Tracking College Students Everywhere They Go On Campus Is The New Normal

(Mis)Uses of Technology

from the normalizing-lots-of-stuff...-including-the-weirdos dept

The latest benefit of an education at an institute of higher learning? Becoming inured to round-the-clock surveillance.

A few months ago, the University of Alabama started penalizing students for leaving home games too early. Coach Nick Saban was apparently angered by students' refusal to stick around to the end of blowouts. Working with FanMaker, the university instituted a point system that rewarded faithful fans for sitting through entire games by awarding them points that placed them closer to the top of the list for tickets to actually meaningful games.

This mini-surveillance app tracked students' location during the game. Going outside the range of the stadium's network before the game was over docked points from the students' totals, dropping them down the list of ticket buyers.

This surveillance was weird and ultra-specific and motivated by perhaps the most powerful football coach in the nation. Other schools are experimenting with more pervasive tracking, this time tied to class attendance, as the Washington Post reports.
Short-range phone sensors and campuswide WiFi networks are empowering colleges across the United States to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than ever before. Dozens of schools now use such technology to monitor students’ academic performance, analyze their conduct or assess their mental health.


Instead of GPS coordinates, the schools rely on networks of Bluetooth transmitters and wireless access points to piece together students’ movements from dorm to desk. One company that uses school WiFi networks to monitor movements says it gathers 6,000 location data points per student every day.

School administrators are all over this. The thousands of data points provide comprehensive tracking of student movements. The focus is classroom attendance, assisted by hundreds of tiny electronic hall monitors. Instructors can be notified of missing students and send text messages or emails to their phones in hopes of getting them to class.

But there are more disturbing aspects as well. How anyone is supposed to determine a student's mental health by non-stop location tracking isn't explained, but the article says schools are adding "risk factors" like, um, not going to the library enough. A whole bunch of tracking isn't going to make any of these risk factors less risky. The mere fact that students know they're being tracked could discourage them from visiting on-campus mental health services or participating in events or gatherings that are critical of school policies or administration.

Inevitably, these trackers are going to be weaponized to keep tabs on only certain students… like maybe the browner or blacker students administrators might feel are less academically-inclined. And by "inevitably," I mean it's already happening and the company doing it thinks that's a pretty cool thing.

[SpotterEDU] has experimented with ways to make the surveillance fun, gamifying students’ schedules with colorful Bitmoji or digital multiday streaks. But the real value may be for school officials, who [company CEO Rick] Carter said can split students into groups, such as “students of color” or “out-of-state students,” for further review. When asked why an official would want to segregate out data on students of color, Carter said many colleges already do so, looking for patterns in academic retention and performance, adding that it “can provide important data for retention. Even the first few months of recorded data on class attendance and performance can help predict how likely a group of students is to” stay enrolled.
SpotterEDU utilizes Bluetooth connections to track students. According to the Post article, it's already being used by at least 40 major colleges. Competitors like Degree Analytics use WiFi to do the same job, tracking students through their connections to the school's network. That's another 20 state universities and 200,000 students being followed everywhere they go by surveillance tech.

The companies producing this tech believe pervasive surveillance is the best solution for both class attendance issues and any number of other personal issues students might be dealing with. It's a brave new world where students can be watchlisted for skipping out on lunch or simply deciding to change their habits. Degree Analytics says its algorithms will detect changes in students' "behavioral states" and alert administrators and other staff.

Universities buying into these programs are pushing students to homogeneity, which is pretty much what everyone's been saying about most education services for years now. The system isn't there to provide the nation with independent free thinkers. It's there to provide the nation's industries with cooperative employees who won't rock corporate boards after they've climbed onboard.

A classifier algorithm divides the student body into peer groups — “full-time freshmen,” say, or “commuter students” — and the system then compares each student to “normal” behavior, as defined by their peers.


The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.

The other added benefit of regressing outlying students to the mean is getting them used to the level of surveillance they'll be dealing with in the real world, where employers track employees' internet use and vet their social media accounts before making a hiring decision. It also lets them know that they're numbers, rather than people. And whenever there's a deviation in the narrative, the tech will be believed before the individual tracked by it.

Several students said they didn’t mind a system designed to keep them honest. But one of them, a freshman athlete at Temple University who asked to speak anonymously to avoid team punishment, said the SpotterEDU app has become a nightmare, marking him absent when he’s sitting in class and marking him late when he’s on time.


He then had to defend himself to campus staff members, who believed the data more than him.

Are the tradeoffs worth it for students? That's a question no one seems to be asking -- at least no one buying or selling the tech. Seemingly forgetting the fact these students are paying for the privilege of attending these schools, administrators are acting like it's the students who owe the school some sort of allegiance, rather than the other way around.

By all means, the school should pay close attention to those it's paying for -- the ones there on athletic or academic scholarships. But the rest of the student body is there, voluntarily exchanging money for further education. It's on them if they don't show up in class. Tracking students everywhere on campus makes no sense if the primary concern is class attendance.

It doesn't make any more sense if the plan is to recognize at-risk students and intervene before problems get worse. Establishing a baseline using "normal" students will only help school staff more swiftly ostracize those wandering too far from the algorithmic norm, ensuring those with issues that probably should be addressed with professional help will become more adept at camouflaging their red flags.

Relying on pervasive surveillance to police things will only make things worse for everyone involved. Universities have long looked at students as nothing more than paychecks. Reducing them to data points further removes their humanity and agency, which makes it far less likely their concerns and issues will be addressed in any meaningful way.

Filed Under: college, students, surveillance, tracking

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