The discerning teacher has a variety of ways to determine not just how well his students grasp course material, but the amount of effort they’re putting in: including class attendance, participation, homework quality, and test scores.
But as course materials become increasingly digital, e-coursebook providers see a new opportunity to give teachers a level of insight into how their students engage with their products that could one day be as granular as the web analytics obsessed over by marketers or the Obama Campaign. CourseSmart, the world’s largest e-textbook publisher, recently released the world’s first analytics platform for course materials in beta, which lets professors visualize and analyze their students’ interaction with any of the materials in the company’s nearly 40,000 titles.
"When you’re using an electronic textbook, you’re able to make notes, you’re able to make highlights, you’re able to, obviously, read pages," CourseSmart CEO Sean Devine explains. CourseSmart Analytics "track usage patterns and make them available to faculty members so they can see which students are using the content and which aren’t." That means teachers will know how many pages a student turned, how many notes she made, and how much time she spent reading. The service summarizes the trends and stats in an easy-to-read dashboard for teachers and pushes the data through an algorithm to compute a student engagement index, a numerical ranking of students from most to least engaged.
The new program is being piloted at Texas A&M University in San Antonio, Villanova University in Nashville, Rasmussen College, a for-profit college with 22 campuses, and a half dozen other institutions, says Devine.
Of course, the idea that teachers can now assess students based on a computer-generated concept of engagement spooks some in the education world—another step in the move of education online that seems to robotize a teacher’s expertise and connection with her students.
"I will not be using this tool because I have a better way of measuring their engagement. I call it ‘their grade,’ " writes John Warner, a literature teacher and blogger at Inside Higher Ed. "If the students can do well in my course without reading the assigned materials, then I have to ask myself why I’ve assigned them because they clearly aren’t necessary. That’s just bad teaching," he adds.
On Slate, a piece headlined "In Soviet Russia, Book Reads You" expresses concern about a future world in which teachers (and, possibly, the authoritarian regimes that employ them in some countries) "spy" on students through tools like CourseSmart’s, pointing out the potentially negative consequences for intellectual freedom when students have less power to decide for themselves what is and what isn’t worth reading, especially if they disagree with materials (or propaganda).
While that may be a more extreme example, there’s no preventing students from gaming the system with ease. Just log in to a textbook while watching TV, click to highlight or flip a page in between Instagrams, and there you have it: a superb score on the engagement index.
Devine waves that concern off though. "This is just another data point that will be used in conjunction with all the other data points that the professor might use," says Devine, useful for diagnosing what’s wrong with a student’s performance, not grading him. "If the professor knows that the student’s attendance is erratic, and then the professor notices that the student’s engagement with course materials is not high," then analytics might provide a new perspective on what the student is or isn’t doing right.
Offering educators access to this type of data seems rather inevitable at this point in time, where any digital activity involving clicks, scrolls, or streams will be quantified and dissected by someone on the other end. Professors are simply catching up. And like most technology, it’s how it’s used and who is using it that determine whether or not its impact is good.
The problem, of course, is that good technology is addictive: it appears to make life easier and let us take shortcuts. Once we’re hooked, we begin to ignore the real life phenomena for input—maybe the way that engaged students talk about course materials, or the look in their eyes—that the technology replaces. Teachers are overworked, underpaid, and exhausted. If the engagement score works well, which is what CourseSmart is betting on, why wouldn’t they want to use it at the expense of more laborious methods?