OPINION: Instructors shouldn’t make students share location



Many professors use Top Hat because it gives them a way to communicate with their students and build their own lesson plan and way of teaching. However, some professors also use Top Hat for attendance, and to make sure students are actually in class.

DERREK SPEAKMAN, Evergreen columnist

The increasing application of technology in classes allows instructors to replace old methods of roll call in classrooms at the cost of personal privacy. Top Hat is one of many such applications used by instructors at WSU. 

With Top Hat being used by 2.3 million students across North America, according to Nick Stein, chief marketing officer of Top Hat, over 10 percent of college students use Top Hat. It’s also massively popular with instructors, providing comprehensive tutorials and material for using the app, Top Hat has the goal of making the app work for the teacher as well as the student.

Michelle Kistler, a faculty instructor in the communication department, is one such educator that utilizes Top Hat for her course. 

“There’s two major reasons [for using Top Hat]. One: because Comm 101 is a very large class,” Kistler said, “two: my desire to create custom content above and beyond the text.” 

With course lessons, homework, quizzes and attendance all within one app, Kistler gets the ability to make her class the way she wants to.

Top Hat is admittedly very slick, with custom coursework and the ability to place comprehension questions directly on the text, it’s clearly designed with the intention of giving a more fluid and dynamic experience. 

Part of that dynamic experience of course, is the requirement for access to personal data.

Most of that information Top Hat uses is benign to begin with; email, name, cell phone number and many other things that are required for a university level education application.  

However, one piece of information which sticks out like a sore thumb is location services. Top Hat accesses that data in order to mark attendance for class. 

Now, that isn’t to say that Top Hat is abusing a gross lack of personal privacy; students are the ones who sign up for the app, during which they are made aware of the fact that it checks their location. Those same students have the option of not turning on location services if they don’t want the app or instructor to know where they are.

Even if a student does decide that they are alright with Top Hat collecting location data, the information is only collected when activated by an instructor and never periodically or outside of class, Joel Marans, the senior director of communications and events for Top Hat said in an email.

The company which develops Top Hat, aptly named Top Hat, also has far less than sinister intentions.

After six years, only 60 percent of students in four-year colleges actually graduate, and when they do leave school they leave with about $37,000 in debt,” Stein said.  “So that’s really the problem we are trying to solve, how do we actually make that educational experience more effective, so that students are leaving and feeling like they are getting a real return on the investment they are making on their education?”

Top Hat doesn’t exist to prey upon students (as much as one can be certain), with prices for the program ranging from $7.50 a month to as little as $4, as well as offering cheap textbooks when supported, the company isn’t the problem. It simply fills a niche and does it well, otherwise instructors wouldn’t use it.

No, the problem created by using Top Hat and other apps like it falls on the shoulders of the instructors using it. When attendance is mandatory, and students are required to use location services in order to receive attendance, students are strong-armed into giving away their personal information even if they’re not comfortable with it.

Of course, I would wager that most instructors and professors at WSU aren’t unaccommodating assholes. Many instructors use in-class assignments to act as a form of attendance or don’t take attendance at all. Kistler takes attendance in her course, but it comes with a caveat. 

“I don’t give points for attendance,” Kistler said. “It’s purely for my record.”

But we aren’t without instructors who are unmoving in their firm position of taking attendance via Top Hat or a similar application, regardless of students’ position of their data privacy. One might say that it’s a brief blip and can’t be considered an invasion of privacy, but students need to make that choice for themselves. 

Teachers need to allow students the option of giving their personal information, no matter how insignificant it seems. If a student asks to record attendance without using their location data, instructors need to accommodate them, regardless of whether its tedious or difficult. When we start diminishing a small right to personal privacy because the alternative is too hard, we begin diminishing our entire right to personal privacy.