Is taking attendance in college even possible?

I have been teaching college physics for 18 years, and in all of this time, I’ve hardly ever taken attendance in my classes. I would like to, but I’ve simply never been able to come up with an efficient and effective way of doing so, even with my ‘small’ (under 70 student) classes. Despite articles like those by Silver[1] and having long read articles like those by Credé, et. al.[2], I even dream of an attendance method rigorous enough to be used as part of the class grade. Until now though, I simply do not take attendance at all (and neither do just about all of my colleagues).

So I’ve long rationalized it all: the students are adults, why should I care if they go, they're paying for this, they should want to be in class, it’s their decision, I’m not their babysitter, they’ll get “bitten” on the exam, etc. etc. blah blah.

In the larger view, class attendance for students is undeniably at the core of life in college: it’s always optional. And this bothers me. A while back I was giving a tour of my university to some 8th graders and one asked me: ‘Is it true that you don’t get in trouble here if you don’t go to class?’ I have come to believe that in the mind of a student, class attendance is always the #1 free variable in an overcommitted schedule. The trip, party, concert, injury, cousin’s graduation, project meeting, sick relative, or a summer job need not be missed, because class always can be.

Now, I work hard for my classes, to keep my content fresh and relevant. My hope is that students would want to come to my classes, but indeed as the novelty of a new term wears off, I walk into my classes only to see swaths of empty seats. Usually, students start ‘not coming’ to class as soon day #2 of a term. These swaths I mentioned hit hard later in the term, when I think of the number of students I turned away at the start of the term because the class was ‘full.’

I became more concerned about this in the era of administrators demanding increased graduation rates. In response, we’ve done things like open up night sections of ‘supplemental instruction,’ offer smaller sections of ‘high D-F’ classes, hire learning assistants, thinning out curriculum, choosing ‘more friendly’ textbooks, and even run hour-long tutoring sessions in the common areas of dormitories. I think of this as a ‘top down’ approach, in that such efforts come from the efforts of administrators and professors, and hopefully trickle on down to the success of the students.

What about some bottom up effort? Are the students doing all they can? It seems to me that going to class is a bare minimum for success. Why not get to know the professor, including their teaching style and pace? Why not meet other students in the class? Why not develop a self-support structure? Why not stay involved? Is each class spent away also a step away from class?

I was getting desperate, and being a bit of a coder and technologist, wondered if rigorous attendance could somehow be taken using technology. It would have to be fast and efficient. Scanning barcodes on IDs (which I’ve tried) takes too long. What about facial recognition in the classroom? No, privacy. RFID tags? No, too easy to forget or share. Bluetooth? Range issues. "Clickers" get as close as one might get, but sharing is a problem and an amusing hack is out there[3]. Also, I do not want to impart the additional cost or contribute to e-waste for such a specialized device (my college-aged son has two ‘clickers’ sitting in his dresser drawer). Clickers are now morphing into apps, which may handle attendance, but I was not interested in their intended use of in-class feedback. I just need attendance. Also, I am not looking to crucify anyone for not coming to class, but wanted something that would at least raise the relative importance of class attendance in their overall scheduling decisions. So a couple of summers ago, I came up with a plan.

My plan would involve the mobile phone, which all students seem to have. I also coded up a website that allows me to draw a ‘geofence’ around my classroom on a map. I also coded an app (thank you Cordova) that, with careful regard to a student’s privacy, does one thing when a student taps on it: reads their phone’s GPS (hence student’s) location, and if (and only if) their location is within my geofence at a prescribed time, logs a "here" with their name in a private attendance roster. My site, Youhere.org was thus born, and I hereby offer it to you, if class attendance troubles you as much as it does me.

[Notes: 1) No the app doesn't somehow stay active, tracking a person's whereabouts and 2) if they are outside of my geofence, their location is not logged.]

Now, all I say as I open my class is: "check-in please." With this, my attendance is done. Borrowing a phrase from the late Steve Jobs, compared to the hopeless sign-in sheet or tortuous name calling, this website/app pair "works like magic.""

References

[1] See https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/08/09/why-faculty-shouldnt-factor-class-attendance-and-participation-final-grades-opinion
[2] See https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.3102/0034654310362998
[3] See http://arkorobotics.com/blog/?p=17.