“big brother” e-textbooks

A story in The Chronicle of Higher Education almost seems like some kind of Onion parody to me, but it’s not.

CourseSmart, a company which sells digital textbooks, has just developed a means to “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.” Several universities are running pilots of this system next year.

“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.”

Seriously? It used to be that things like, I don’t know, let’s call them “class participation” and “quizzes,” “papers” and “office hours,” stuff like that, were considered reasonable means for determining where a student might be having difficulty with a class…

I have trouble seeing how the amount of time (supposedly) reading and number of pages (supposedly) viewed could accurately assess such a thing. Some students read more quickly than others because they concentrate better; others might sit with a page open for half an hour because they’re actually watching a movie and only occasionally glancing at the text. Some skim through every page but without comprehension; others have greater background on the subject and are able to put the material into context in a more efficient way than the norm.

As for the number of “notes and highlights” a student makes: ?! Some people don’t make any in books, preferring the taking of notes by hand as a way to absorb and think through material. On the other hand, some students highlight half the lines on a given page in yellow and it doesn’t seem to help.

In the pilot programs, students will be allowed to opt out, and there’s nothing wrong with trying something new of course. I just can’t see this idea going anywhere. Seems like it’s moving away from where we need to be, which has to do with direct personal engagement – not “crunching data into an engagement score.”