With CourseSmart, the “Teacher Knows If You’ve Done the Reading” in your digital textbook, reports David Streitfield of the New York Times. The article explains that CourseSmart, a software system now being tested at nine colleges and universities including Texas A&M, allows professors to “know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.”
Yikes! To my mind, software that spies on and reports student’s reading habits — with insufficient regard for different learning approaches and study habits — is potentially harmful to students. Will a professor give a lower grade to a student whom the software reports isn’t studying enough because she writes her notes in longhand rather than highlighting the electronic text and taking notes in the text’s own software? Will the software or the teachers punish those who read quickly or have photographic memories, for not taking “enough” time with the material?
My own daughter could run afoul of such a system. Following her vision therapist’s recommendation, she writes out terms and information to memorize in mirror-writing, uses colored flash cards, and sometimes studies standing on a balance cushion to engage her body while learning. She also writes her notes in longhand, rather than typing them. She’s a kinesthetic and auditory learner with some visual challenges, and those practices help her learn and retain what she is learning. CourseSmart, on the other hand, appears to assume all students are visual learners — those who gather much or most of their information by reading or looking. It certainly privileges some study habits — the ones its software can track — over others. And while I don’t know this for certain, I can guess that it also assume an average reading speed, which could penalize speed-readers.
The privacy concerns are also considerable. Sure, as one woman points out in the article, Amazon knows a lot about you, too (especially if you read books on a Kindle or Kindle app, or stream video.) But Amazon doesn’t have the power over you that a professor has over a student. Amazon can target ads and product recommendations based on what it knows about you. A professor armed with the information CourseSmart provides, on the other hand, could accuse you of cheating because you’re doing well on quizzes but don’t appear to be studying the book. Or she might lower your grade based on your lack of highlighting and notetaking, regardless of whether your class participation and test scores indicate an understanding of the material.
And that’s just the academic side of it — CourseSmart could potentially report on when you study (or at least had the book app open), which would give the professor information about your private life outside the classroom. That’s information even parents of college students (or maybe, especially parents) don’t normally have.
I can see some advantages to CourseSmart — it could potentially alert a professor to a student who is struggling. But frankly, the professor should be aware of that already, via quizzes and tests, classroom (or virtual classroom) discussion, and/or papers. And as I indicated above, the data CourseSmart gives teachers doesn’t necessarily reflect the student’s actual study habits, and could give a professor a negative image of a student who is, in fact, studying hard and doing well.
Finally, there’s the teacher who worried, based on his students’ low “engagement” scores despite the fact that they were generally doing well on quizzes and tests, that his course was too easy. Is the point to make the course so hard that they have to spend hours and hours poring over the textbook? Or is the point that the students should learn the material? Maybe, just maybe, they’re doing well without spending hours on the textbook because the professor is teaching so well in class.
What do you think? Is CourseSmart a good idea, or not? Are the potential benefits worth the invasion of privacy? Does it give teachers too much power, or much-needed feedback?