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MyUoY app causes University-wide concerns

Campus sees growing worries over the app's location-based check-in feature and the idea of monitoring attendance

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Image Credit: Arian Kriesch

The pilot version of the MyUoY app would see students registering at contact hours via location services and a Bluetooth beacon inside of the room. Concerns over this were immediately raised with the Computer Science Department Representative, Tom O’Neill, who told Nouse that he was “surprised that the University hadn’t anticipated the backlash from students and staff.” Describing location data as “inherently personal”, he argued that “people are rightfully concerned about the extent to which they are expected to put trust in the University.”

Nouse was denied access to a meeting between concerned department representatives and the MyUoY team in an attempt to hear more concerns. This exclusion was on the grounds that the department representatives had not been warned ahead of time that a member of the Nouse team would be present.

Location-based registration is voluntary within the pilot and uses both the proximity to the beacon through Bluetooth and your satellite determined exact location. If the app were to have a University-wide release, as the University intends for next academic year, it is the intention that only the proximity via Bluetooth element of the location gathering would be used when you check-in on the app.

Concerns were raised, however, on the consultation process with students and departments. One academic representative told us “it was quite amazing to stand up in an academic leadership meeting with the other department reps and be the only person even aware of the check-in pilot a matter of weeks before it was meant to be going ahead.”

When asked for the exact figures of all consultation that has already taken place, the University said “the project team have been working with YUSU and GSA, student reps, welfare and disability support professionals and students with disabilities in order to understand the accessibility and inclusivity concerns with the app and check-in. We are holding usability meetings with students to understand accessibility needs and requirements in more detail. As part of the development process for the student app, we have ensured that it complies with the current accessibility guidelines.”

On whether students had been adequately consulted, the University said: “Consultation with the student population is underway and is expected to continue throughout the pilot and beyond. The University actively seeks feedback from the student population and this is why we are keen to engage with students on this check-in pilot, before we make any decisions on a University-wide rollout using this technology. The project team has recently met departmental student representatives and will be working closely with them during the pilot. Additionally, students invited to take part in the pilot will have the opportunity to attend and feed back at project briefings in their department before the pilot starts.”

This consultation argument seems to be at odds with the concerns that have been raised by YUSU’s sabbatical and part-time Officers. For the sabbs, the problem is not with the controversial location-tracking element but instead the wider idea of the University tracking attendance. YUSU’s Community and Wellbeing Officer Steph Hayle described the idea of taking attendance to Nouse as “a far more complicated issue that may have serious ramifications for disabled students, students on Tier 4 Visas, and students experiencing exceptional circumstances.”

The YUSU Community and Wellbeing Officer also told Nouse that she doesn’t believe enough consideration was given to the potential impact of the check-in function of the app and “how it may leave these students feeling uncomfortable in their own university, or how it may force them to attend classes against their own best interests e.g. attending lectures when they’re sick.”

Other concerns around attendance monitoring regarded students on Tier 4 Visas. For said students achieving a good level of attendance is compulsory for their visa status and such monitoring has the potential to have serious consequences if their attendance is not to standard.

The University does, however, defend their intention of monitoring attendance much more thoroughly than it does now. A spokesperson for the University told Nouse that “the University Strategy commits to offering all students an outstanding and valuable experience by the creation of a supportive learning environment through which students can develop to reach their full academic and personal potential.” They added that “key to achieving this objective is a greater focus on understanding participation in teaching and learning activities as evidence suggests that student awareness of their patterns of attendance and engagement influences future behaviours, and has a positive impact on retention and outcomes.”

Giang Nguyen, YUSU’s Academic Officer, has also argued that monitoring attendance constantly would be unacceptable. In a statement to Nouse, Nguyen acknowledged the good intentions of the app saying that “the University has been saying that the check-in tool is to provide more holistic and University-wide data for pastoral support” but said that she “thinks that our University is not technologically competent to cope with this use of mass data”.

The shortcomings of the University’s technological competency were potentially highlighted when the University was forced to take down the app when a group of students found a security concern within it. These students raised the concern immediately and human error was given as a direct cause of the security concern. In a statement to Nouse, the University argued  that “the app is currently in testing with a small number of students with restricted functionality and data. A small number of issues, not related to attendance data or other personal data, were identified by students during this testing process and reported to IT Services. This data did not relate to the check-in features, but was related to an integration with the library system. The affected part of the app was shut down and the issue has now been fixed by the supplier. Further work is ongoing with the supplier.” The University reassured Nouse that “The app will not go live until the process of testing functionality and security has been completed.”

When asked about how the data collected will be stored, the University told Nouse: “During the pilot the data collected will be used to understand patterns of attendance, and we want to understand the ways in which this data can be used to effectively support students during their studies. In response to student feedback, all data will be used anonymously during the pilot.” Aside from the handling of such huge data, Giang Nguyen SU also raised the other concern “that since departments enjoy a great deal of autonomy from the University, they might force students to attend classes or to have disciplinary action against students’ loss of attendance.” This concern is once again shared by fellow YUSU Officer, Steph Hayle, who argues that although she understands that “the University must comply with government and Office for Students (OfS) guidelines on attendance, I do not believe this is a good way to do so.” She states that “it has only made students distrust the institution and its motives.”

If you share the concerns raised here, have some of your own, then the University will be holding departmental open forums for students to raise concerns. Along with encouraging academic reps to continue to lobby against the University, Nguyen has said to Nouse that she encourages “all students to come to those meetings, even for five minutes to speak up about what really matters to you.”

Read Tom O'Neill's Comment piece on why "Checking in should check out" here

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