2012/11/27: Since its textbooks are digital, CourseSmart can track how much time each student spends with each page of the book, what chapters they skip, what passages give them trouble, and so forth. By aggregating this information, the company produces an “engagement score” for each student, which is then communicated to the teacher. So far, Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio have signed on to take part in the experiment. Their enthusiasm for this scheme makes sense: It might help teachers identify difficult material in the textbooks so they can be sure to go over it in class. The system’s next version will also feature a special dashboard so publishers can see student interaction with their textbooks, which would help them present material in a more accessible manner.
But there’s also something eerie about this scheme. Imagine a literature class in which students are assigned to read about George Orwell’s 1984 using electronic textbooks that spy on them as they read. Or consider a history class in which students use such “smart” textbooks to learn about the history of surveillance in the Soviet Union. Students who were pretending to learn the tenets of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union—along with the teachers who were pretending to teach them—may have been violating some of their school’s policies, but it’s hard to fault them for being ”unengaged.”
Such perversity aside, it’s important to ask how the very existence of such self-monitoring textbooks would affect the development of students’ critical thinking, even if it succeeds in dealing with their laziness.