Big Brother in a Textbook?

By Anthony Rebora — April 10, 2013 1 min read
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From the things-on-the-K-12-horizon department: A front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times highlighted a new technology program that allows college instructors to monitor their students’ reading progress in digital textbooks:

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.

The program, owned by a consortium of major education publishers, apparently compiles an “engagement index” for each student based on things like number of pages read, text highlights, and note taking. Advocates say the technology could ultimately give teachers invaluable information on students’ understanding of course materials and their risk of falling behind, as well as on the effectiveness of particular textbooks (or even individual chapters of particular textbooks).

Others, including some students, say the program, at least in its current iteration, is glitchy and subject to misinterpretation. For example, students who prefer to take notes on paper or in a separate computer program say they are unfairly penalized. Gaming or fooling the system is also a potential issue.

Ultimately, as the Times article suggests, the program raises interesting questions about how closely the perception of strong study habits, as defined in a particular way, should be equated with academic success.

(All I know is, I’m glad they didn’t have this when I was in school.)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.