Where’s Wally? For a long time now I have been puzzling over how you can record accurate attendance for large groups of people.

To save those of you that think I have found the Holy Grail time, I haven’t, this is merely a reflection on my ideas, failures, and thoughts, my hope being that someone may read this and ultimately discover the answer.

I guess my first experience of attendance tracking was at school, good old paper registers, books at that time, with little squares, a diagonal line one way to indicate attendance in the morning, then an opposite line for the afternoon. So simple, yet so eloquent. Of course, if you only have two sessions a day and a fairly manageable number of learners, its going to work just fine. Change either of those and it quickly falls apart.

This reminds me of a conversation I had once with a lecturer who taught junior doctors, “I can’t call their names out, these are adults!”. True, the school-type approach of “Seddon?”, “Yes Miss”, isn’t workable with anyone outside of school age, and even then, I suspect that it’s becoming old fashioned there also.

A college told me once how they had a really challenging time getting their staff to record attendance. They used a paper-based system, printed registers for each lesson, staff marked present, late, absent in pen, these were then collected up each day and keyed into a central system.

The problem was that the paper wasn’t handed in each day. So, they put a large box in the reception area and as you leave the building you drop your paper in - job done. It didn’t work.

Next, they placed a box outside each teaching room, and all the staff had to do was drop their paper in the box when they left the room. Didn’t work.

Then they decided to use contactless cards (MiFare). Each student has a card, they tap their card on a box outside the room they are entering, the system reads the card, staff swipe their card, check the list of students who have swiped and then send the swipes to the central system. Big expense, and… didn’t work.

They were now at a loss on what to do, “what do you do?” they asked.

Me, oh I still use paper, we have a box in each building, each day we collect all the paper, scan it, and return the paper. Oh, and it works.

“But how” they asked, well simple, it wasn’t working, so I sat down with groups of staff and asked why, what could I do better? Of all the answers I was expecting, the one I got wasn’t on the list. “The paper is wrong”.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Each piece of paper was supposed to reflect a teaching session, the room details, the staff member(s), the course or programme, and most importantly a list of expected students.

However, this was not the case. In most cases, none of this information would be correct, and the staff response was, “what’s the point in filling this in?”.

Wow, that really was a turning point for me. I was all ready to throw contactless cards at the problem, at a very huge upfront and ongoing cost.

Over the next year I looked at the timetable in detail, working through all the reasons the information was incorrect. How we could improve the way we managed changes like rooms, student transfers and withdrawals, staff sickness cover, everything, focusing on that end result, the paper.

One new system, many procedures, new cross-department working, staff user groups, a complete review and minimisation of our attendance marking scheme and many meetings later, we had a really accurate system working because the data was correct.

Very quickly we dropped the paper and moved to computer-based attendance tracking, the staff still recording attendance in the session, but using a computer. Paper still existed for those sessions when a computer wasn’t readily accessible, but the staff had to key that in later in the day.

Many things came from this new world, we had accurate timetables so could publish to students and staff, we could detect absences not long after a teaching session started, our enrolments reflected the situation now, not in two months’ time (as previously, all our systems gave the same results), taking attendance became routine, not a chore, not something to ignore. We talked openly and regularly about why we tracked attendance and how, our staff had a say in what we were doing and could influence changes.

My friends at the college I had visited - well guess what? They found their timetable was the problem also, they had developed a view that the timetable was so complicated that it was off limits, a lesson to us all there - don’t rule anything out.

Yes, the sky was truly bluer than ever before, but all was not as it seemed, there was still a big glaring problem - “Lecture Theatres!!!!”

At that time, I had no answer. Fast forward a few years and I found myself at a large university with a number of suppliers looking at how we might implement a contactless card solution. I was so happy as we walked round the campus, until we turned a corner and there, in front of us, were four sets of doors with signs above them reading, “Lecture Theatre 1” and “Lecture Theatre 2”. I felt sick, I just wanted to run away.

“Hang on”, I said to myself, I have all these amazing people surrounding me, hardware engineers, cabling guys, contactless card experts; could this be the day my life changed forever?

Each Lecture Theatre had two sets of doors, and I listened while people talked about how many readers they could install in each door way. It was really just two on each in the end; then I piped up, “how long does each student take to swipe?”. So, they dutifully acted out what might happen, and for five people it looked good, then a lecturer so kindly pointed out the capacity of each room was 450. I’m not sure I have seen so many jaws drop at the same time before.

Yep, that killed it. If we could install 20+ readers on each doorway we would get close to not causing a bottleneck as students entered. Clearly this wasn’t possible, so we all just chose to ignore those rooms, I feel regret even now as I write this, I should have just run away.

In the years since then I have seen more and more ideas - handheld readers, biometrics, image capture, iBeacons, contactless cards with greater reading distances (RFID), voice recognition, but none seem to fit the bill.

Its clear that technology is closing the gap, and we are closer than ever to a solution, but as yet I have not seen one that will work enough of the time to make it truly useful. Each has serious flaws, and accuracy rates which make you weep. Once, when talking with a biometric supplier, he told me proudly how the readers had an 80% success rate. That’s fine for a door lock which has ten distinct people a day going through, but stick that on a simple room with a potential 200 distinct people a day and that’s awful.

You have read this far…what are your thoughts and views? Please let’s start a discussion; what’s the answer to this, can we come up with something between us? For my part, I have not given up, in fact right now I am working on some new ideas, they will only help move the discussion along, we still need an answer.