Attending Your College Classes

In remembering my first term at Penn State University (back around the time that the “ancient astronaut” space aliens were helping early Britons build Stonehenge), I recall my Monday morning 8 o’clock Speech Communications class. I lived 45 miles from University Park and had to commute for classes three days a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. So, you can imagine what time I had to get up on Mondays to make that 8 o’clock class. It wasn’t pretty.

I wasn’t smart enough back then to craftily plan my schedule, like many of today’s college freshmen. I was just so overwhelmed with the concept of college (not to mention the sheer size of Penn State) that choosing classes that also accommodated my sleeping habits just didn’t occur to me. Some of you might be thinking, “Well, you could have just blown off that crack-of-dawn class now and then.” Yeah, I could have, but the professor took attendance. It wasn’t a huge class.


The point of my post here, though, is to highlight a new technological approach to monitoring class attendance, in case you’re holding that “blow it off” Plan B in reserve for your own unfortunate scheduling circumstances. There’s a new tracking program out there now that can highlight your absence even among the most heavily enrolled lecture courses. Late sleepers beware!

US university introduces electronic monitoring of student attendance

Is this new development necessary documentation or ‘Orwellian’ surveillance?

Would students benefit from a bit more encouragement to get up in the morning for lectures? Academics in the US are debating a decision by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff to introduce a monitoring system to check when students attend, or miss, class. Sensors will detect students’ identification cards when they enter the lecture theatres. If they don’t turn up often enough, they could find it reflected in their grades.

“People are saying we are using surveillance or Orwellian [tactics] and, boy, I’m like ‘wow’, I didn’t know taking attendance qualified as surveillance,” NAU’s spokesman, Tom Bauer, told the Badger Herald website. Here are some contributions on the subject from Dave Farber’s Interesting People email list thread:

• In my classes at Wharton, participation in class discussion was an integral part of learning, for which outside reading is not a substitute. If a student didn’t attend, an important part of learning, the interaction with the professor and other students, was foregone. As a consequence, I had a rule that if a student missed too many classes, they flunked. I therefore took attendance. Usually, this uses up a lot of class time, but I was fortunate to have assistants who took it for me. There are ways to use technology to automate attendance-taking, but none of them are perfect. Counting noses is the only way that really works.

Now, I actually didn’t care if a student attended class. The undergrads were there on their parents’ nickel, and many were at university only for the sex, drugs and rock and roll. If a student wanted to waste an opportunity to learn that would never in their lifetimes be repeated, that was their business. But don’t expect to graduate. If a student chose to cut my class repeatedly, he or she would flunk the course. Everyone knew the rules; if they didn’t want to live within those rules they didn’t have to take my courses.

And you know what? Lots of students took my classes, I had good teacher ratings, students actually seemed to learn stuff, and after the first two weeks of the course there was little whining about attendance. My experience of 25 years’ university teaching is that taking attendance increases attendance, increases both the breadth and depth of class discussion, and increases student learning.

Professor Emeritus Gerald Faulhaber

Business and public policy dept, Wharton school, University of Pennsylvania

• Why should the university care whether students attend a lecture or not? By the time a student reaches the university, they should be responsible for their own schedule and actions. Seems to me to be a technological solution to a non-problem.

Dennis Allison

• Suppose I give my ID card to a friend so that they carry mine and theirs. The scanner wouldn’t know that I am not really there. People have been having friends clock in for them at work for years so that they aren’t docked for being late.

Charley Kline

• Speaking as a teacher, there are times when both schools and employers need to provide documentation that a student has been exposed to certain information (regardless as to whether she or he absorbed it). It is a liability issue. Sometimes we need “proof” (which admittedly does not prove much) that someone has attended a sexual harassment seminar, etc. If a school is sued for creating/permitting (for example) a sexist environment, it needs to be able to demonstrate that everyone has attended an anti-sexism seminar.

Of course, the system is not foolproof (“dishonesty-proof” would be a better term). Students could sign each other in on paper attendance sheets; now they can sign each other in electronically. Presumably, schools enforcing honour codes would make it public knowledge that carrying someone else’s ID is a violation of the honour code. For that matter, carrying someone’s ID and presenting it – even electronically – is illegal, which raises other fun issues.

Sam Waltz

• Students at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have demonstrated that it is trivial to clone ID cards. It is also straightforward to “remote” an ID – that is, by connecting over a network, to forward a ny “query” or “test” over the internet to a place where the ID card actually resides (this beats the “challenge response” card as a test of “presence”).

There is a certain brand of “magical thinking” that surrounds those who think [this] better than merely taking attendance. Especially those who assert the “rights” of teachers and universities to require students to behave like slaves beholden to masters.

Let’s just acknowledge that society, including academia, is full of power-hungry people who want people to submit to their will. But we don’t have to submit.


As with most articles these days, the reader comments that follow are at least as interesting as the article itself.  So, let us know what you think. Time to buy a new alarm clock, eh?


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