Creep Factor: Will Your College Student Be Tracked by an App?

News regarding MIZZOU — my (undergrad) alma mater and soon-to-be school of the MiniQ — typically catches my eye. I am ever hopeful of it being positive news, though sadly, that’s often not the case.

So, when I saw this headline — MIZZOU Students Required to Install Location Tracking App So College Can ‘Pinpoint’ Them — yesterday (h/t to @md06john316 on Twitter!), I immediately took note. Hmm. That sounds a wee bit Big-Brother-y and, frankly, creepy. The Campus Reform article cites to this January 21 article from the Kansas City Star:

University of Missouri students, be warned: If it’s not Big Brother watching you, it might be your professors and university administrators.

The school is using hidden technology and an app on student cellphones to keep track of who is in class and who is not.

Officials say it’s for the students’ own good. Besides, they say, MU’s athletic department has been using the tracking app the past four years for all freshmen athletes, plus any athlete in academic trouble.

Okay — immediately, this raises questions: What “hidden technology”? Who will have access to this information? What exactly will it be tracking? Is it mandatory?

Per the original article, the program sounds positively draconian:

Now, as a test pilot, the school is expanding the program to any student new to campus for this semester, which starts Tuesday. Faculty volunteered to have their classes be part of the test. Their students won’t be given a choice.

“A student will have to participate in the recording of attendance,” said Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies at MU. Every student involved will be told ahead of time that attendance is being monitored. University officials, Spain said, will even work with students who don’t have a phone to make sure they can participate. (emphasis mine)

Alright. Hold the phone (no pun intended). As the parent of an incoming freshman, this concerns me quite a bit. I respect that the school has an interest in encouraging class attendance and if a given professor wants to include class attendance as part of a student’s grade, that’s their prerogative. Although, I must confess to being old-school on this notion. “Back in my day…..” we were responsible for getting our own rear-ends to class (or not) and if not, we bore the consequences. Sometimes that meant missing out on important information (which was then reflected in quiz or test performance); sometimes, it really didn’t make much difference. Either way, we were treated largely as legal adults who were capable of shouldering the responsibility of finding our way to class.

Times have changed, I realize. And so has technology. So, from a practical standpoint, this is something easier to track. And maybe it isn’t a horrible thing — particularly for students who may be struggling. Maybe it will help them to not slip through the cracks.  Still, it’s difficult not to be a skosh concerned that the generation raised by helicopter parents are now being handed off to helicopter universities. (And question how well I’ve done raising an independent, capable human being.)

The Campus Reform article has, however, been updated, and the policy clarified — at least to an extent.  Per the updated article:

Despite privacy concerns, officials defended the decision as one to the benefit of students, as the school’s athletics department has already been using the app, SpotterEdu, to track certain student-athletes. While athletes are required to use the app, new students who are not athletes will be able to opt-in to the program, a Mizzou spokesman clarified to Campus Reform.

Participation in the pilot, offered to fewer than 2 [percent] of MU students, is completely optional. If a student does not want to use the app to track their attendance, they will be required to check in with their professor through an alternate method, such as signing an attendance sheet,” a university statement issued Monday after the initial publication of this article stated. (emphasis mine)

Ahh. Well, now, that’s a horse of a different color. An opt-in program is quite a bit less troubling. Of course, that stands in direct contradiction of what Vice Provost Spain is quoted above as saying.  And, I must note that this clarification references the “pilot program,” which is offered to “fewer than 2 [percent] of MU students.” What comes after the “pilot program”?

So, was the clarification a response to pushback to the initial reporting? Or was the initial reporting unnecessarily alarmist (and inaccurate)? Because I must confess, as much as I voluntarily cede a significant portion of my privacy concerns to the convenience of technology — and as much as I like the notion of my offspring being locatable if need be — the initial story gave me the heebie-jeebies and got me to wondering if we should rethink her school choice.

I expect we’ll learn more about the Spotter program in the coming weeks.  I certainly intend to do a bit more digging about it. What’s your take on it? Let me know in the comments below.