Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Now E-Textbooks Can Report Back on Students' Reading Habits

Ohanian Comment: Another reason to avoid e-textbooks.

Stephen Krashen Comment: This is simply unacceptable. An outrageous invasion of privacy. You can bet it will be expanded to K-12: CourseSmart can already smell the profits. Also, it makes no sense to have an "engagement score" - all it means is that all students will be required to read and study in an "approved" way.

By Marc Parry

Denver -- Data mining is creeping into every aspect of student life--classrooms, advising, socializing. Now it's hitting textbooks, too.

CourseSmart, which sells digital versions of textbooks by big publishers, announced on Wednesday a new tool to help professors and others measure students' engagement with electronic course materials.

When students use print textbooks, professors can't track their reading. But as learning shifts online, everything students do in digital spaces can be monitored, including the intimate details of their reading habits.

Those details are what will make the new CourseSmart service tick. 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.

Three institutions—Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio—plan to run pilots of the product, called CourseSmart Analytics. It’s expected to be broadly available in 2013.

“There is a screaming demand in the marketplace for knowledge around what impact course materials have on learning,” Mr. Devine says in an interview at the Educause technology conference here.

But reading surveillance raises privacy issues. The American Library Association, for example, recently raised alarms about efforts by libraries to lend e-books on Kindles, which exposes their patrons’ reading behavior to monitoring by Amazon.

Isn’t it a bit creepy to have textbooks watching their users?

Mr. Devine’s answer: “Not if it helps you succeed.” But he also points out that students will be able to opt out if they don’t want their data shared.

“We do understand the Big Brother aspects of it.”

— Marc Parry
Chronicle of Higher Education





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.