The Pandemic Is No Excuse to Surveil Students

from The Atlantic

In Michigan, a small liberal-arts college is requiring students to install an app called Aura, which tracks their location in real time, before they come to campus. Oakland University, also in Michigan, announced a mandatory wearable that would track symptoms, but, facing a student-led petition, then said it would be optional. The University of Missouri, too, has an app that tracks when students enter and exit classrooms. This practice is spreading: In an attempt to open during the pandemic, many universities and colleges around the country are forcing students to download location-tracking apps, sometimes as a condition of enrollment. Many of these apps function via Bluetooth sensors or Wi-Fi networks. When students enter a classroom, their phone informs a sensor that’s been installed in the room, or the app checks the Wi-Fi networks nearby to determine the phone’s location.

As a university professor, I’ve seen surveillance like this before. Many of these apps replicate the tracking system sometimes installed on the phones of student athletes, for whom it is often mandatory. That system tells us a lot about what we can expect with these apps.

There is a widespread charade in the United States that university athletes, especially those who play high-profile sports such as football and basketball, are just students who happen to be playing sports as amateurs “in their free time.” The reality is that these college athletes in high-level sports, who are aggressively recruited by schools, bring prestige and financial resources to universities, under a regime that requires them to train like professional athletes despite their lack of salary. However, making the most of one’s college education and training at that level are virtually incompatible, simply because the day is 24 hours long and the body, even that of a young, healthy athlete, can only take so much when training so hard. Worse, many of these athletes are minority students, specifically Black men, who were underserved during their whole K–12 education and faced the same challenge then as they do now: Train hard in hopes of a scholarship and try to study with what little time is left, often despite being enrolled in schools with mediocre resources. Many of them arrive at college with an athletic scholarship but not enough academic preparation compared with their peers who went to better schools and could also concentrate on schooling.

It’s no secret that many universities go to great lengths to let these “amateurs” in demanding athletic fields do as little as possible academically so that they can keep training hard. But it’s supposed to be a wink-wink-nudge-nudge process, not outright fraud. A few years ago, my own university, the University of North Carolina, breached this unspoken rule. The school became embroiled in a high-profile scandal after a professor provided fake classes aimed at athletes that gave them the grades required to keep their eligibility in return for little to no attendance or work. That, of course, made the charade uncomfortably explicit, and UNC faced national attention and some minor sanctions.

More here.

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One Comment

  1. Having students attend college in person in the fall of 2020 was a very difficult task for colleges and universities around the world. A balancing act had to occur. Does the college or university promote the health and safety of their students, or do they think about the social lives of their enrolled students? Having a strict Covid-19 policy could deter students from enrolling in a college or university, while helping to keep faculty and administration safe from the side effects of the Coronavirus. A weak Covid-19 policy would allow enrolled students to fully experience college life, and to have a very rich social life. However, the health and safety of all students, faulty, and administration would be in danger. Managing the spread of Covid-19 is very difficult as Covid-19 social distancing policies might not always be followed to the extent they are supposed to by students, and students will find ways to avoid being held responsible for breaking these policies. Given this delicate situation, how do higher education institutions create Covid-19 polices which encourage social distancing and masking, while still allowing for students to party responsibly as no school policy will stop these parties anyway.

    An effective Covid-19 policy will not include tracking students though electronic devices. This method of monitoring the spread of the Coronavirus, is extremely invasive to the privacy of students. Furthermore, it breaches students’ natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Monitoring someone’s actions and locations violates their God-given rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson. Someone’s right to privacy is a fundamental part of their personal liberties, which should be protected under the law. Data privacy laws are weak in the USA, and their absence allows for student’s natural rights to be violated.

    Unfortunately, some colleges and universities have began to track their students. They justify their invasive actions as a strategy to combat the pandemic. However, this strategy is very ineffective as students have found loopholes to avoid being tracked by their higher education institution. Students have left their phones in their dorms, when they have gone out partying, and they have had a friend bring both their phones with them to class, if one student wants to skip class. These examples show how mandatory tracking apps and electronic devices are ineffective at achieving their goals.

    The best Covid-19 policy, for the fall of 2020, which a higher education institution can enforce, is one which has mandatory masking, suggested social distancing, and an optional recommended app which tracks symptoms and does not have data aggregated in a central data base with access for university administration.

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