VCU pilots new Wi-Fi tracking program for class attendance

Illustration by Sammy Newman

Katie Hollowell, Contributing Writer

Some students are uncomfortable with a $96,000 pilot program that tracks Wi-Fi connections to automate class attendance, questioning why the university “needs to have our location.”

Through Ram Attend, which piloted Nov. 8, when students connect their devices to the VCU Safenet Wireless network, a Wi-Fi access point is automatically recorded. The access point is then compared to class times and locations to specify attendance.

According to VCU’s student success page, Ram Attend is being introduced to track regular class attendance, “one of the most important indicators for student success.” The pilot is being used in smaller classrooms to test accuracy before introducing it in larger classes.

The website states that connection data is not used outside of designated classroom locations and times. The current pilot is using data for attendance, but it is unclear if the data will be used for other purposes.

“Aggregate (de-identified) data may be analyzed at the university level to improve other areas of student success,” the website states. “Additional details will be available after the fall 2019 pilot.”

Only focused inquiry classes — UNIV 111, 112 and 200 — are testing the new program. Since these classes are generally smaller in size, the professors can take attendance manually and compare it to Ram Attend results. Students whose classes were selected for the program were notified by email.

Some VCU students, such as sophomore Sarah Pritchard, don’t understand why the program began so late in the semester.

I understood they just wanted another way to track us and take attendance, but why they were doing it so late in the semester was confusing to me,” Pritchard said. “Because that is not really an effective way to go about piloting something at least [to me] personally.”

Pritchard, an environmental studies major, sees this as another way for the university to keep an eye on students. VCU tracks students when they log into SafeNet and records when and which access points your device connects to, according to the student success page.

“I feel like we are really already micromanaged, and I really don’t want that,” Pritchard said. “What’s the problem with normal attendance or doing [something] like Top Hat attendance?”

Pritchard opted out of the program, not allowing VCU to track her location for class attendance.

Students are protected through the Family Educational Records Protection Act, or FERPA, which gives students the rights to their educational records. University officials will not have access to the data unless it is required under their job duties, which would apply to instructors and advisers.

There are also guidelines set by the vendor, Degree Analytics. VCU spokesperson Mike Porter said in an email that the university signed a one-year, $96,000 contract with Degree Analytics that would not affect tuition.

If a student decides to opt-in to the program, Degree Analytics will only record when the student logs in to the Wi-Fi for their class time and then filter out the rest of the data. Before the data is sent to the vendor, it will strip the student’s eID and only show a V-Number.

Students selected for the pilot program can opt-out of having their attendance and Wi-Fi connection tracked through a Google Form link, which was included in a notification email about the program. Students not included in the pilot can also opt-out before the program extends to other classes.

Junior Samantha Son said the new program is causing a lot of anger and confusion on campus.

“I feel like while it may streamline attendance procedures,” the fashion merchandising major said, “many effective tools like Top Hat or other things are already set in place.”

1 Comment

  1. While this new pilot is irritating many of my fellow students, the reality is that VCU already knows where each one of your wireless devices are at any time while on campus. The real question is how far back do they keep these logs?

    Every time your cellphone, laptop, tablet, heck even your Roku connects to the VCU Safenet it’s authenticating you and assigning an Internet Protocol (IP) address to that device, likely capturing the MAC (Media Access Control) Address (the only truly unique address for all internet connected devices) and the device name along with your eID. This is done so when you go from access point to access point or building to building you can have a continuous internet connection. Think of it as the same idea as why your cell phone doesn’t drop your call as you drive down the road passing one cell tower to another, and how the cops can figure out the last location your cellphone was used if something happened to you. Even the wireless router at your parents’ house is capturing some information about your devices every time they connect to it.

    If you want to be a bit more anonymous while on campus or in class, you’ll either need to use just your cellular data (VCU can’t track you that way) and the DUO authentication (they’ll only know that you’ve logged into the websites) or use the guest network and use a dummy email address to get access, and then use DUO to get to the websites you need. The latter they can track your device, but shouldn’t know who you are…

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