University tech presents growing privacy concern for students, educators

The benefits of technology are often publicized, but educators are increasingly questioning whether student surveillance is getting out of hand.
(gorodenkoff / Getty)

University administrators often publicize the benefits that tools like voice assistants, attendance-tracking apps and facial recognition systems can offer students. But as these technologies are increasingly adopted and data collection becomes an institutional priority, many call attention to the potential for misuse and harm to students.

This challenge of balancing help with privacy was recently epitomized at Syracuse University where campus officials implemented a new attendance system that tracks the location of students through their phones. While the goal of this technology is to ultimately help students develop better work habits, like reliably showing up to class on time, both students and faculty have expressed concern that the system could be an invasion of privacy, the Washington Post reported last week. And as the trend of implementing technology tools to benefit students continues, the challenge of tying both privacy and assistance together is also expected to remain.

Brandan Aldrich, chief data officer for the California State University system, noted at an education conference in October that “modern colleges are generating more data than they ever have in history,” and that they can use data to positive ends, such as keeping students on track to graduate, for example. But Ann Nagel, a university privacy officer at the University of Washington, pointed out that “we have a responsibility to be thinking about privacy.”

Universities have been collecting data for years — Georgia State University in Atlanta has since 2012 been monitoring students on about 800 risk factors to help identify those who might be struggling academically. According to American Public Media, an estimated 1,400 colleges and universities have turned to this type of predictive analysis to help students succeed.


Missed opportunities

However, some educators are concerned that despite the intention of this technology being used to help students, it may also be taking opportunities away from them.

“I always say higher education is a time of exploration, where you start to figure out who you want to become for the later period of your life,” Kyle Jones, an assistant professor at Indiana University told American Public Media. But with predictive algorithms being used to help students navigate through their education, Jones argues that data can steer students too narrowly and limit them from exploring opportunities they may appear to be less qualified for.

Students also don’t always know they are being monitored so closely, Jones said, noting an absence of any “culture of informed consent.” Rather, decisions of privacy come from chief information officers, instructors or advisers on behalf of students, he said.

Similar potentially privacy-invading technologies have been implemented at institutions of higher learning across the country, including the attendance-tracking app being used at Syracuse University in New York and AI-enabled microphones installed at Saint Louis University.


To help boost class attendance at Syracuse University, students’ phones now connect to short-range phone sensors in classrooms, logging their absence into a database if they skip class, according to the Washington Post. The SpotterEDU app tracks the location of students across campus and can gather thousands of location data points per student every day.

In professor Jeff Rubin’s Introduction to Information Technologies class, those data points can translate into grade points if students show up to class on time.

But some educators have expressed concern with this increase in educational vigilance, wondering if it may undermine students’ independence and prevent them from pursuing interests beyond the classroom.

“These administrators have made a justification for surveilling a student population because it serves their interests,” said. Kyle M. L. Jones, an Indiana University assistant professor who researches student privacy, told the Washington Post that he thinks universities are putting their own priorities ahead of students’.

Eroding trust


The technology department at Saint Louis University last year installed about 2,300 Amazon Echo Dots in each of the university’s residence hall rooms with the voice assistant Alexa pre-programmed to answer 130 SLU-specific questions, including library hours and office locations. The university said the goal was to improve students’ access to information and make their campus lives more convenient.

But while administrators at may believe Alexa will bolster enrollment and reduce dropout rates, the MIT Technology Review has reported that privacy is a growing concern for this AI-powered device.

And the tech companies that universities are partnering with to deliver these new kinds of services to students are notoriously opaque about privacy and security. Vitaly Shmatikov, a professor of computer science at Cornell Tech, told MIT Technology Review that no one really knows how much data voice-skill hosts like Amazon are harvesting.

According to Russell Newman, an Emerson professor researching the political economy of communication and communications policy, students are one of the most desirable consumer categories because they are difficult to reach but one of the most likely to set trends. As a result, their data is some of the most valuable and the most likely to be mined or sold.

For educational institutions to be complicit in the commodification of students, he said, is fundamentally antithetical to the missions of those colleges and universities.


Mark Roman, chief information officer at Simon Fraser University, said at Educause said that as institutions implement more technology and collect more data, the challenge of balancing the goal of student success with privacy protection will continue to be a struggle.

“What we’re seeing is an explosive distrust of technology,” he said.

Betsy Foresman

Written by Betsy Foresman

Betsy Foresman was an education reporter for EdScoop from 2018 through early 2021, where she wrote about the virtues and challenges of innovative technology solutions used in higher education and K-12 spaces. Foresman also covered local government IT for StateScoop, on occasion. Foresman graduated from Texas Christian University in 2018 — go Frogs! — with a BA in journalism and psychology. During her senior year, she worked as an intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and moved back to the capital after completing her degree because, like Shrek, she feels most at home in the swamp. Foresman previously worked at Scoop News Group as an editorial fellow.

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