A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities are using students’ own smartphones to help track them around campus, monitor attendance, and flag abnormal behavior patterns. The Washington Post reports dozens of schools are collectively monitoring hundreds of students, in what’s either another line item in the litany of recent tracking scandals or an innovative way to reduce truancy and help troubled students, depending on who you ask.
The news follows revelations earlier this month that numerous companies are collecting location information from consumers via smartphone apps, often unbeknownst to them, and reselling it. Last week, meanwhile, it also came to light that Amazon employed tracking technology to record the movements of attendees at a recent Amazon Web Services conference.
Using smartphones to spy on students – One of the tools tertiary institutions like Syracuse University are using to monitor students is SpotterEDU, which bills itself as “An automated attendance monitoring and early alerting platform.” Spotter Edu relies on Bluetooth beacons and smartphone apps installed on students’ phones to create detailed data about students’ movements and habits.
SpotterEDU monitors where students spend their time, their class attendance (and whether they habitually arrive late or leave early), and lets administrators, coaches or lecturers contact students directly. For students on scholarships, opting in is obligatory.
Another popular product from Austin-based Degree Analytics uses campus Wi-Fi to track 200,000 students across 19 educational institutions. The software service creates categories for students depending on their profiles, generates a model of “normal behavior” for each group, and flags those who deviate from it.
Empowering or infantilizing? – Some educators The Post interviewed expressed reservations about the systems normalizing surveillance and coddling students unnecessarily. Some students, meanwhile, worried about false positives and inaccurate tracking and spoke about the stress the systems cause them, especially when the data they report can jeopardize athletic scholarships, many of which are contingent on stringent attendance and other stipulations.
Finally, as with all surveillance systems, the new raises questions and concerns about what happens when data is leaked, abused by those with access, or trails students long after they’ve graduated. Tracking may bolster attendance numbers, sure, but is that in the best interest of students, or is it the institutions many of them go into debt to attend that benefit most from granular data they can use for marketing and recruitment?