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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Is Biometric the right way to avoid Proxy Attendance?

Most academics in India seem to believe in compulsory attendance at university level. Unless you have some minimum attendance in the class, you should be punished by either failing the course outright, or in some enlightened institutions, by one grade less. (Of course, then we have places like IIT Kanpur, which leaves the attendance issue to its instructors.)

The logic that is often given is that people have often found a positive correlation between attendance and performance. That Indian kids were never given freedom while they were at school, and hence they are not ready to be responsible adult and thus must continue to be forced to do certain things in their own interest.

I, of course, disagree, and believe that if we will not let them be responsible for their own actions and inactions, they will not learn to be adults. So I don't take attendance in my classes (unless it is the institutional requirement in the university where I am teaching that course and I have no choice).

I believe that there is a positive correlation between attendance and performance. I can give an anecdotal evidence. In the course that I am teaching this semester, if I look at the mid-sem exam answerbooks that have not been collected (because the students were not present in the class), the average is much less than the class average. Also, in the last class before Diwali, I decided to announce the top 10 students of the class in the mid-sem exam and offer them a chocolate each. I found that all 10 were present in the class even on a day when the attendance was only 60 percent. So students whose performance has been good are regularly attending the classes.

However, I am not convinced that the correlation between attendance and performance can be considered as a correlation between attendance and learning. My own gut feeling is that if you attend all the classes, there would be some random stuff that you will be able to recall in the exam (and any exam would have at least a small component of recall type questions). For passing the course, that may be enough, but if the goal is learning, we may not have achieved much by insisting on attendance. (So poorly motivated students would not learn much from lectures, but they will get a few extra marks in the exam to pass the course is my gut feeling. I don't know how to verify this through an experiment.)

I also believe that to the extent there is correlation between attendance and performance, we can advice the students with data and let them decide if they want to really attend the class. Frankly, I have no problems if they can learn Computer Networks from the best faculty members in MIT and Stanford through MOOCs. And if they waste their time and don't learn, they should be prepared for a poor grade, including a Fail grade.

Many faculty members would say that failure has a cost. Not only do they become unpopular for failing many students (and they don't want to be) but also, the class size becomes larger, the infrastructure needs are higher, if a student has to stay on for an extra semester, then hostel accommodation becomes an issue. And hence forcing attendance is ok. (I don't agree that you have to fail a large fraction of the class to get the next batch to become serious. My own failure rates, other than failures for copying where I am very strict, have been pretty much in line with Institute averages, and without any requirement of attendance, I always have had a large attendance in my classes.)

But is taking attendance without costs, and does it really give you correct data. In a large first year class, the immediate question is how do you avoid proxies. If you don't do anything about proxy attendance, you have completely wrong data which is pretty meaningless. So what do you do about proxies.

You obviously don't want to take attendance manually and then enter the attendance into an excel sheet manually. Typical methods include swiping your college identity card in some machine, or having an RFID chip and the attendance machine is really just an RFID card reader, or having WiFi access point figure out whose mobile phones are connected to the AP within the class, etc. All these methods which require the student to own something and carry that with them to the class, have one problem. The student requesting the proxy can easily share that ID card or phone with another student who is going to the class and will be marked present.

So then we come up with the nuclear bomb - the biometric based attendance. This seems to be the seasonal favorite. We use them in most colleges and universities. That avoids proxies (at least for now, there is a news item that people have been able to make a stamp of finger prints which can be used to mark attendance as proxy), but does it bring in any new problems.

While the proxy is avoided, one notices that a student enters the class, marks attendance, and walks out. Has he really attended the class. Are you now going to put cameras everywhere and build software that would recognize people who come late or leave early and mark them absent. Surely, technology can do a lot of things for you, but at what cost.

What if the biometric database is leaked. Are our institutions really well equipped to keep someone's personal biometric data safe.

If we had used one of those non-biometric mechanisms for attendance, and checked for proxy on any random day, and if someone is found guilty, s/he gets a severe punishment, wouldn't that minimize the proxy to the level that the attendance data is reasonably good quality. Do we really need to put every student at a risk of making their biometric data public.

So, why do we use biometric. It does not solve all problems and introduces a huge problem of possible leakage of biometrics.

Well, you ask this question from the students. We have two options. One, we will use a mechanism without bio-metrics, will check for proxy once in a while, and if someone is found guilty, then that student will get an F grade in that course. Two, we will use a bio-metric attendance method. We will never check for proxy or any other problem. But there is a risk of bio-metric data becoming public, and you educate them on what it means for biometric data becoming public.

You can be sure that most students would prefer a non biometric attendance. So you implement that as an administrator. One fine day, the instructor catches a student and tells him after due diligence that he will get an F grade in the course. I can bet that all hell will break lose. This is too tough. Proxy is done everywhere. You are spoiling someone's career for such a trivial thing. May be a warning can be issued or at best some 5% weight could be there for attendance in which this student can get 0, and so on. They will forget that the system was something that they chose. They signed some piece of paper.

Admins know this by experience and do not wish to agitate the entire student body. So they won't ask students for their opinion at all, and just implement the biometric attendance.

I really think that biometric technology is great and should be used when the security and safety is of utmost importance, but to use this for solving small problems like attendance in a classroom (which is not even a problem according to me) can be counter-productive. But administrators want a solution which will lead to more peace with students in the short term. (Of course, when the whole country is using biometrics for so many simple things, why fault poor universities from following the herd.)


Putcha V. Narasimham said...

I too felt that making attendance compulsory is counterproductive.

However interaction in the class (physical or virtual over the Internet (live or recorded) is vital for good learning. "Live" interaction is the best but interacting of recorded lectures and quizzes is also OK. Individual and team Assignments, mini-projects, term papers are very effective for learning and also for refining the learning resources.

I have found many serious mistakes, errors and even absurdities in many published text books / YouTube Videos, and even international standards like ISO 9000 (only one mistake: definition of data and information), UML (plenty) and BPMN very few).

Many of my exams and assignments include detection and corrections giving reasons in such publications including my PPTs, Quizzes, and posts.

Perfect of knowledge is NOT absolute, keen observations, analysis and reasoning are the components of any body of knowledge. Errors and corrections are attributes of maturing and robust bodies of knowledge.

Subhash C Duggal said...

No amount of Forced attendance system will ever enhance students' presence in the class. Infact all such systems will sooner or later will become counter productive in days to come.Solution lies in students' own urge to attend the class.For this the educational teaching system and course content system must undergo a revolutionary change.