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Mizzou Defends Attendance App, Says Student Privacy Is Protected

The columns at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The college's recent expansion of an app that records students' attendance using their phone's location has drawn pushback.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
The columns at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The college's recent expansion of an app that records students' attendance using their phones' location has drawn pushback.

The University of Missouri-Columbia is playing defense over its small expansion of an app that records students’ class attendance using their phones’ location.

Over the past week, national media attention has created a fervor of concerns about privacy and a move toward creating a “Big Brother” state on campus. But university officials and the app’s creator say the software does not constantly monitor a user's location or collect other data, but only knows if a student is in the assigned room or not.

“We’re 100% for student privacy,” said Rick Carter, creator of the Spotter app.

Mizzou is using Spotter on a trial basis this semester with about 20 classes, after previously only using it within the athletics department. 

The app will cut down on the time professors spend taking attendance and leave more time for instruction, the university contends. Poor attendance is also a warning sign for poor grades and future struggles, a Mizzou spokesman said, that can now be caught and addressed sooner. 

“This allows us to have a little bit of an early intervention before things go south and we lose too much time, and the student can't recover,” said university spokesman Christian Basi.

Spotter uses short-range Bluetooth technology and not cellular or Wi-Fi signals. Carter said it doesn’t track broader movements or collect other data. The app activates when a class period begins and starts looking for a receiver in the classroom. If the student’s phone is too far away, it won’t register attendance in the class. 

“It’s their device that’s looking for a signal in the room; it’s not the device in the room looking for them,” Carter said. “We don’t know where they’re at if they’re not there, nor do we ever want to.”

The app will stop trying to pair with the classroom receiver once the class period ends. 

“It does not track students across campus. The only thing that it’s doing is recording when a student is in attendance in a particular classroom at a particular time. That's it,” Basi said.

Spotter does not collect any student data or share it with other companies, Carter said. 

But pushback has been strong, with some students and parents saying they're worried Mizzou is moving toward constantly tracking its students.

“The concern is once we open this door, where are we going next?” said Tony Rothert, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Missouri.

Rothert said students should be wary and ask questions of the university about oversight and use of the information. 

Students in the pilot classes can opt out of using the app, and a few have, Basi said. He added that the use of the app will be reviewed at the end of the semester.

Carter started Spotter in 2015 when he was an assistant basketball coach at Mizzou. It was initially used for freshman student-athletes to make sure they were balancing coursework and the demands of Division I sports. It’s now used at about 45 higher education institutions.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.