- Virginia Commonwealth University is testing a system in which students record their classroom attendance by connecting to the institution's Wi-Fi network.
- The program is attracting controversy even as the university is attempting to use it to boost student success.
- Some academics have waved away attendance requirements, but institutions and professors are experimenting with new ways of tracking student turnout, many of which use technology that has been criticized for violating users' privacy.
Whether attendance should be mandatory in college courses has been a long-standing debate in higher education.
Attendance is a key indicator of student performance, VCU officials wrote on a website detailing the program. And so the school is attempting to monitor attendance by automatically recording a student's presence in class when they connect to the Wi-Fi through devices, including their phone or laptop.
Faculty can use the data gathered to spot students early on who aren't attending class, the university noted as one of the technology's uses.
When asked about the program, VCU spokesperson Mike Porter largely referred Education Dive to the website detailing the program. But he wrote in an email to Education Dive that the three courses in which the university is piloting the technology were chosen because those faculty members already take attendance, not because there are attendance issues in those courses.
"This is part of VCU's effort to employ an 'early alert' system, with advisors partnering with faculty to follow-up when students fail to attend class, begin having academic difficulties, demonstrate behaviors that may signal them being 'at risk' for failure and/or simply need more support," Porter wrote in an email. "Advising is mandated when an alert is received about a student."
On the website, university officials stressed that the program uses the Wi-Fi connection only to monitor students when they are in a participating class. And they can opt out. News media have documented angst among students, some of whom found the system invasive. One student characterized it as "a little creepy" to a local TV station.
Privacy is "paramount," according to the university. It does not send the names of students in the pilot to Degree Analytics, the vendor from which officials purchased the system.
Instead, when students log in to the network using a university ID, their names are replaced with a number. Only that number is sent to Degree Analytics, so it cannot identify first and last names. The university said it would use the data to improve "areas of student success, such as increased student retention, graduation and reduced time to degree."
Several companies, including the tech-focused CourseKey, have developed methods of monitoring student attendance. They typically use either a Bluetooth connection or QR code for students to check in.
In the case of Bluetooth, users install a beacon in the classroom or other areas where they want to find students. When students get near it with their phones, they are marked as present.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently installed a Bluetooth system to track its student-athletes that automatically flags when they arrived in the classroom, according to the Daily Tar Heel, the campus's student newspaper.
GPS-based systems have also become more widely used on campuses. These work by drawing a virtual geographic boundary around a certain location, generally the classroom, and checking in students when they cross into it.
Tracking students through technology dates back at least a decade, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Then, Purdue University became one of the first to institutions to use the tech — already popular in retail for recording shopping trends — to examine factors including grades, test scores and use of the dining hall to determine which students were falling behind.
Students and even instructors tend to view mandatory attendance with distaste, though there's some evidence it can be useful. A 2010 analysis of attendance studies found that in one instance, the portion of students earning a D or F grade in a psychology class dropped from roughly 13% to about 4% when attendance was mandatory.