Rethinking Attendance for Remote Learners

Rethinking Attendance for Remote Learners

As we enter the Fall 2021 semester, many instructors are planning to reinstitute their standard attendance policies. Given the reality of COVID-19, however, we still may need to provide some flexibility in those attendance policies to ensure students can isolate when they may be ill, both for their own health and that of the entire IUB community. See VPFAA's Start of the Semester memo for more guidance on attendance policies.

Attendance in online settings looks quite different than what we are used to—whether we are talking about a fully online course, a hybrid one, or a situation where we need to accommodate students who are ill or isolating at home. Not only do you want your attendance policies to makes sense within your teaching context, but you also want to avoid inadvertently encouraging students to come to your campus classroom who really should be quarantining at home.

Think engagement vs attendance

Typically, online or remote courses focus more on engagement than they do attendance, and you may have to shift your thinking in this way as you either teach online or offer students temporary remote options. Even if you offer a synchronous (real-time) class meeting via Zoom, there are a lot of legitimate reasons students wouldn’t be able to participate live, and we encourage instructors to remain flexible during times of crisis. Consider what students can do to demonstrate that they engaged with a class recording and are participating in the course.

Depending on the nature and size of your class, you might consider short engagement activities for each lesson you plan. That might be a short comprehension quiz, or a Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) that allows students to reflect on their learning and give you some feedback about how they are doing. If you already use Canvas discussions or Piazza, consider using those tools for getting students to engage with one another online, marking those students as “present” once they engage with a group discussion online.

These engagement approaches are also useful in settings where students may be watching remotely, either live or via a recording. How are you ensuring their engagement or participation in the class? Those short reflection/application activities not only can provide you with attendance information, but they also promote learning more than a mere roll call can.

Technical tools for recording attendance

If you use Zoom for live sessions, you can get a report of all individuals who participated in a meeting: Log into and look for the Reports link on the left menu bar. Three caveats: First, and most importantly, consider options for students who cannot make a live session, especially during a crisis. Can they watch a recording and do some sort of engagement activity later? Second, if students call in via phone, only their phone number is listed in the logs. Third, make sure they log in to Zoom using their IU credentials (SSO), so you will know who they are; more at

If you provide class recordings in Kaltura, you can get detailed viewer analytics about who watched the videos, and for how long. If you upload your Zoom recordings into Kaltura for delivery, this view tracking could be a good alternative to “live attendance,” especially if paired with a short engagement activity.

We recommend people not try layering technologies for attendance, like using TopHat (typically an in-class polling tool) to take attendance during a live Zoom meeting. That is just more of a technical/logistical hassle for you, and it adds more cognitive and emotional overhead for students in a time of crisis, impacting their ability to learn. If you are using TopHat for other reasons, great, but adding it only for attendance can be more of a problem than a benefit.

Unfortunately, these technical solutions tend to be disconnected from one another. Zoom data are separate from Kaltura data, which are not integrated into the Canvas Attendance tool or gradebook. Unless all of your students are participating via the same tool, your attendance data will be scattered across those tools. So, one benefit of using a short engagement activity in Canvas is that you would have all that information in your gradebook.

Some notes on attendance

Whether you call it attendance or engagement data, you will still need to keep track of this information for financial aid purposes. In online courses, this is often the last date a student was active in the course Canvas site, but you can also use an engagement activity or Zoom/Kaltura data for these purposes.

If you are teaching a class that has a face-to-face component, you should still keep track of who is coming physically to class; this information might be needed for contract tracing in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Main takeaways

  • Consider finding ways to track engagement rather than attendance; they help with learning, too.
  • Be flexible with students during difficult times, giving them different ways to engage with your course.
  • Don’t over-engineer your attendance/engagement approaches.