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Now, With E-books, Your Prof Knows Exactly What You Read

By Dennis Abrams

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that CourseSmart, which sells digital versions of textbooks by major publishers, announced the introduction of a new tool to help professors and “others” measure students’ actual involvement with electronic course materials.

For example, a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. That book can be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will then track students’ behavior: how much time, let’s say, they spend reading; how many pages they look at, and exactly how many notes and highlights they make. That data will then get crunched into a score indicating the students’ level of “engagement” with the text.

The idea being that faculty members can then reach out to students showing low engagement, said Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can also then evaluate the return they are getting on their investments in digital materials.

To date, three schools — Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio — have signed on to run pilots of the product, called CourseSmart Analytics, which is expected to be more broadly available in 2013.

“There is a screaming demand in the market place for knowledge around what impact course materials have on learning,” Devine said.

Of course, the very idea students’ reading habits being under surveillance raises any number of red flags. Earlier this year, the American Library Association, questioned efforts by libraries to lend e-books on Kindles, which exposes their patrons’ reading behavior to monitoring by Amazon.

Devine appreciates privacy concerns, and points out that students will have the option to opt out if they don’t want their data shared.

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

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