The Danger of Software That Monitors Students’ E-Reading

What's to come?
Nov. 27 2012 11:19 AM

In Soviet Russia, Book Reads You

The creepiness of software that monitors students’ e-reading.

Students of the Hondsrug college use iPads.
Students use iPads during an English class in 2011

Photo by Lex Van Lieshout/AFP/Getty Images.

There are good reasons to be excited about the immense potential of digital technologies to help spread knowledge. For instance, “massive open online courses” (or MOOCs) have rightly been the center of much media attention. Thanks to for-profit ventures like Coursera and Udacity and nonprofit initiatives like edX (a collaboration of Harvard and MIT that now also includes the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Texas), thousands of lectures have become available at no cost—and soon, some students might even be able to get academic credit.

The learning experience it delivers may not match the thrill of being in the classroom with a virtuoso instructor but, in the absence of other options in much of the developing world, this is good enough. MOOCs look so appealing because they add heaps of curated content to the millions of YouTube clips and lecture texts that already circulate online but in a mostly chaotic manner. They take away the risk of watching a professor on YouTube only to discover that he is a disreputable crank. But to focus on the content alone would be to miss the other, less obvious side to the ongoing digitization of formal education: The very infrastructure of learning is changing as well—and in ways that are less unambiguously positive.

Take a company like CourseSmart, an undisputed leader when it comes to the provision of textbooks and other course materials in the digital form. Founded in 2007 by several giants of textbook publishing (including such heavyweights as Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education), CourseSmart provides more than 20,000 textbooks in electronic format (roughly 90 percent of all textbooks published in North America). The textbooks can be read on computers, tablets, and smartphones, in both online and offline modes. The company has global ambitions as well: It has recently announced expansion into the Middle East and North Africa.

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In early November, the company unveiled its latest innovation—an online tracking system called CourseSmart Analytics. Since its textbooks are digital, CourseSmart can track how much time each student spends with each page of the book, what chapters they skip, what passages give them trouble, and so forth. By aggregating this information, the company produces an “engagement score” for each student, which is then communicated to the teacher. So far, Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio have signed on to take part in the experiment. Their enthusiasm for this scheme makes sense: It might help teachers identify difficult material in the textbooks so they can be sure to go over it in class. The system's next version will also feature a special dashboard so publishers can see student interaction with their textbooks, which would help them present material in a more accessible manner.

But there's also something eerie about this scheme. Imagine a literature class in which students are assigned to read about George Orwell's 1984 using electronic textbooks that spy on them as they read. Or consider a history class in which students use such “smart” textbooks to learn about the history of surveillance in the Soviet Union. Students who were pretending to learn the tenets of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union—along with the teachers who were pretending to teach them—may have been violating some of their school's policies, but it's hard to fault them for being ”unengaged.”

Such perversity aside, it's important to ask how the very existence of such self-monitoring textbooks would affect the development of students' critical thinking, even if it succeeds in dealing with their laziness. Being “critical” also means learning how to discriminate between different texts and, occasionally, swimming against the intellectual currents of the time and refusing to read the assigned texts. Not everyone can be a maverick and publicly live up to one's reluctance to read an obnoxious text—sometimes, resistance is passive and less heroic.

Other students may already know the material and have no need to read the entire chapter. Their engagement score, predictably, would be low, but it would say nothing about their knowledge. Besides, once engagement scores are incorporated into learning assessments schemes by school administrators and government authorities, there would be strong incentives to game the system—perhaps, simply by having students flip the electronic pages as often as possible (unless students' eye movements are monitored). This would raise the engagement scores but, once again, tell us nothing about the quality of education. Whatever might be ailing our schools today, it's probably not the lack of quantified goals and targets.

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