A university spokesperson referred Teen Vogue to a special page on the school’s website created to provide information about the new program’s implementation. According to the page, the purpose of Ram Attend is to more accurately record student attendance; the pilot period will also gauge the plausibility of extending the program to larger classes in which “manual attendance is not feasible.” The university claims the only parties with access to the data will be university officials with “a legitimate academic need” to see it, as well as Degree Analytics, the company responsible for analyzing the data. The school’s website reiterates that Degree Analytics will only see numbers in place of students’ actual names, for privacy purposes. (Degree Analytics has not responded to Teen Vogue’s request for comment.) Despite the university’s attempts to keep the change transparent, Tagwa says many feel the administration wasn’t entirely forthright about the introduction of this technology.
“Most students feel like this is an invasion of privacy, and I agree,” she said.
VCU isn’t the only school planning to monitor student attendance with controversial technology (or already doing so). Over 30 schools also use SpotterEDU, an “automated attendance” app that uses Bluetooth technology to record students’ attendance and notify their professors of their class habits. According to the Washington Post, the app aggregates the data into a point system that some professors use for grading. Hypothetically, school officials would be able to use the data to organize students into categories based on certain demographics, like race. Rick Carter, the app’s CEO, claims that SpotterEDU is “not a data collection company.”
“The only information that we actually get about a student is the type of device they have, the version of operating system that they’re running on their phone, the version of our app that they have, and then their class schedule,” he told Teen Vogue. “That’s it.”
According to Carter, every school using the app has seen the highest grade point average in its history within two years of implementation. In its five years of operation, SpotterEDU has never lost a client, Carter says. He adds that the company only tracks student attendance during class times, using Bluetooth beacons in classrooms, so “if they’re not there, we don’t know where they’re at.” He reiterated that the company doesn’t sell anyone’s information.
The app is gaining traction nationwide. A spokesperson for the University of Missouri told Teen Vogue that the school is gearing up to launch a pilot project of SpotterEDU on campus. The spokesperson called the decision a “very small test scenario.” The app has already been used by the school’s athletic department for several years, but administrators decided to increase its use to somewhere between 10 and 15 classes during the pilot period this semester. Christian Basi, the media relations director for the University of Missouri system, told Teen Vogue the decision was made in conjunction with student and faculty leadership.
“They’ve seen some value in potentially using the app, and so they wanted to be part of the test,” he said. “University of Missouri athletics has done an incredible job with the academic success of student athletes that we have on this campus; they attribute some of that success to being able to determine when a student was under academic stress. One of the first signs of that was when a student starts to not show up to class.”
In an interview with the Columbia Daily Tribune, Matt McCabe, the communications director for the Missouri Students Association (MSA) at the university, said the group is still waiting to “gauge student feedback” on the pilot program. According to Basi, the university official, student government largely has been supportive of the move. In an email to Teen Vogue, another student government representative confirmed that MSA has been in contact with the administration with respect to the pilot and looks forward to further conversations about its future at the university.