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Free iPads, With a Catch: They’ll Squeal if You Cut Class

Lynn University, a small institution in Boca Raton, Fla., started giving away iPads to all its new students about a year and a half ago. Now there is a catch: If those students cut class, their iPads might tattle on them.

The university is planning to try out a new app, called Class120, to “ping” its students’ iPads during class periods. If GPS or the campus wi-fi network indicates that someone’s device is not present, the app will send the student an automated reminder, and may notify his or her academic coach as well. (At Lynn, students are expected to carry their iPads to classes.)

This sounds a little Big Brother-ish, and Lynn’s administrators are aware of that. But they say they have no interest in stalking students outside of regular class hours. “We’re not interested where you are on Friday night,” says Christian Boniforti, the chief information officer. “We’re just interested in whether you’re in the classroom when you’re supposed to be.”

Those assurances offer little comfort to Khaliah Barnes, director of the student-privacy project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Just because schools have access to tech does not mean it’s always appropriate to use it,” she says, “especially when it comes to tracking students.”

Ms. Barnes says such an app could pose a security risk if the ability to locate particular students were misused. “No student should have to submit to this kind of tracking,” she says.

No student will, according to officials—at least, not at first. Downloading the app is optional during the “beta phase,” which will begin this semester. But the university does want to get all its students to use the app eventually. “That would be the ideal,” says Kevin M. Ross, the president.

Mr. Ross stops short of saying that the app will become mandatory. “We’ll see how excited the students are about it,” he says. In the meantime, “we’re strongly suggesting to students that this is the easiest way for you to be counted in class.”

The university already enforces a relatively strict attendance-taking regime. Instructors use an app that shows them pictures of all the students who are supposed to be in class, and instructors tick them off, one by one. Then they file weekly reports.

Officials hope the new app will streamline that process. “The goal would be that the system is good enough that attendance is done automatically, without any input from the faculty member,” says Mr. Boniforti.

The Class120 app was built by an Indianapolis-based tech firm called Core Principle. The company says the app can even be set up to notify parents if a student is missing classes. (The university says it’s staying out of that conversation.)

Many colleges already use “early warning” systems that track how often students are logging into learning-management systems. And online colleges collect extensive data on the presence and activity of students in their virtual classrooms.

Tracking attendance in physical lecture halls has presented more of a challenge. Some colleges use student-response systems—“clickers”—to make sure students are present and accounted for, but those systems can be gamed. Last fall a Dartmouth College professor busted dozens of students for passing clickers to classmates, who would cover for them.

Harvard University created a miniature scandal of its own after administrators, in an effort to collect data on how many undergraduates were showing up to class, secretly put cameras in 10 classrooms. Faculty members eventually found out, and some were upset at what they considered to be a breach of privacy.

But Lynn officials are more interested in the findings of the Harvard study than how it was conducted. The study found that class size tends to flag over the course of a semester unless students are told that attendance will be measured and graded.

Some instructional technologists argue that classroom attendance is not a very helpful metric when it comes to encouraging students to be engaged with their studies. “It’s one indicator,” says Curtis J. Bonk, a professor of instructional-systems technology at Indiana University at Bloomington. “It makes administrators smile and be happy, but as an instructor it’s a different ballgame.”

Needless to say, it’s hard for students to engage in courses when they’re not going to class in the first place. Lynn’s current attendance policy may be exacting, says Mr. Ross, but by enlisting students’ own iPads, the university thinks it can shorten the time between when students ditch class and when they get called out for it.

The value of prompt intervention is clear, says Mr. Ross. Administrators recently analyzed the weekly reports filed by Lynn instructors and determined that students who missed 25 percent or more of their classes during a semester had a 68-percent chance of earning a grade-point average below a C. Wrangling students by hitting them where they live—their mobile devices—might seem like overkill to some. But as far as the university is concerned, attendance works.

“This is a new, quick way for us to help faculty be more efficient with it,” says Mr. Boniforti, “and, hopefully, more effective.”

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