Skipping Class? Sensors Are Watching

Students at Northern Arizona University who hope to skip large lecture courses may have more trouble doing so this fall: The university is installing an electronic system that measures student attendance.

The university is using $75,000 in federal stimulus money to install the system, which will detect the ID cards students are carrying as they enter large classrooms, The Arizona Republic reported on Tuesday. (The cards can be read by an electronic sensor.) Faculty members can choose to receive electronic attendance reports.

Karen Pugliesi, vice provost for academic affairs, says the project will help improve attendance, which is key to higher academic performance.

Research, she says, shows a real link between good attendance and student achievement. She says the system will improve student engagement and participation, putting more students on track to graduate.

“We want every one of our students that enrolls in a class to realize their potential and be successful in the completion of that course,” she says. “It’s not in the student’s interest for them to drop out of a course or to fail a course.”

Privacy Concerns

But many students are opposed to the new system, which they say invades their privacy. Rachel Brackett, a sophomore, started the Facebook group “NAU Against Proximity Cards,” which has over 1,300 members.

Ms. Brackett says participation is more important in some classes than others, and students should be responsible for making their own decisions about attending lectures.

“Students should be able to choose to go to class, and if they fail, they have to live with those consequences,” she says. “Part of growing up and becoming more mature is knowing you have to go to class.”

Kathleen Templin, president of the university’s student government and a junior, says she recognizes the importance of attendance, but it is hard for her to attend every class because of her extracurricular commitments.

“I’m sure students will come up with a way to get around that system,” she says. “They’re paying for credit hours to be here and if they choose not to come, it’s their own choice.”

But Ms. Pugliesi doesn’t expect students to try to game the system by, for instance, giving their ID cards to friends who will attend the classes.

“The extent to which that happens is most likely to be very minimal,” she says. “I don’t believe in designing a policy or a system to address the outliers.”

Tracy Mitrano, director of information-technology policy at Cornell University, says she worries that such a system treats college students like elementary- and secondary-school students.

“Higher education loses its meaning if it’s just continuing to emphasize or even rely on a rote approach to learning like attendance,” she says.

But Ms. Pugliesi says universities should be thinking about how technology can help improve student attendance, as well as further creative-learning strategies.

“It’s more than just enforcing compliance with attendance through the proximity readers,” she says. “We intend to make our classes compelling and attractive.”

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