Write Stuff – Hall Monitor

Remember that teacher who always seemed to know when you were passing notes or doodling in your textbook? The one who could spot you chewing gum in the back row even when she had her back turned? Well, That’s nothing compared to the latest academic surveillance tool: e-textbooks that monitor every page you read?and report your study habits to your professor.

Digital reading’s not the big news here. Whether skimming an e-book or using a course’s online reading room, students have been working with digital texts for years. But CourseSmart, a company that provides digital course materials, has a new tool that infiltrates the space between student and text.

As the Wired Campus blog reports, the tool gathers data on the most minute details of a student’s reading habits, including ?how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make.? The data then gets compiled into an ?engagement score? for that student.

The premise is that instructors can measure student engagement with texts. Are the students who read the material getting noticeably higher marks? If not, does that signal a problem with the material itself? As well, collecting data can alert professors to students who might be having trouble managing their time, and allow a prof to offer help before the problem gets out of hand.

In theory, not a bad idea. As a real-world application, though, It’s got problems. The first are issues surrounding privacy. Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart, explained to Wired Campus that students can opt out of being monitored. But will students who don’t opt out have a clear understanding of how their data might be used in the future?

Data mining is big business, and corporations are hungry to use (and profit from) detailed data in all kinds of ways?some they probably haven’t even thought of yet. If a student allows a university to collect this kind of detailed data That’s attached to their name, there had better be thorough, transparent terms that guarantee that data can’t be used for any reason other than feedback on a specific course. Will those be in place before schools start using the program?

Then there’s the simple fact that the results seem very easy to skew. It doesn’t take an A student to realize he can occasionally swipe to the next page of his history text while playing a video game. A professor could end up seeing several students with top-notch ?engagement scores? and failing test grades. Does that mean there’s a problem with the textbook itself, or with student study habits? It’s impossible to know, and in this area the CourseSmart Analytics tool doesn’t offer any improvement over paper texts.

And what about the student who simply won’t (or can’t) learn from e-textbooks? The student who hunts down a paper copy of the book or prints the assigned digital readings? There won’t be any record of her study habits in the system, even if she pores over every line of the material from cover to cover.

The idea of including a student’s digital note-taking in her overall engagement score has flaws, too. Many students make notes directly in their textbooks, whether they use pen on paper or stylus on screen. But plenty of others don’t. They prefer to write theirs in a notebook or on flash cards or even type them into a separate document as they study. Will instructors remember to take this into account when they’re compiling a student’s score and don’t see any digital note-taking in the text?

For profs with a uniform group of students who all study and take notes in the same way, the CourseSmart Analytics tool might offer useful feedback. But the ways that we learn and the methods we use are as individual as every student on a course roster, and there’s no software tool smart enough to monitor that.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).