Wi-Fi data not clear enough for VCU to move forward with attendance tracking program

Data collected during the Ram Attend pilot was not clear enough to continue with the program. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Katie Hollowell, Contributing Writer 

VCU will no longer track selected students’ Wi-Fi locations for class attendance after the conclusion of a controversial pilot program that began in November. 

Results from the program, Ram Attend, showed 15% of students who participated were not frequently connected to the VCU SafeNet Wi-Fi network. Due to high opt-out rates, small class sizes and some classes being held outside their classrooms, the Wi-Fi data wasn’t clear enough.

Sophomore Maryam Islam thinks it’s smart that VCU didn’t move forward with Ram Attend. 

“It’s heartbreaking to think that a college would want to confine us even more and want to track our movements and where we’re going,” the biology major said. “If our college doesn’t trust us, why did we choose this college?”

The $96,000 pilot program only tracked class attendance in focused inquiry classes — UNIV 111, 112, and 200 — for the students who did not opt out through a link sent out via email. Professors took attendance manually, and it was compared to the Ram Attend results. 

Students who participated in the program had their Wi-Fi logins recorded by Degree Analytics, the vendor VCU contracted to gather the data, at their specific class time, and the rest of their data was filtered out. Each student’s identity was stripped before the vendor received their login data. 

VCU spokesperson Mike Porter said in an email in November that the one-year contract with Degree Analytics would not affect students’ tuition. 

The pilot’s webpage states that 4,047 students were enrolled in the focused inquiry courses in the pilot, 2,414 students opted out and 1,633 students remained.

Public relations major Sarah Kouadio disliked the program — she said everyone at VCU is an adult, and it’s up to students to attend class.

“I understand they’re trying to better your attendance rate, but that’s just another level of extremism that I don’t think we need,” the senior said. “It’s a waste of money, too.”

Student data is protected under the Family Educational Records Protection Act, or FERPA, which allows students access to their educational records. According to its webpage, Ram Attend did not give university officials access to the data unless their job duty required it. 

Senior associate vice provost for student success Maggie Tolan said in an email Friday to the students enrolled in focused inquiry courses last semester that VCU is committed to student success.

We are committed to exploring and engaging in new opportunities to support our students,” Tolan said. “So that every student can find success in their academic and career goals.”

Senior Bryan Youmbi said professors should use manual in-class attendance so students don’t feel they’re being watched. 

“VCU is for students and should listen to the students,” the psychology major said.  

When the pilot program launched in November, many students expressed discomfort at the thought of the university tracking their locations for attendance. 

Environmental studies major Sarah Pritchard opted-out of the program and didn’t understand why VCU began the pilot program so late in the semester. 

“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 Top Hat attendance?”

Tolan said in her email to students that listening sessions are being planned later this spring “to discuss lessons learned from the RAM Attend pilot and to further engage in a dialogue about improving our student success initiatives.”

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