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University Plans to Install Electronic Sensors to Track Class Attendance

Move would encourage participation, Northern Arizona University officials say, but students say it smells of Big Brother.

by / May 5, 2010

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.

"The idea is clear: Students who attend class and participate are more successful," Bauer said. The idea came from a university vice president, he said, to help the campus operate more efficiently.

But the backlash is already viral. A student-created Facebook page opposing the plan, "NAU Against Proximity Cards," had nearly 1,500 members as of Wednesday, May 5. "I feel it violates our rights as students to choose whether or not to go to class and control our own success," the page's description reads. "Plus, it allows the school to keep track of our whereabouts in a 'Big Brother' way."

Electronic Privacy Information Center Associate Director Lillie Coney said students should be able to opt in to the system and be part of the decision-making process. "It's not how people with good intentions use technology that concerns 'privacy people,' it's how that information is collected and can be abused," she said.

For example, a student who's been the victim of stalking or identity theft or just simply doesn't like the idea of private information being stored on their ID should have alternatives, Coney said.

"[Students] need to be fully informed of the technology -- they should be able to opt in," Coney said, adding students' data should also be encrypted.

The way the readers work is pretty simple. They are placed near an entrance, and whenever a card is waved nearby, the proximity reader recognizes it and sends the data through an Ethernet system, which is then transmitted to NAU's software, Bauer said. A green light on the reader signals the ID card was read.

Bauer said it's recommended that students take their cards from their wallets, purses or pockets when entering a classroom equipped with readers, but noted doing so isn't essential to the technology's sensors. "It's not necessary, but you may want to make sure you get a 'green' light," he said.

On top of the increasingly popular Facebook page, students opposing the plan have also started collecting signatures in hopes of halting the scanners' installation. The online conversation, however, shows students with ranging views:

"People need to realize its [sic] going to happen no matter what," one student wrote on the student-created Facebook page.

"I go to class, I get no credit for it," another student wrote on the page. "So if 'school is going to make attendance a mandatory part of your grade in classes with 50 students or more' that means free points for what I'm doing anyway."

Others, however, took a more humorous approach: "BRB, failing a class because I lost my card."


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Karen Wilkinson

Karen is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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