A plan to electronically track attendance at an Arizona university is being framed as a way to encourage going to class and participation, but privacy experts and some students are wary the technology could become a security and privacy concern.

Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, will start using "proximity card readers" in some lower-division classes in fall 2010, to record student attendance, said NAU Spokesman Tom Bauer. Using $85,000 in federal stimulus funds, the university hopes such a tool will push professors to incorporate attendance in their grading systems, he said.

"I think there's a misunderstanding of what this is," Bauer said. "It's just a tool for professors to take attendance, just like a roll call would be. We're trying to dispel the notion that we're getting too close to being a 'helicopter parent'" -- moms and dads who swoop in and out to make decisions for their child.

Proximity card readers are commonplace on campus, Bauer said, and ID cards with embedded chips have been used to access resident halls, and purchase meals and other items on campus for several years. But the attendance-tracking plan, which will be used at professors' discretion -- is what has some wary of its intended or unintended uses.

"It's a trend toward a surveillance society that is not necessarily befitting of an institution or society," said Adam Kissel, defense program director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "It's a technology that could easily be expanded and used in student conduct cases."

There appear to be limitations of its use, however, as Bauer explained. Only freshmen and sophomore courses in classrooms that can hold more than 50 students will potentially use the technology, he said. Such an attendance tracker will never be used in a graduate or upper division class, he said.

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Karen Wilkinson  | 

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.