Smart E-Textbooks: Is it ethical to track your students’ reading?

| April 9, 2013

The New York Times reported this morning that Texas A&M is using CourseSmart E-Textbooks in class, which allows professors to track whether students open their textbooks, what pages they look at and for how long, and which passages they highlight. The dean of the school of business commented, “It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with good intent.” Good intent seems to describe one particular professor’s use of the program, Adrian Guardia, who monitors his students’ study habits by looking at their “engagement index.”  CourseSmart provides an engagement index for each student, which is based, presumably, on how much and how often students use the textbook. Guardia could see that one of his students, who doesn’t score highly on his tests, had a very low engagement index. As reported by the New York Times, ‘“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”’

E-Books that track student engagement raise many questions. Are teachers willing to go further to reach their students by studying data charts detailing their e-reading habits? (It’s a lot of extra work, and is that a worthy use of their course prep-time?) Are the passages a student highlights in a book a “private” aspect of their reading? Is this data truly highlighting the way all students learn, or just the way some students learn?

Guardia, whose course is on business management, showed the data to his students to gauge their reactions.  Apparently, with new social media norms shifting our traditional sense of privacy, privacy wasn’t a major concern for the students. One of the students commented his Amazon account knows more about him than his mother does. But the students did raise concerns about the way they actually learn, claiming their index was low because they take notes on paper, or because they are fast readers, or because the software has bugs. Is it correct to claim that all students should study the same way?

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, suggested the software needs to collect higher quality data for it to be useful to teachers. Dede told the New York Times, “The possibilities of harm are tremendous if teachers are naïve enough to think these scores mean anything for the vast majority of students.” Apparently CourseSmart plans to continually tweak its software to collect more data, and more accurate data. But this raises a larger question: is this data collection morally ethical? Is it better for the students if the software gets smarter and is able to retrieve more information about how the students engage with the textbook, or are our assumptions about how students learn inaccurate? At its best, a teacher could see a student highlighting less worthy passages and helpfully intervene; it its worst, this kind of surveillance could stunt student creativity, curiosity, and desire to test their ideas out on the pages… of their own private copies of books. It’s a debatable topic!

What do you think?

Read the article: Teacher Knows if You’ve Done the E-Reading, by David Streitfeld