(and an anti-weird technology, at that)

When Syracuse University freshmen walk into professor Jeff Rubin’s Introduction to Information Technologies class, seven small Bluetooth beacons hidden around the Grant Auditorium lecture hall connect with an app on their smartphones and boost their “attendance points.”

And when they skip class? The SpotterEDU app sees that, too, logging their absence into a campus database that tracks them over time and can sink their grade. It also alerts Rubin, who later contacts students to ask where they’ve been. His 340-person lecture has never been so full.

“They want those points,” he said. “They know I’m watching and acting on it. So, behaviorally, they change.”

Short-range phone sensors and campuswide WiFi networks are empowering colleges across the United States to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than ever before. Dozens of schools now use such technology to monitor students’ academic performance, analyze their conduct or assess their mental health.


The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.

But don’t worry:

Carter said he doesn’t like to say the students are being “tracked,” because of its potentially negative connotations; he prefers the term “monitored” instead. “It’s about building that relationship,” he said, so students “know you care about them.”

Here is the full WaPo story by Drew Harwell.


Tuition dollars hard at work. If the lectures are so valuable, then the students lack of attendance should be reflected in their final score. If you need to be tracked in order to go to class, then good luck in the real world.

I agree with the second sentence but disagree with the third. If there is a text and the lectures just repeat the text and it is a math / science/economics course better to skip the lecture and just do (more) problems. Questions can be asked on the class mailing list.

WTF! I sold my phone to buy the text!

I was under the impression that lectures are a relic of a medieval system of knowledge transmission. Obviously they are totally inefficient and might be seen as little more than an ego trip for lecturer. As an introduction to east German Stasi control methods (practical) it might be justified otherwise it's a power play pure and simple.

Education is now social work. You can't just fail a kid if they don't perform well. This is part of the way around that.

Because physical attendance in the lecture hall is an important signaling goal?
So students who do not have or do not carry or lose their phones can be punished?
To prove that CA's privacy laws haven't reached them yet?

This is the electronic version of attendance taking like the nuns used to do by "calling the roll" at the start of class.

He's just tracking whether their smartphone came to class, not them. entrepreneurial opportunity! ;-) Like hiring someone to take notes for you in class.

The more things change.....

Yep. Dude should be using facial recognition.

Let’s suppose the students are paying a ridiculously low tuition of $500 for the class. The university creates a class with 340 students. $170,000 in tuition to the university to see one guy way at the front lecture for one semester. No personal interaction possible. And there’s no mention of teaching assistants in the classroom. Probably all tests are multiple choice run through a Scantron. So who is the cheater here? No wonder students are cynical.

I am very glad I was already out of school by them time I learned this. said it best, I think

It speaks poorly of a class that grades are based on attendance rather than exams and papers.

Exams and papers show that we are all in the top 10% now. So, we do need another criterion to differentiate among us.

I agree. I see this as the professor admitting that the content of the class is not enough to make the class worth attending. Version 0.2: He'll notice that attendees just goof off in class, so he'll also detect and punish "non-engagement." The final version will auto-execute whoever stops applauding first, and the Stalinist Worker's Paradise will be at hand.

Its a class on Introduction to Information Technologies! The first thing to teach them is how to not need to haul their carcasses to a physical location.

Teach on-line class, young man, teach an on-line class! :-)

A valuable life lesson in "the user is not the customer" (especially valid in corporate IT or any government services). The customer is whomever signs the contracts (setting performance indicators and payment for services rendered). The user gets to enjoy the services as ordered by the customer.

I can imagine that if parents have to co-sign the college loans of their perhaps not entirely mature children, that they may prefer an "attention will be measured" PKI over "math is a form of oppression" or "everyone gets an A+"

An admittedly important distinction. However, in ed, even if attention, or anything else relevant to grades, were indeed measured, a sufficient number of parents would complain to the instructor, the administration, and to the Democratic Party. Easiest for everybody to be given A+. :-(

God forgive them, for they know not what they do.

The government pays the students living expenses but they never go to class. Usually the schools look the other way and pocket the tuition money. Wait till the ACLU hears about this.

Introduction to Information Technologies

Attending a lecture hall is information technology at work.

What they should do is require each student with a laptop log on to and stay on the same page so you can be sure that the kid is taking notes and not playing games with a person across the room.

Forced engagement.

I would be interested in whether performance (improved test scores) was associated with greater attendance.

I teach at an access college, and the simple correlation between attendance and grades is moderate and positive.

Now, try explaining to an administrator who took one semester of "research methods" as part of an EdD that the relationship is not causal, and watch their eyes glaze over. One of mine literally wants to get students to spend time in the library because "we have data showing students who spend more time in the library get better grades."

Add to this the modern idea in education that it is the school's job to prevent failure, and of course we'll track attendance. We have to do everything in out power to make students "succeed" (ie, pass classes and graduate). What this means for postgraduate employment outcomes is left as an exercise to the reader (with points for trying, of course).

Exactly, and apologies. I failed to first read the comments - mine below is redundant.

*If* there's anything "sinister" about this, it's not in the direction that T.C. imagines.

As I progressed through med school, my test scores progressively improved. I never went to lectures. And if required I usually napped and never took notes. I wouldn't have been able to read them anyway! I studied mostly independently and my scores were at the top towards the end of med school.

You never know

What you don't know.

The vast majority of med school schooling is not used as a doc. Much of it was a repeat of college. So a bunch of us independents got together and we got into clinicals a year early.

What med school was that? :-)

University of Illinois at Chicago class of '76. I retired 2 weeks ago!

I am a recent medical school graduate and I never went to class either. I would just listen to the lectures at 2x speed and independently study for the only thing that matters: the USMLE Step 1. Worked out well.

Sounds like you attended class,


One of my cousins who is in medical school joked something along those lines when he heard about NYUs free med school.

Me: How'd you think they managed to do that?
Him: They probably realized no one goes to the "school" part of med school and canceled it.

In such a big class they are not getting meaningful learning interaction with other students or the lecturer so what’s the difference if they just put all the lectures online? Students quite rationally figure attendance serves no purpose as long as they can get the notes from somebody later.

Why do American universities treat their students as if they are primary school pupils?

Because it pays the pupils and their parents to act that way.

Might as well get them used to having every waking breath and utterance "monitored" and logged. If people get wise and throw away those damn phones, just implant the app in their Fissure of Rolando

Welcome to the club!

What if you can't afford a cell?. And if, as seems likely to me, that kids from the lower socio-economic strata are more likely not to have a cell phone, then this could result in disparate impact. Wouldn't that be discriminatory?

These days, even in a developing country, you'll struggle to find a Uni student who can't afford a smartphone (2nd hand phones generally cost next-to-nothing); but some people (myself included) don't bring their phone to class to avoid distraction, so I guess I would be the one complaining about discrimination.

Doesn't this run strongly against the "freak" ethos of never being caught studying? It was all the rage in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The trick, of course, was understanding the material cold and acing the assignments and tests. This wasn't my style, but I knew some who considered this a point of honor, and they generally got better grades than I did.

It's probably just a roundabout way to reward extra credit unrelated to that pesky course material, that the kids will probably need, if students' reputed collegiate unpreparedness is true.

Following procedures is democratic; almost anyone *can* do it.

The county voting office assigned me to work the early voting period at one of the two (!) campus polling places. Throughout, lines were hundreds of feet long. How tedious to stand in line two or three hours, I thought (even with, as I learned, Netflix to binge on one's phone). Why do they not try back another day as we are here two weeks? Whence the wild enthusiasm for this relatively low-profile election?

It turned out the get-out-the-vote folks had come to school, and their professors had promised the kids they would receive an "A" for voting.

My cohort would have found that patronizing. Though neither thoughtful or especially coherent, we did tend to consider it our obligation to generate our own political causes, sometimes out of thin gruel: "No Blood for Oil!"

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