NPR is reporting that Northern Arizona University has installed ID card scanners at some lecture halls so that student attendance in large classes can be taken automatically. Apparently NAU is the first college in the country to do this.

I’m no opponent, in principle, of taking attendance in college, though I know many student activists are. In my view, class participation can be a legitimate component of a student’s grade, and you can’t participate if you’re not present. (Beyond that, I do think that it’s a professor’s prerogative to discourage absenteeism by taking attendance, even if it’s only to save some students from themselves.)

But I’ve got a few concerns about this scheme.

First, it seems to me that college attendance is nowhere less important than in huge lecture classes. A lecture is by definition non-interactive — in many cases, a student will get as much from listening to a friend’s recording of a class session as she would by sitting through the class itself. So why shouldn’t that be a legitimate option? Why should a student be penalized for that?

Second, this kind of automated attendance system invites abuse. As a professor, my belief is that the way to keep cheating out of my classroom is to raise the stakes. I organize my classes so that cheating is difficult, catching cheaters is easy, the ethical ramifications of cheating are obvious, and the consequences of cheating are severe. But because these scanners fail to meet any of those standards, they may invite students to see gaming the system as no big deal.

There are a bunch of reasons why students skip class, and a bunch of ways to discourage them from doing so. But the more I think about this particular one, the less I like it.

What’s your take? When should profs take attendance? Is this a legitimate way to do it?