The problem with CourseSmart's engagement score is that it subjects learning to the logic of gamification, getting students to read not because they are motivated to explore a given subject but because it will help them bolster their score. Granted, the very process of grading already introduces some of those very gamification incentives. But engagement scores, disconnected from the actual knowledge and measuring only how often this knowledge is accessed, might amplify the most utilitarian and competitive aspects of modern education. Would students be as keen to read a paper book if it doesn't reflect positively on their engagement score?
It's also easy to imagine quite a few governments—and especially those in countries like Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe—wanting to know what sections of history books students find particularly boring or exciting. Will authoritarian governments get dashboards of their own, like publishers and teachers do? Will students with low engagement scores on key events of the national history be invited to talk with the local equivalent of the KGB?
But even in democratic countries, it's important to investigate what happens with all the data generated by students: all those clicks, page flips, and underlinings. This data may seem trivial but once merged with other data—say, their Facebook friends or their Google searchers—it suddenly becomes very valuable to advertisers and potential employers. This goes back to the threat of electronic textbooks—or, rather, the infrastructure through which they are provided—fostering more conformity. If there's a small chance that your reading habits might one day be reflected in your overall “online” file—the one that employers will look at after interviewing you for an entry-level position—the odds are that students will think twice about reading something subversive or not reading something conventional.
And this doesn't just apply to companies like CourseSmart that handle the purely virtual electronic textbook end of the chain. It applies—even more so—to the likes of Amazon and Apple, which manufacture the gadgets on which such textbooks are accessed and often sell the books themselves. These big technology firms also affect not just what students learn but how they learn it. Amazon, for example, has recently launched a new platform called Whispercast, which allows schools that use its Kindle e-reader in the classroom to limit or turn off their functionality. Thus, they can block access to social networking sites or to the Internet altogether. They are even able to disable Kindle features that they find distracting.
All of this might prove useful in the short term, but it seems that students—the supposed beneficiaries of the “digital revolution”—might be getting shortchanged by the revolutionary rhetoric. The era when students can look up anything they wanted on their tablet or e-reader—say, an unknown word or a historical figure—may be over before it has even begun in earnest.
This may help solve the distraction problem—undoubtedly, a big plus. But it might also inhibit the development of highly interactive, mixed ways of learning that could, when properly used, satisfy—and even expand—the insatiable curiosity of the most promising but difficult students. Highly monitored electronic textbooks and heavily controlled e-readers are unlikely to give us another Einstein.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.