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How Colleges Are Using Tech To Keep Track Of Students


If you've got a smartphone or a Facebook account, if you shop online or use a ride-sharing app, companies are collecting a lot of data about you all the time. If you are a college student, your school may be doing the exact same thing. Drew Harwell at The Washington Post took a deep look at the technology that universities are using to track students.


DREW HARWELL: Thank you.

CHANG: So let's just start with a snapshot of what surveillance on a college campus actually looks like. Can you just paint a quick picture for us?

HARWELL: So it all revolves around that phone that students have in their pocket. When they go into certain classrooms, there will be these Bluetooth beacons installed around the room that can log whether they have attended the class, whether they've got in late, whether they left in the middle of the class.


HARWELL: All that data ends up going back to the college. And then sometimes when they leave those rooms, there will be Wi-Fi access points that can track wherever they go on campus 24 hours a day. And, you know, for some students, it's up to 6,000 location data points every day.

CHANG: You write that most of these schools use this technology simply as a way to monitor class attendance. But what else are schools using this data for?

HARWELL: Some of these schools are taking it all the way to the point where they feel like, hey, if we have enough precise location data on people, we can start telling maybe whether they're going through a mental health crisis. Maybe if a student is not leaving the dorms enough or was going to the library all the time and then stopped, maybe we can use that data and send out an RA or an adviser to their room and say, hey, what's going on?

And so some of these colleges are using these systems that divine out these risk scores for certain students to say the system is watching, they see something is amiss with your location. What's going on, and what can we do to respond to that?

CHANG: And do we have a sense yet of how accurate those so-called risk scores are at pinpointing students who are going through hard times?

HARWELL: That's the big question. You know, colleges seem to think if we only knew more, right? If we only had more data on where these students were going, we could have this perfect pinpoint, you know, accuracy on just what's going on in their mind.

But from a lot of the AI experts and privacy people I talked to, they feel like this system is just going to be full of errors. There's going to be so much context that these systems don't pick up, so many other explanations that could be behind why you...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARWELL: ...Didn't go to the library on a certain day. And so they just feel like the result is going to end up putting students in a tough position that they never really deserved.

CHANG: Now, how widespread is this? How widespread is it that universities are collecting this level of data on students?

HARWELL: So I looked at two specific companies that have been working with a number of colleges. Between them, it's about 60 schools. And these run from huge, you know, state universities in the South that have 50,000, 60,000 students to small, private colleges, even one high school. So it's definitely growing, especially considering that this technology is fairly recent...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARWELL: ...In sort of a college, and it's only been happening for the last couple years.

CHANG: And how aware are students that this level of surveillance is happening on college campuses?

HARWELL: That was, I think, one of the most concerning things I found, was that a lot of the students just had no idea what was really happening, right? There were the students who had learned of it through social media or a friend and were really kind of upset over the privacy aspect. But then there are a whole slew of students who just had no idea, right? They got - they put the app on their phone. They click the checkbox to accept a privacy policy, like we all do, and had no real idea of how closely these systems were monitoring them.

And so that's a worry. Like, these students are just shedding so much intimate information about where they go every day, and they're not even really realizing the scope of what that entails.

CHANG: Drew Harwell is a technology reporter for The Washington Post.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

HARWELL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESPER RYOM'S "PACER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.