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The Daily Tar Heel

How UNC got the tech to track men's basketball, football players' class attendance

A SpotterEDU device sits at the front of the room in Hanes 117 as a student writes on the blackboard underneath on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2019.

UNC launched an automated attendance monitoring software during the first week of classes to track class attendance of select student-athletes from the football and men's basketball teams, according to emails and financial records obtained by The Daily Tar Heel. 

The emails, which span around three months beginning in June, show that more than 150 beacon devices have been installed in classrooms across campus. The technology, which is called SpotterEDU and developed by Chicago-based Arick LLC, was officially approved by University officials on Aug. 17. 

Installation of the beacon devices began four days later. 

Moving campuswide

The morning of the software’s approval, Michelle Brown, director of the academic support program for student-athletes, wrote about the need for a communication plan and the possibility of using a campuswide program developed by UNC in future years.

“As a reminder to all parties, this is a stop gap until next year when we will utilize UNC Check-In,” Tom Livers, UNC IT Director, said on Aug. 6. 

SpotterEDU installs small beacons in the classrooms of its university customers. Those beacons automatically send a Bluetooth signal to the smartphones of student-athletes who have downloaded the SpotterEDU app, but only once they are within range of the assigned classroom’s device.

UNC Check-In — an app created by UNC professor Viji Sathy and ITS Teaching & Learning — also uses beacon technology. It is currently only being used to track attendance for some lecture classes in large, general-purpose rooms on campus. 

While SpotterEDU has an automated check-in function and is currently only used by some student-athletes on campus, UNC Check-In requires students to manually check in once they are in the range of the Bluetooth device in their classroom. 

UNC Check-In does not currently support the specific technology needed by the athletics department, according to a draft of a meeting agenda shared between University officials on Sept. 9.

Email communication between SpotterEDU CEO Rick Carter and UNC football coaching staff began on June 6. While it is not clear when the men’s basketball team began exploring the technology, Carter checked on the approval status for both teams on Aug. 14. 

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Multiple former football players have confirmed for the DTH that the current team is using the app. On the afternoon of Sept. 10, Carter requested the most recent schedules for men’s basketball players so they could begin using the platform.

Citing student privacy reasons, the University declined to state which teams were participating in the program when asked by the DTH in early September.

'Notification and opting in'

SpotterEDU’s beacon technology was widely preferred over GPS tracking by faculty and coaches, the emails show. 

All data gathered on SpotterEDU is stored by Amazon Web Services Inc. That data is immediately removed at the end of a service period, although it is retained in backups for 31 days, according SpotterEDU IT information attached in the emails.

Data gathered on the app is encrypted and accessible only to each individual student and users granted access by each team, Holliday said in an email on July 27. 

Ochuko Jenije, director of student-athlete development, manages each player's schedule and attendance information for the football program’s use of SpotterEDU. It is unclear who manages this information for the men’s basketball team.

On Aug. 14, Lauren DiGrazia, assistant provost and University registrar, inquired who would be using SpotterEDU, stating sensitive data points were involved.

“Normally I would ask if the student is aware (of) how their information is being used as this information is not something normally shared,” she wrote. “However, I believe athletes have signed waivers to allow the release of information.”

Early emails show an emphasis on ensuring federal student privacy laws were followed and that no rights were violated by use of the app. While discussing communication plans to faculty on prior to installation, Brown said no email needed to be sent to students.

“Since students have to download the app, that is considered notification and opting-in,” she wrote.

At the time of installation on Aug. 21, neither faculty teaching in Carroll Hall, nor Susan King, dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, knew about SpotterEDU. King ordered the removal of a SpotterEDU beacon device the day after a professor posted about it being installed while she was teaching in Carroll on the first day of classes. But emails show devices were also installed in five other rooms within the building. 

On Aug. 27, Carter sent an email apologizing “for the situation that our install on campus has caused,” likely referring to the reaction from some faculty following the installation of his company’s technology. 

The University declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding Carter’s apology, as well as why the drafts communicating the new technology to faculty were never sent.

Joanne Peters Denny, director of UNC Media Relations, said the University “will let the records speak for themselves." She emphasized that UNC fulfilled its federal obligations on student privacy, and said checking class attendance has happened for years.

"SpotterEDU simply allows the University to use technology to simplify these efforts," Peters Denny said in an email to the DTH.

Costs and contracts

On June 21, senior associate athletic director Vince Ille responded to athletic director Bubba Cunningham’s inquiry about interest in the program, and said it had been presented at the most recent football administration meeting by associate athletic director Corey Holliday.

“They expect this will improve our ability to track more team members, in more places, more accurately. It could also save us money since we now pay people to check classes,” Ille said in the email. “If the system works, we will no longer pay those people.”

Carter sent the University a contract for $5,000 on June 6. The contract costs included $4,000 for SpotterEDU to cover 60 student-athletes, along with $1,000 for 10 months of service fees. 

Another SpotterEDU contract for $3,000 was signed by the University on Sept. 6, but that contract doesn’t state the number of student-athletes it will cover.

The University declined to comment on how these costs compared with previous annual costs for human class checkers.