Big Data, Big Brother, College

The Washington Post has a remarkable article about the use of bluetooth technology on college campuses to monitor student behavior and class attendance.

There are several companies marketing these applications to colleges, and the article mentions Syracuse University, the University of North Carolina and Virginia Commonwealth University as among the schools using them. While not mentioned in the article, the University of West Virginia has a similar system on campus.(2)

The Post article may be a bit late to the party. There are already companies offering these apps for elementary and secondary education.

What do these apps do?

  • They collect up to 6,000 data points per day, using the student’s cell phone to track where the student is.
  • They will notify a professor if a student arrives late to a class or skips class. That data can then used to modify the student’s grade for the class.
  • They will identify students who aren’t eating regularly, for example, not being in a dining hall during meal times. The goal in monitoring non-class behavior is to identify students with potential behavioral or psychological issues.
  • They allow universities to analyze data separately by race, ethnicity, gender, and program to look for patterns affecting certain kinds of students.

Depending on placement of the bluetooth sensors, the apps can be used to monitor other behavior as well. Do you want your school or parents to know if you are away from your dorm room at night?

One of the companies offering the app, whose founder was a former coach, says that the app was originally created to monitor the behavior of college athletes to assure compliance with NCAA rules.

Other companies claim that the apps will improve student performance and graduate rates, which impact college rankings.

In a way, the college app is not that dissimilar from the monitoring of over-the-road truck drivers that exists today. GPS tools monitor truck speed and location, and ensure compliance with FCC rules about rest periods. The old “Smokey and the Bandit” era is a distant as Robin Hood.

On the negative side,

  1. Are we conditioning the next generation to accept a life in which all behavior is observed and controlled by a computer program?
  2. Are we infantilizing the next generation by taking personal decisions away from them?
  3. Applications like these for some might make living on a college campus much less attractive, at a time in which traditional colleges are having trouble recruiting students.
  4. Data is simply that. We know where a person is at a specific time, but not why. If there’s a legitimate reason for missing class, the burden is on the student to clean up the record. That’s a common flaw in all “big data” analysis.

Of course, these apps won’t notice if a student falls asleep in class or spends the entire class time texting — or asks someone else to take his or her phone to class to “check=in.” College students are notoriously creative that way.

How long might it be until manufacturers and banks use the same technology to monitor workers? It’s already in use to assess attendance at business conferences.(4)



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