April 10, 2013

New e-textbooks tell your teacher when you haven’t done your homework


Every student’s worst nightmare is nearly a reality—textbooks that tell your professor when you haven’t done your course reading.

According to David Streitfeld in The New York Times, a number of professors at Texas A&M are helping the start-up CourseSmart test out digital textbooks that would allow them to track their students’ progress.

“They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all…Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class—a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning.”

This slightly creepy development was bound to happen, given that most digital book purveyors are already collecting a myriad of data about their customers from their products. There are glaringly obvious privacy concerns, and it occurs to me that Texas A&M should have some qualms about turning their students into data-spinning machines, which will inevitably make money for the software’s developer and not for the university.

Neither is it clear to me, nor others quoted in the piece, that there truly is a significant “correlation and causality between engagement and success,” as CourseSmart’s developer says there is. What if you prefer printing out your course notes or you’re a slow reader?

Streitfeld spoke with Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education,

“The CourseSmart system has other potential problems; students could easily game the highlighting or note-taking functions. Or a student might improve his score by leaving his textbook open and doing something else. “The possibilities of harm are tremendous if teachers are naïve enough to think these scores mean anything for the vast majority of students,” Professor Dede said.”

Students’ study habits vary widely, and the quality of the text may also be a factor. Some students might do just as well as others by getting the same information from a different source, which, it might be argued, is a valuable lesson in self-sufficiency while at college.

In any case, whatever happened to the old tactic of professors asking students questions on the reading out of the blue and then shooting them a withering glance when they fail to answer? Until CourseSmart has some kind of public shame app, I remain doubtful about its usefulness.

This just seems to be a ploy for textbook publishers to force students online and using their product, without an investment in the quality of the education nor the text. The most telling comment—“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.” The road to hell… etc. etc.

Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.