November 13, 2012

Your reading behaviour is being monitored: Part II


Way back in July, MobyLives reported on “information harvesting” by ebooksellers — that is, Amazon, Apple and Google tracking the reading behaviour of their ebook customers. Unnervingly, book apps record data about how we read, including which books we do and don’t finish, how long we spend reading them, and where we give up, if we do. And niftily, that information can be passed on to publishers. Isn’t that fun, in an OH GOD THE HORROR OF MODERN LIFE kind of way?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the same technology is soon to be used by universities to monitor students’ reading. CourseSmart, which sells digital versions of the big publishers’ textbooks, announced a new program last week:

Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.

It’s called CourseSmart Analytics, and three institutions — Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio — will pilot it this year.

Railing against this kind of data mining is probably like howling into the wind at this stage, but this feels misguided even beyond broad issues of privacy. For a start, there’s no accommodation for different learning styles or reading speeds. It also assumes the worst of students, which has got to be a de-motivator, and it neurotically turns reading into a surveyed activity, which rarely does much for engagement. It’ll be interesting to see how many schools invest in this, and whether any students protest this invasive monitoring of their private study.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.