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Top Hat software: Prices, privacy policy and how it's used at Michigan State

January 30, 2020

If you use Lyft, UberEats, Instagram or Snapchat, you’ve almost certainly shared your location with those apps. A digital education software in use at Michigan State similarly works by using a person's location data. 

Top Hat — which can be used by instructors to take attendance, assign homework or administer tests — requires a location-enabled laptop or mobile device for some of its features to work.

Top Hat can be set up to require students to be physically present in class to receive full attendance points. If those settings are chosen for a course, Top Hat only automatically marks a student as attending that day if the software receives the student’s location and it shows them physically present in the classroom.

“Using Top Hat Classroom allows instructors to automatically verify whether a student is physically present in class and auto-assign grades for attendance and participation,” according to Top Hat’s website.

MSU partnered with Top Hat to bring the software to campus in fall 2016.

It’s free for professors. The university currently doesn't cover Top Hat costs for students. Students choose to pay different subscription prices: $30 for four months, $48 for a year or $96 for four years, with an average of $35 per interactive textbook. 

“Professors at MSU choose to use or not use Top Hat in their classrooms,” Daniel Olsen, the deputy spokesperson for MSU said via email. “However, the university does not provide the software.”

Top Hat is meant to provide an option different from an iClicker, a handheld remote control frequently required by several instructors to answer in-class questions, Olsen said.

“Top Hat is fundamentally a software solution, while iClickers have a hardware component to them. The differences depend on which features faculty use and how they use them to support student learning,” Olsen said. “Because the choice to use Top Hat is an instructor decision, the company would be better positioned to provide accurate data on its use in classes at MSU.”

Dianna Lai Read, director of communications for Top Hat, said she couldn’t disclose the number of instructors at MSU who use the software.

She said Top Hat originated as a means to “leverage the introduction of smartphones back in 2009” to change in-class experiences for students and professors. 

“Specific to the way Michigan State uses Top Hat, for in-class engagement, we know that it helps students engage in classroom discussion, including shier students who wouldn't normally raise their hand in class,” Lai Read said. 

The Associated Students of Michigan State University, or ASMSU, is working with Top Hat on a plan to “help cover a portion of subscription fees” for students who need to purchase the software, Lai Read said. 

Creating an account through Tophatmonocle Corp., or THM, gives the company access to personal information such as a user’s name, email, location and IP address. THM “will retain” account information and associate it with that person, per a privacy policy updated in January.

THM doesn’t sell or rent any user information to third parties, according to the policy, nor do they retain credit card data. 

However, they can retain personal information and disclose it in certain circumstances: it can be given to faculty or instructors at a university, shared with service providers who perform services for THM or turned over to law enforcement.

“THM may be required by law to disclose personal information without your consent in the event of emergency situations or when required by government, valid legal process, or other legal authority,” according to the policy.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Top Hat is “Michigan State’s preferred student engagement tool,” Top Hat is one of a few partners on campus, not a preferred partner, they are in the process of updating their website.

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