What the reports do agree on: the app uses local Bluetooth signals, not GPS, so it’s probably not going to be very useful to track students outside of school. “No GPS tracking is enabled, meaning the technology cannot locate the students once they leave class,” reads part of the university’s statement.SpotterEDU isn’t just used at the University of Missouri, though — it’s being tested at nearly 40 schools, company founder and former college basketball coach Rick Carter told The Washington Post in December. The Post’s story makes it sound remarkably effective, with one Syracuse professor attesting that classes have never been so full, with more than 90 percent attendance. But that same professor attested that an earlier version of the app did have access to GPS coordinates, if only for a student to proactively share their location with a teacher.
And Spotter isn’t the only company marketing this idea to administrators: another startup, Degree Analytics, uses Wi-Fi signals instead of Bluetooth to serve an additional 19 schools, the Post reports. In September, The New York Times wrote about a similar app from a company called FanMaker that provides “loyalty points” to students who stick around to watch college sports games at the stadium instead of skipping out. That app is in use at 40 schools, the Times wrote.
One company that uses school WiFi networks to monitor movements says it gathers 6,000 location data points per student every day.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.
It doesn’t seem like any of these specific systems are particularly invasive, and it currently sounds like (most) students will be able to opt out. But it also sounds like the idea of tracking students’ locations is being quietly normalized, in a way that smacks of surveillance (compare to how some previous pilot programs attempted to track students equipped with RFID-embedded ID cards).
It’s not unthinkable that future apps might tell schools more about students’ behavior, and that it may become harder to say no.