This device ‘appears to be improving student attendance and performance’

From left, Dwayne Smith, Karthik Navuluri, David Hamel, Ashraf Amrou, David Kozoyed and Todd Dergenski developed the check-in device. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU)
From left, Dwayne Smith, Karthik Navuluri, David Hamel, Ashraf Amrou, David Kozoyed and Todd Dergenski developed the check-in device. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of ODU)

NORFOLK — The problem isn’t unique to Old Dominion University.

Many colleges and universities are looking to increase class attendance, which studies show improves student performance.

ODU, however, appears to have found a unique answer to this problem – a check-in device that records students’ attendance and provides information instantly and electronically to faculty members.

That allows faculty members to reach out to students with habitual absences to offer help, be it tutoring or counseling.

And in a test pilot during the fall semester, the devices appear to have increased attendance and performance.

Seven university IT experts were challenged in January 2018 to come up with an accurate, inexpensive way to track attendance.

They responded by creating a check-in device they believe is the only one of its kind being used at an American university.

The early results, faculty members say, have been promising.

Rusty Waterfield, ODU’s associate vice president for Information Technology Services, said the devices could improve the academic performance not only of ODU students, but also of students across the country.

The devices were used for the first time last fall in 92 math and science classes. Students checked in by swiping their student ID or scanning a code with a phone app at small black boxes, which have 7-inch-wide displays, at the entrance to classes.

Attendance information was processed and immediately sent electronically to faculty members, some of whom saw an improvement in attendance and performance.

In Tatyana Lobova’s freshman biology classes, grades improved significantly compared to the fall of 2017.

“In the large lecture rooms attendance has always been a problem, and that was reflected in the course final grades. I saw more students in class this fall,” said Lobova, a master lecturer in biology. “And when students learn directly in class, they are far more likely to succeed.”

Officials expect that by the fall of 2020, every ODU class will have the devices.

The idea of an attendance check-in device came from a committee of faculty and staff members led by Brian Payne, vice provost of Academic Affairs. The committee was formed at the behest of President John R. Broderick, who challenged members to come up with ways to help students perform better.

The consensus of faculty members was that subpar academic performance was often caused by poor attendance.

Some faculty members had been keeping attendance themselves, an often laborious task. Others required students to purchase software for their phones that would allow them to check in at the front of class.

“We wanted to come up with something that requires little or no faculty intervention and wasn’t an extra cost to students,” said Karthik Navuluri, assistant director of web, portal and mobile information technology services.

The task force included high-tech experts Todd Dergenski, Vaibhav Dani, David Kozoyed, Dave Hamel, Dwayne Smith and Ashraf Amrou, in addition to Navuluri. More than 40 other ODU employees also worked on the project.

When professors notice a student’s attendance drop, they show care and concern. Some email students who are missing too many classes. Others, including Lobova, reach out to students, but also count attendance in the grading process.

“Most of my students also work,” she said. “They get overloaded, and some students told me they had a hard time pushing themselves to get to class. Many have expressed to me that they’re glad it’s mandatory, that it motivates them to come to class.”

Waterfield’s group of experts quickly determined that the work on the attendance devices needed to be done in-house. “We knew the only way we would be successful is by taking this under our umbrella,” Smith said.

The boxes that hold the attendance devices were made on ODU 3-D printers. The small computers in each device were programmed by ODU employees.

More than 4,000 students have downloaded the check-in app, which was designed and programmed by computer science graduate students Aniket Chandak and Mohammad Ali Mostafa Shaaban.

The devices record when students check in, allowing faculty to determine whether they are on time, tardy or too late to be considered present.

In the fall, the devices will include a feature that will measure when students leave class.

ODU is investigating whether to patent the device, Kozoyed said.

“There’s nothing out there that we know of at other universities that does exactly what we’re trying to do,” Smith said.

Waterfield said he hopes the system will be commercialized and eventually made available to other colleges and universities.

“But right now we are focused on enhancing and expanding the devices at ODU,” he said.

Lobova praised their work. “What they did is so creative,” she said. “They gave us exactly what we need to help more students succeed.”

Officials hope to expand the devices for lectures, study labs and even tutoring sessions.

“If a student is really not engaged in the classroom or any activities on campus, it’s more likely they won’t persist,” Navuluri said. “These are the students we need to reach out to.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.