The rise and evolution of social media over the last few years has triggered a number of fascinating (and significant) changes to the way we live our daily lives. Even as recently as a decade ago, it probably would have been unfathomable for most people to want to share nearly every aspect of their day with an audience that totals billions of people worldwide. Flash forward to today and people are willing to share practically everything — from the meals they eat to the people they spend time with to the locations they visit on a regular basis.GPS tracker for studies

It’s that last point that has proven particularly interesting, as people regularly “check in” when they visit a new place on sites like Facebook. It’s also an idea that a professor at California Polytechnic State University decided to use to his advantage, leveraging the power of social media in a way that also allowed him to address an attendance-based issue he was dealing with not too long ago.

Giving New Meaning to the Phrase “Checking In”

Professor Tom Bensky was just looking for a way to not only make attendance-taking easier on himself but to actually improve class participation rates as well. He couldn’t find a solution that did what he needed it to… so he decided to go out and build one himself.

Professor Bensky developed an application that not only tracks classroom attendance, but that does so using the GPS functionality that is already built into his students’ smartphones. Once a student enters his classroom, he or she can open the app and “check in” — largely in the exact same way they would on social media. The app itself sends all data back to a central repository and in a matter of minutes, and Bensky is given a daily attendance report.

Because the app uses a phone’s GPS chip, it can literally see where a student is “checking in” from — meaning that they have to physically be in the class itself to be recorded. They can’t check in from their dorm room and have it count toward their daily attendance, for example. They can certainly try, but the app will know that, too.

To Bensky’s credit, he says that the app has already saved him an enormous amount of time. All he has to do is walk into his class and say something akin to “Don’t forget to check in, everyone!” At that point, the “social media instinct” kicks in. He can walk back to his office and see exactly how many students were there, all without even thinking of picking up a pencil and creating a roster the old-fashioned way.
Critics, however, have been quick to target the app for what they say could easily lead to an invasion of privacy. Bensky has an explanation for that, too, however. He says that the app is used exclusively to confirm whether or not someone was physically present in a classroom. It does not collect any location data from a user’s smartphone, and he does not have access to any other functions on someone’s device.

Critics have also identified a flaw in the app, in that students can “spoof” their GPS location through a variety of different Web applications. This could make it “look” like they were present in class as far as the app itself is concerned, even though they weren’t there at all. Indeed, this seems to be a sophisticated solution — but one that certainly isn’t ready to replace human intervention just yet.

But regardless of which side of the “privacy” conversation you come down on, it’s hard to argue against the fact that modern technology has impressed once again. A professor had an issue he was dealing with and couldn’t find an acceptable solution, so he decided to create one from the ground up. If Bensky’s app continues to be as successful as he claims it is, this is a story that a lot of other educators will be watching closely for the foreseeable future.