A smartphone application that lets professors know if a student is in class or not will be put to wider use at the University of Missouri in the spring semester.

Sometimes controversial, the SpotterEDU app is currently used only by the MU Athletics Department. Jim Spain, MU Vice Provost for undergraduate studies, said Tuesday that in the spring semester, it will be used in 10 to 15 classes in the general student population.

Developed by former MU men's assistant basketball coach Rick Carter, the app was featured in a Dec. 24 Washington Post story that showed some critics are raising concerns about student privacy, with others complaining that it infringes on student independence.

Carter, who coached at MU in the 2012-13 season, is the CEO of SpotterEDU, and said he came up with the idea while recruiting for MU when he determined that a player was skipping his classes.

He said around 40 universities use his app, either in their athletic departments, general student populations, or both.

It's wrong to say the app tracks a student's location, Carter said. It doesn't. It uses Bluetooth technology, not GPS technology, to signal to the teacher if a student is in class — but if the student isn't in class, it doesn't track the student's location.

"It only comes to life during class," Carter said of the technology. "It doesn't know where you are if you're not in class. If a teacher were to take attendance, it's the same thing. We're just automating that process."

Student athletes seem more determined to try to find ways around the platform, Carter said, adding that the privacy concerns are ill-founded.

"We don't collect data," he said.

SpotterEDU does require universities to provide the company with student class schedules in order to set up the system. Carter said the company doesn't have the names connected with the schedules. The company also knows the types of phones students are using, because the app only works on some phones.

"The students know the university has that information," Spain said when asked about the information sharing. "That information is not shared by the company. It's private. It's protected."

The MU athletic department has used the app for the past four years, said Tami Chievous, MU associate athletic director. All freshman student athletes and student athletes who are on academic probation have the app on their phones. In the most recent semester, that included around 90 students.

Better grade point averages of student athletes can be partly attributed to use of the app, she said.

"I know it has helped," she said.

The university is conducting a pilot project using SpotterEDU, Spain said, because the technology already is on campus. The 10 to 15 classes in which it will be used haven't been finalized, so he doesn't have the number of students who will be using it.

The idea has been brought to the attention of the Faculty Council Executive Committee and student leadership in the Missouri Students Association, Spain said.

The tool has the potential to improve student success and student retention, Spain said.

"That's really the purpose of doing the pilot is to better understand our students," he said. "Research shows going to class is by far the most important factor in determining academic success."

Students have no reason to be concerned about privacy if they use the app, he said.

"Monitoring classroom attendance is nothing new to MU," Spain said. "Some professors pass around an attendance sheet."

Social media and other software makers have more information about people from their cell phones than is being revealed by this app, he said.

It also doesn't infringe on a student's independence, he said.

"A student doesn't have to come to class," he said. "They still have freedom of choice to not come to class. We're just not going to know where they're at."

A professor may communicate with a student who has piled up too many absences, to find out if anything is wrong, Spain said.

Three students in the MU Student Center, told about the pilot rollout of the app, said they were unconcerned.

McKenna Stumph, a Boonville sophomore, said SpotterEDU sounds similar to an application one of her professors already uses that provides points toward her grade for answering questions posed on it. The professor doesn't use it every day, though.

Sharing her class schedule with the company gives up a little privacy, Stumph noted, but she said it also didn't concern her.

"The class schedule is the university's property," Stumph said. "I would trust the university."

She attends class regularly, she said.

"My 8 a.m. classes are harder to get to," she said, adding that people who skip class may not like the app. "It would also help to hold me accountable to make sure I go to class."

Brynn Edwards, also a Boonville sophomore, said she trusts the university to use her information appropriately and she doesn't think the app is a problem.

"I honestly wouldn't enjoy it," said Megan Hardin, a sophomore from West Plains.

The reason? She skips classes sometimes, especially when professors post their lectures online.

Privacy isn't a concern, she said.

"I feel like stuff is already out there," Hardin said. "At this point, with the internet, there's no privacy."

Matt McCabe, communication director for the Missouri Students Association at MU, said Spain has kept student leadership briefed about the pilot program.

"We're waiting to gauge student feedback" from the pilot, he said.

The company is very transparent about its process on its website, McCabe said.

"From what I know about it, it's non-invasive," McCabe said. "It only knows when you're in class, not where you are if you're not in class. That's the standard we're going to continue to monitor. Student privacy is very important."

After the spring semester, the pilot could be expanded in the fall to include other platforms, Spain said.

The cost of using the app for the university hasn't been determined, Spain said. The pilots will determine if any of the attendance apps would be rolled out campus-wide.

"Until we have a final head count, we won't know what the final cost is," he said.

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com

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