Electronic Checking on Athletes in Class Sparks Debate About Their Privacy
Concern over academic misconduct in college sports and how the National Collegiate Athletic Association handles it drew much of the attention at a meeting of academic advisers here last week. But interest in new products that allow colleges to electronically monitor their players’ classroom attendance also created a buzz.
As members of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics gathered for their annual convention, many met with representatives of three companies who came to market their class-checking products. Two of those companies — which have introduced products called “ClassCheck” and “Spotter” — recently entered the business, hoping to capitalize on what they see as an emerging market.
Class checking is nothing new in athletics; major-college programs spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to make sure athletes show up when they’re supposed to. At many colleges, the task falls on team managers, graduate assistants, or student workers who sit outside classrooms, pen and paper in hand, to mark down who is there.
The new products rely on players’ downloading a mobile app that is designed to send a message to academic advisers and coaches when athletes are truant. The companies’ leaders say their technologies allow athletic departments to check classes more efficiently and more cheaply than they do now, freeing up staff members for more meaningful work, such as providing academic assistance to help players graduate.
But some academic advisers expressed concern about how the tool could be viewed.
“It has negative implications — essentially, now I’ve got a tracker on me,” said Kenneth O. Miles, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Mr. Miles, who oversees LSU’s academic center for athletes, said he wondered if such services might “perpetuate some other institutional practices,” such as those that require prisoners to wear ankle bracelets after they are released from jail.
Others questioned whether requiring the use of a location monitor might lead to unforeseen expenses for athletics programs.
“At what point is the student-athlete going to ask the university to pay their phone bill if they’re required to have it in class?” said John Gruppo, assistant athletics director for budget and finance at George Washington University.
Joe Montgomery, chief of product and marketing for a product called “Class120,” said people were entitled to their own opinions about whether mobile class checking was worthwhile. But he said his service was merely an extension of something athletics programs have done for years.
“They’re sending human spies today, at least in the bigger programs, to visually see that students are in class,” he said. “We’re just using technology to do the same job.”
Mr. Montgomery acknowledged the criticism that colleges have overstepped their role in monitoring players’ attendance. But he said there was evidence that class-checking services benefit both athletes and other students.
“A lot of people say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this — they’re adults now,’” he said. “But if nearly half of the students who enter college aren’t graduating within six years, something’s not working.
“I’m not saying that class attendance is the only reason for that number,” he continued. “But the research shows that it’s the biggest predictor of academic success in a college classroom — so we have to at least take that into account.”
Avoiding Big Brother
Class120 is a product of a company called Core Principle, which recently announced a pilot program with the University of Florida. This fall Class120 will monitor class attendance for 50 to 75 Gators athletes, said Keith Carodine, senior associate athletic director for academic affairs.
Florida monitors class attendance for all of its athletes by sending progress reports to instructors every few weeks, Mr. Carodine said. The athletic department keeps closer tabs on 50 to 75 students deemed to be at risk academically. In recent years, Mr. Carodine said, the university has spent about $7,500 a year to monitor their class attendance.
The State University System of Florida has long required institutions to have a class-attendance policy that includes suspensions for students who fail to show up for class, he said. The Southeastern Conference has a similar policy.
Mr. Carodine said it had been beneficial to more closely monitor athletes who are academically underprepared, as well as those who have a history of academic problems. He believes that Class120 will provide a more efficient way to do what the university is already doing, and he does not have any concerns about privacy, provided the service is used as intended.
“Using it for any more than class scheduling is getting into Big Brother,” he said. “We just want to know if you’re in the building” for class.
Kim Durand, associate athletic director for student development at the University of Washington, is not a fan of class checking. If any of the university’s coaches want it done, she said, she asks them to take care of it themselves.
Chris Petersen, the head football coach, has his assistant coaches check in on players’ classes, Ms. Durand said.
Attendance violations at Washington carry a steep price: Any player who is caught skipping a class must attend study hall from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. on Saturday nights after home games and Friday nights the rest of the year. Coach Petersen and his assistants take turns running the study halls.
“Can you understand why my team GPA is now above 3.0?” Ms. Durand said. “And I spend zero dollars on class checking.”
A New Definition of Fraud?
While some academic advisers here debated the merits of class checking, others discussed new ideas for protecting their institutions from allegations of academic misconduct. Many recent accusations of academic fraud in college sports have involved online or correspondence courses, an area that colleges are beginning to pay more attention to.
Pennsylvania State University now requires students enrolled in online classes to take their examinations in a dedicated testing center, to ensure they are properly monitored (students are not allowed to wear hats and must show their faces). The University of Louisville requires athletes in online classes to submit copies of their papers and assignments to the academic-support staff to help prove that they did the work themselves.
Other programs, including Ohio State University’s, have completed academic-integrity audits. Following The Chronicle’s report of academic misconduct in its men’s basketball program, the University of Texas at Austin announced a comprehensive review of its admissions policy and academic services for athletes.
Several colleges are emphasizing training. At the Virginia Military Institute, the first meeting planned for first-year football and basketball players this summer involves a discussion of the honor code. The University of Washington has similar plans, Ms. Durand said, and expects to repeat the session every quarter.
The NCAA is weighing a broader definition of what constitutes academic misconduct. One idea on the table: Colleges may be held more responsible in the future if student workers or employees outside of the athletic department help players cheat.
Some athletics leaders are not sure they are comfortable with that prospect.
“What about the student worker in the ticket office, or someone who works with the registrar?” Ms. Durand said. “How am I supposed to control that? How can I educate them?”
Brad Wolverton is a senior writer who covers college sports. Follow him on Twitter @bradwolverton.
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Brad Wolverton, and the original publisher, The Chronicle of Higher Education.