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Now, With E-books, Your Prof Knows Exactly What You Read

19 November 2012

From Publishing Perspectives:

CourseSmart, which sells digital versions of textbooks by major publishers, announced the introduction of a new tool to help professors and “others” measure students’ actual involvement with electronic course materials.

For example, a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. That book can be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will then track students’ behavior: how much time, let’s say, they spend reading; how many pages they look at, and exactly how many notes and highlights they make. That data will then get crunched into a score indicating the students’ level of “engagement” with the text.

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

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives


26 Comments to “Now, With E-books, Your Prof Knows Exactly What You Read”

  1. This is a brilliant example of how people can take advantage of the digital revolution. I would love to see the data. It would be interesting to know whether the level of engagement can predict performance.

  2. Wow, as a recent student, that seems incredibly creepy to me. Next step, grading based on how much time was spent with the textbook as a measure of how hard the student worked?

    • Don’t worry. In about ten minutes there’ll be a program to auto-read the textbook for you.

      Seriously, this just looks like another example of ‘education by targets’ where the idea is to produce numbers ‘proving’ you educated someone rather than actually educating them. In reality, the people who spend the least time reading the textbooks are likely to be the ones who know the most, so they don’t have to. The ones who spend a lot of time are likely to be the ones who need the most help.

      • This.

        A) Technological challenges beget technological solutions. 🙂

        B) I was one of those really obnoxious people who basically cracked the textbook the night before the exam, read through what the exam covered, and went to take the test. This metric would show me as an utter failure. My Dean’s List placements would not. 🙂

        • I second this. Other than the higher maths (had to actually study those) I was the same student. I read lessons in the five minutes before class started, took the quiz and aced it. Guess I’m an utter failure. I do the same now with paramedic online CE (when not in require didactic CE). Why waste two hours watching uber-lame videos to answer questions I already know? Bleech, I skim the written material and take the 20 question quiz in about 15 minutes. Easy-peasy. Haven’t failed one in 19 yrs.

          But then my brain tends to hang onto info like a steel trap.

        • I was truly obnoxious in some of my classes. In most of them, I just sketched while listening and sometimes would crack the book to do last minute studying. (The sketching was met with disapproval from the instructors of some of my classes until they saw my grades and realized I was participating in class discussions. Then they’d be more likely to ask what I was drawing than to give me pursed-lip frowns or indicate I should shut my sketchbook.)

          In one, I sat in the back and read Harry Potter while the teacher lectured (it was history and I may have had a similar class at my other college – I’m not sure, I just know I covered it in detail before). The people who sat around me in that class wanted to know how I did on the first test and when I said my grade, they didn’t believe me and made me show them. Then they were pissed off because I scored higher. Much higher, for some of them. (Note: I’m not suggesting that it was a good idea. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t so familiar to me that I just would pay attention long enough to make sure it wasn’t new information.)

          I did mostly get away with not reading the textbooks at all and just paying attention to lectures. I’m pretty sure I never opened a good 50% of my textbooks/assigned reading except in-class or for last-minute overviews. (Not that this carried over to all of my classes, mind. Math and some of my sciences I had to focus in a desperate attempt to make it stick.) [Not saying that I was an exceptional student, I just hate studying and in many classes was able to get by decently without hitting the books.]

    • There is a US government relicensing program based in part on an online course. You have to spend X minutes on each subsection before you can take the section examination. Amazing how much reading one can do while jiggling a mouse and studying the areas that one is truly unfamiliar with. Not that I know of anyone who would try to defeat the program, mind.

  3. whoa, scary creepy. Thank God there will be students who will find a way to fake their engagement…

  4. As a more-than-40-years-ex student, I fear that Sarah’s scenario is much more probable than Ben’s. But maybe I’m just an old cynic. Or curmudgeon.

  5. As someone who was recently a student, I can attest to my ability to open up a digital book, and clock 50 minutes of reading time, without ever reading a word.

    I could even highlight things. And make notes about them.

    I like the idea of innovations with digital technology, but I’m not sure this will give them the results they are looking for….although I could be wrong.

  6. Um. No. If the professor wants to know if I’ve read the material, the professor ought to give me a test.

    God, I am thankful I will never go to school again. Bastards.

  7. The information could certainly be misused, but I like the idea of the bulk data being available on a non-attributional basis. A professor who wrote the textbook and was working on an updated revision could produce a better product if she knew that only .03% of buyers read anything in Chapter 10 but 83% read Chapter 18 (which before getting the data she was considering cutting in order to expand Chapter 10).

    • This:

      “I like the idea of the bulk data being available on a non-attributional basis”.

      I agree. Good idea. It can tell the professor and the author alot of useful information.

  8. Wow. Big Brother is watching our children.

    Brilliant. Even though most college students are technically ‘adults,’ most of them aren’t savvy enough to fight government/institutions for their rights – and they will grow up being used to having their every electronic move monitored – WITHOUT the inconvenience of a warrant or any action to show cause.

    They will probably be required (sign here – or you can’t use the electronic textbook that is required for your course) to allow this to be allowed to go to a school or university.

    The whole concept violates the ‘equal partners in learning’ contract between students and teachers: teachers teach (times and places given) + students learn (classes, homework, study); everyone abides by the consequences (tests and grades). Can anyone say slippery slope?

    Good intentions (aren’t they all?) – very bad idea.

    • Even though most college students are technically ‘adults,’ most of them aren’t savvy enough to fight government/institutions for their rights – and they will grow up being used to having their every electronic move monitored – WITHOUT the inconvenience of a warrant or any action to show cause.

      I absolutely agree with this. I think back to when I was 19+ in college, I was so naive and used to being spoon fed in high school. And I wasn’t as bad as many others.

      (I was JROTC and College ROTC, which is following orders yes, but the military trains you to not follow rules ‘just because’. Soldiers are encouraged to think and question in case they have to take over command at any level, not to be automatons as many assume.)

      I was willing to stand up and fight, but I didn’t always know when I should fight the system. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve fought many things harder 20+ years ago. But young adults are used to being guided not standing up for themselves.

  9. Wouldn’t it be funny if this technology was used in a class teaching Nineteen-Eighty-Four?

    No, I suppose it wouldn’t be…

  10. I wonder how many professors would actually bother using this technology. It’s not like any of them would go to a student’s house or dorm room if invited to watch the student study. At least, we can only hope none of them would be so eager to take that invitation. :\

  11. Aside from the sheer uselessness of the data, the key word is surveillance. One more step to being constantly watched, one more tool for Big Brother.

  12. Er, scary. My learning style means I can’t add color to something if I want to learn it, and my study style means I’d type my notes into a separate RTF file. So I’d get low “engagement” scores, regardless.

    And that’s omitting the entire question: Why is the student’s study habits (or lack thereof) any of the professor’s business? (Or why is it anyone’s business, for that matter?)

  13. Anyone know how they get the data?

  14. As a professor, I’ll admit that we don’t need fancy surveillance systems to find out when students have read the source material. It’s usually blatantly obvious.

    Like now.

    Not many of the commenters have bothered to notice that this puff-piece doesn’t come from Big Brother profs wanting to monitor their students.

    It comes from Big Publishing desperately tossing out excuses for why profs should keep shoveling students into the maw of their textbook cash cow. (Or more likely, Big Publishing desperately trying to go over profs’ heads and convince clueless college administrators to buy into giant package deals, whether the profs and students want them or not.)

    • I’d wager Big Publishing is aiming at administrators, especially of public universities in states where the legislatures are pushing for empirical evidence of “student engagement.” The administrators could lean on professors to demonstrate that students are “engaging with the educational materials.” Plus it could be used to show how many students in one of the massive online courses are “actively participating.”

    • Oh, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t read the article. I read only about 50% of the full-texts of articles that PG links to. (And I’m probably accounting for the tech articles I almost never ready and not including those in my “50%”.)

      But I never assumed that it was the professors clamoring to do it. The average professor doesn’t have the time, assuming they had the interest. But they’d have to make time if their bosses told them to. Some of the most misguided courses I ever took were because they were made to do things a certain, nonfunctional way. (And I can see that there would be a small percentage of professors who would want to Big Brother their students. Especially if they wrote the text.)

  15. Is this sort of thing constitutional in the US? It doesn’t matter in the UK because we don’t have a written constitution so (I think) everybody relies on case law and legislation. (Yeah, that isn’t exactly ideal, but there is not a chance in hell that we will get a written constitution anytime soon)

    But does the US Constitution allow this sort of snooping?

    And on a related note, in the 21st century it might be time for the US to add another amendment dealing with the right to privacy in the digital age. In the same way that the First Amendment deals with free speech and the second(?) deals with the right to bear arms. Or does the constitution already grant the right to privacy and this sort of thing breaches that right?

    Just asking, genuinely curious.

    • Steve, the right to privacy was “found in the penumbra” and “emanations of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” by the US Supreme Court in the case Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965). There is no specific part of the Constitution that states a person has a right to some form of privacy, aside from the 4th and part of the 5th Amendments. And perhaps the 3rd (soldiers cannot be quartered in your home). The 5th Amendment’s protections could easily be expanded to include electronic communications as well as written or spoken, without requiring an amendment.

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