Prof taps into students' cell phone GPS to take attendance

A professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo has developed an app that tracks his students’ locations by accessing their cell phone GPS.

Tom Bensky, a physics professor at the institution, used his passion for linking “tinkering with teaching” to develop the app Youhere, an electronic attendance service that harnesses GPS location technology, as reported by Inside Higher Ed.

Youhere allows the user to create a geofence, or a virtual fence. Once students enter the fence, they push a button on the app noting that they have arrived for class. If the student is outside the radius of the fence, the app does not allow them to check in. As Bensky notes, this is mostly used for professors to set a geofence around their classroom but can also be used for coaches to set a fence around a field or a gym. 

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“Attendance has always been frustrating for me, and in 18 years of teaching, I’ve never found a good way of taking attendance,” Bensky told Campus Reform. “I thought long and hard about using tech to do it and writing Youhere as a custom job was my solution.”

Students have voiced privacy concerns over the app’s comprehensive data collection, as they are not allowed to opt out of using the attendance app if they are enrolled in one of Bensky’s courses. Class attendance is worth ten percent of a student’s final grade in Bensky’s classes, the professor pointed out in an essay obtained by Campus Reform. Bensky also told Campus Reform that he has not yet had a student refuse to use the app. 

The app has the ability to track and store data on the student’s name, the number of times checked in, and location on campus. Although Bensky has the tools to research where students are on campus when they are absent, he chooses not to do so, explaining that “it would be too creepy.”

“I don’t know that,” Bensky said to Inside Higher Ed, regarding individual student locations. “It would be interesting to study, interesting to see where they are when they are absent, but no.”

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Bensky does not personally store data on personal locations, but he said that he does not control what other instructors do with their collected information. The instructor must choose to wipe collected data after class ends.

“Teachers seem to like it, frequently using the words ‘thank you soo much,’ ‘cool,’ and ‘attendance is so easy,’” Bensky told Campus Reform.

”It’s often unknown, the quality or the usefulness of the information,” Alan Rubel, a professor specializing in information law from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, remarked. “Sometimes we’re just collecting information because we can, and students have claims to privacy.” 

Rubel also pointed out that universities already archive a variety of personal data. Administrators can track what students are browsing on the web when they access campus internet and they can even see what students are doing based on where they use their campus identification cards to check in, including trips to the dining hall or visits to the campus gym. Rubel believes that officials should be investigating how often they invade student privacy.

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Bensky’s app has already logged two hundred sign-ups, checking in between 5,000 and 8,000 students every day across the country. Similar forms of electronic attendance taking are used at more than ninety schools, explained Hannah Zwick, the director of special projects at Course Key, Youhere’s main competitor.

“For me, this is remarkable,” Bensky told Inside Higher Ed. “I can walk into my class, welcome the class and say something like, ‘Don’t forget to check in,’ and then it just happens. I can just walk back to my office and take attendance for 65 check-ins, see who wasn’t here. No pencils, no roster, no check boxes.”

When Campus Reform reached out to CPSU for comments about the app, spokesman Matt Lazier responded that Youhere “was not created in connection with the university or with the university’s knowledge. Given this, we have no additional information to share about it at this time.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ethanycai