Hundreds of instructors in the United States and Canada use the iClicker Reef to track student attendance and participation through its GPS component
When Simona Lippa found out that she was required to download an app for her environmental sustainability class, she wasn’t pleased. The app, called the iClicker Reef, costs users more than $20 for a six-month plan — that’s on top of $200 textbooks that Lippa needed. The app, which can be downloaded on any mobile device, is a way for instructors to monitor student participation and attendance.
The iClicker Reef is owned by iClicker, a company that manufactures classroom engagement tools. Lippa is one of many students who use the app, which has been purchased by 1,200 institutions around the world.
Users can answer in class polls and quizzes for participation marks. To record attendance, the app uses a GPS component — which raises concerns for a few students.
Ryerson’s computing and communications service said that first-year engineering programs and the faculty of science — specifically physics and chemistry — use it the most. The app is a modern version of its predecessor, the iClicker remote, which Ryerson has been using since 2012. The university only integrated the app two years ago.
But paying for a six-month plan for a class that meets twice a week wasn’t Lippa’s only concern.
“I understand what the professor is trying to do because he’s making sure that it’s fair to people who are coming in class and who is getting the participation marks,” Lippa said. “But it does feel a little weird knowing that you’re being tracked and that you can’t answer unless you’re in a certain vicinity.”
By using the geolocation feature, Tor Oiamo, Lippa’s instructor, knows whether his students are skipping class. Professors can set a time and location where class will be held, meaning enrolled students can participate only if they are within the vicinity of the classroom. Oiamo, who has been using iClicker products since the company’s early days, said he uses the app to see if it makes a difference in student performance.
“I use (the app) for a big class only because it doesn’t really allow the type of participation and discussion in a smaller teaching environment,” Oiamo said. “In smaller classes, I would see who’s actually participating, who’s contributing to discussions and who’s interested in asking questions. But for 200 students, it’s impossible to track.”
The instructor can only see those who are in the classroom’s radius and able to participate, not those who are unable to. Ryerson’s computing and communications services said faculty members can configure the radius in which mobile devices can participate in the app’s activity, but members do not have any visibility on where the device actually is.
Marisa Bluestone, the communications director at iClicker’s parent company Macmillan Learning, said the system only stores a value if a student is within range. “It does not store student geolocation information other than this yes-or-no answer to whether they attended class and a measurement of distance from where instructor indicated a class should be,” she said.
According to Bluestone, iClicker created the app with student privacy in mind and there’s no continued tracking of the student at any point after class ends.
“Each student must explicitly opt-in to have us check location for each session by clicking join and enabling geolocation settings on their own device,” Bluestone said. “This means that the location check can only occur in real time, when the student actively selects to join.”
In order for companies to share technology responsibly, they must be transparent with their customers, said freelance technology reporter Matt Braga. Developers need to have a good reason to collect location data of their users and can’t just “collect the information for the sake of collecting it,” he said.
“I think having that discussion about how (the app) works, what data is collected, and how long it’s stored for is a great discussion to have,” said Braga, adding that students should be actively informed about when and why their location is being tracked.
Braga said knowing how student data in relation to geolocation is collected, stored and used is vital in the discussion of privacy.
“I think there’s always a larger question of how useful this kind of app is or whether the technology is actually making professors’ lives easier,” Braga said. “It’s one thing to know whether someone is in class or not. But do you really need to employ more advanced technological means to do that?”
Other concerns with the app
Other than the app’s GPS functionality, the attendance component of the iClicker Reef has also raised concerns among students. Lippa said that while using the app in the beginning of the semester, she started with the free trial granted by the iClicker Reef. But as soon as it ended, she didn’t receive a single notification indicating that her trial was over.
“It just marked me absent and I couldn’t answer the questions because I didn’t pay for it yet,” Lippa said. “So I was in this space where I was watching everybody choose (their answers for in-class quizzes) and I was being marked absent, even though I was there.”
Class participation accounts for 10 per cent of Lippa’s final grade. Up to three absences
will be dropped from the calculation. However, in cases where students achieve a participation grade that is lower than the average of both of their midterms, the midterm exam grades will be reweighted to represent 20 per cent each.
Braga said that there is an issue of consent over the requirement to download classroom apps such as the iClicker Reef.
“Years ago, people had similar concerns about Turnitin and its use in universities,” Braga said. “I think it was one of those things where you could opt out of it, but it was so much easier to just kind of go with it. It’s that sort of option that students have. They can either use the app or they have to jump through hoops to opt out.”
Oiamo said some of his students have opted out of using iClicker products for class, with some choosing to write smaller quizzes or have other class components weighed differently. However, he said the majority of students decided to purchase the iClicker remote or app.
But with that choice comes a price tag, as there is the financial concern of paying for its use, too. The cheapest plan for students to download iClicker Reef is $20 for six months. For long term use, there is a plan for $62 to cover four years.
“We spend so much money to come (to university). I kind of hope that they (purchase the app) for us because considering how much money we give to them and that this isn’t a mandatory thing that professors have to use is upsetting,” Lippa said.
Oiamo says that the app isn’t the most ideal technology, but it’s helpful in a sense of engaging student interaction in big classroom settings.
“I’m not 100 per cent in on it, but at the end of the day, it provides an opportunity to participate and provide optimal feedback,” Oiamo said.