For some reason colleges and universities are obsessed with assessing the regularity of their adult students’ class attendance. However, there are far more important and fundamental related issues to preoccupy the attention of administrators. Consider, for example, a question posed by a university librarian to a Washington Post reporter: “Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up for class?”
In my decades of university teaching, including at MU, I have never taken attendance. First, it consumes valuable class time — at least before the new technology that I will get to in a moment. Second, there is no purpose in collecting the information if you are not going to use it to reward students for their attendance and punish students for their nonattendance. The typical instructor who takes attendance gives it a weight of about 10 percent in a student’s final course grade.
But basing grades, even in part, on attendance flies in the face of basic management principles: it is rewarding people for “showing up” rather than performing. To be completely honest, I have never wanted students in my class who do not want to be there. Sleeping, reading The Maneater (or Tribune), browsing Instagram, messaging, or answering emails is only disruptive to the other members of the class. (I actually audited a graduate class in statistics two years ago and the student in front of me kept shopping for shoes on her laptop — I was mesmerized by her web surfing and found myself tempted to offer fashion opinions.)
Defenders of taking and rewarding attendance say that it is a surrogate for class participation. I have never found this to be the case. Students who feel coerced to attend class have little interest in contributing to that environment. In fact, there is extensive, well-accepted management research that demonstrates that extrinsic rewards, contingent on a specific behavior like attending a class, can drive out the intrinsic motivation (i.e., internal rewards) associated with that task. Having inattentive “butts in the seats,” motivated by a small contribution to a grade, does not create a dynamic learning environment. Instead, it creates resentment and further dependence. Alternately, active, inquisitive, creative students who are internally motivated create a productive class climate that is self-reinforcing and sustainable.
This brings me to the new technology that MU will be pilot testing in 10 to 15 classes this semester, according to recent press reports (Tribune, Jan. 8). SpotterEDU, a Chicago company founded by controversial former MU assistant basketball coach Rick Carter, will take student attendance through an app downloaded to a student’s smartphone.
The first problem, of course, is that not all students have the means to afford a smartphone. A bigger problem, however, is that the technology is an electronic version of a truant officer and treats students like children in the very college environment where we expect them to grow into responsible adults. It is punishing and takes an inherently pessimistic view of students. It is a manifestation of the very outdated “in loco parentis” notion of the university.
However, the biggest problem is one of privacy. Although the company stresses that it does not track the movement of students outside of class, it can collect personal information and split student data into groups. For example, the attendance of students of color can be isolated and reported to the university for whatever purpose the institution may think useful. Additionally, the privacy advocate in all of us should be concerned that SpotterEDU, in its own privacy statement, indicates that its technology will simply ignore a “Do Not Track” setting that a student places on his or her phone.
I would hope that the MU faculty will be vigilante about the slippery slope that SpotterEDU and this experimental trial represents. The company already has more audacious competitors that use GPS information to track not only class attendance but also the movements of students outside of class. They claim this is desirable because the university can then determine if students are behaving in ways that it defines as well-adjusted and socially appropriate. This is arguably on a path to omnipresent citizen tracking of the kind already used by China, employing advanced facial recognition technology, to award its people with social merits and demerits.
MU should be a loving, respectful, and enriching intellectual family for its students, rather than their punitive and oppressive Big Brother.
Art Jago is professor emeritus of management, Trulaske College of Business, University of Missouri. He is a former chair of the Department of Management.