Data Streams and E-Textbooks

Today “smart” e-books are in the news.  These books give professors access to a stream of data about how individual students are using their e-books—whether they are skipping pages, highlighting specific passages, or taking notes in the book. The software that makes such monitoring possible even provides an “engagement index” for each student.  The news stories I’ve encountered have mostly focused on how the data enables professors to identify and then reach out to students with poor study habits.

I don’t know how to spell the sound I made when I first heard this particular news angle, but it was something close to the classic UGH.  The company that created the software says its surveys indicate that few students or colleges have privacy concerns.  But I know I would feel like I was spying on the adults I teach.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t put the data stream to some use, at least in an aggregate form.  If a meaningful portion of my class does not appear to be reading the textbook but is nonetheless performing well in class and on exams, then my course is too easy or the textbook is a dud, or some combination of the two.

The data stream may also be of interest to the institutions that employ professors.  Every university, college, or graduate school has at least a couple gut courses—classes in which students can do very little work and still get good grades.   One concern in law schools is that GPA-conscious students will flock to a gut course instead of one that would better prepare them for the bar and eventual practice.   A dean who is trying to convince a professor that her class needs to be harder could put the data from smart e-books to very effective use.   In fact, some professors will be disinclined to embrace smart e-books once they realize that students aren’t the only ones who can be watched.

Last, I am struck by the connection between the emergence of smart e-books and a post Larry wrote a few weeks ago.  Larry’s post laments that as e-books become increasingly dominant, he will no longer be able to peruse the bookshelves of colleagues or friends as a means of sparking a connection or sizing them up.   E-books do not serve the same (often inadvertent) signaling function as a print book.  E-books mean that no-one can get a window into my interests by scanning my shelves or seeing what’s open on my coffee table.  They also mean that I can no longer pick out law students on the subway by looking for a telltale red binding.  But with smart e-books, a select group will know more about these students’ reading habits than most of us would have imagined just a few years ago.

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3 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks for the post. The sound I made is more like the classic Shift+[assortment of keys in the top row of the keyboard]. Maybe I’m simply more struck by it now that I’m outside the US, but this fetish for monitoring and control really sounds as if it’s become pathological in the past few years. Ditto for micro-level performance management of education.

    “Smart ebook” seems to have a variety of meanings, though, and despite a variety of searches I wasn’t able to find links to stories of the type you mention. (Maybe Google is punishing me for customarily grazing in other sorts of pastures.) Could you please provide a couple of pertinent links?

  2. Sarah Waldeck says:

    Hi A.J.,

    Smart e-book was my own term; sorry if it sent you in the wrong direction.

    Here is a link to where I first saw the story, in today’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/technology/coursesmart-e-textbooks-track-students-progress-for-teachers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.

    The topic was also on my local public radio this morning, although they were probably inspired by the New York Times article.

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks. Here is a wonderful quote from the article that seems poised to bite someday the person who uttered it (a Texas A&M dean): “‘It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,’ said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.”