MU’s Big Brother-esque efforts to monitor class attendance raise legitimate questions about privacy and how far schools might go to keep a close eye on students.

MU, which is using the Spotter app to track attendance, is one of 40 schools nationwide that have employed such technology to monitor whether students are actually showing up for class.

Administrators say Spotter improves attendance and that that’s in everyone’s best interests. But some students rightly wonder what other information the app and others like it might eventually collect — with or without their knowledge. Where will universities draw the line when it comes to monitoring students’ whereabouts and activities?

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley compared using student cellphones for surveillance to China, declaring on Twitter that U.S. colleges’ use of such intrusive tech is “creepy.”

For the past several years, MU’s athletic department has used the Spotter app for freshman athletes and other student athletes struggling with their studies.

This month, the automated attendance monitoring software was introduced to the general student body on a trial basis in nearly 20 classes campuswide. Downloading Spotter is not mandatory, officials say.

“This is an opt-in situation,” said MU spokesperson Christian Basi. “We can’t force a student to download the app.”

Using an app that can identify whether a student is absent from class is questionable on its face and an awfully slippery slope that opens the door to enormous breaches in privacy.

College students are young adults, of course, presumably capable of getting themselves to class and assessing the consequences of sleeping through that 8:30 a.m. chemistry lecture. And for those who arrive on MU’s campus lacking that sense of responsibility, tethering them to an app that serves as a babysitter isn’t necessarily the best way to instill much-needed life skills.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between classroom attendance and academic success. But ultimately, the onus should be on students to simply show up.

Spotter uses Bluetooth technology to send real-time alerts to professors or coaches about a student’s location once they are within range of the device.

So, the university can track when a student enters the classroom — and when that same student ducks out early. There is no GPS tracking device associated with the app, officials said.

Matt McCabe, director of communications for the Missouri Students Association, said the organization is monitoring the situation.

“At the conclusion of this semester and the pilot program, we intend to work with university administration, faculty and the student body to solidify a position on whether the technology should be adopted campuswide,” McCabe said.

If Mizzou expands its use of Spotter or any similar technology, students must retain the ability to opt out of the all-knowing app. Strict privacy protections are essential, and professors should be prohibited from penalizing students who choose not to use the app.

College students should have a basic expectation of privacy. And agreeing to allow your cellphone to be used as a tracking device shouldn’t become a condition of admission.

There are plenty of other less intrusive ways to incentivize and monitor student attendance. A pen and sign-in sheet still serve a useful purpose, and actually taking roll always remains an option.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.


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