using the app, athletes are showing overall “record high” grade point average. Nationally, according to the NCAA, athletes’ academic performance has been climbing since 2003.

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