CourseSmart, which sells digital versions of textbooks by big publishers, announced on Wednesday a new tool to help professors and others measure students’ engagement with electronic course materials.
When students use print textbooks, professors can’t track their reading. But as learning shifts online, everything students do in digital spaces can be monitored, including the intimate details of their reading habits.
Those details are what will make the new CourseSmart service tick. Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.
The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.
Three institutions—Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio—plan to run pilots of the product, called CourseSmart Analytics. It’s expected to be broadly available in 2013.
“There is a screaming demand in the marketplace for knowledge around what impact course materials have on learning,” Mr. Devine says in an interview at the Educause technology conference here.
But reading surveillance raises privacy issues. The American Library Association, for example, recently raised alarms about efforts by libraries to lend e-books on Kindles, which exposes their patrons’ reading behavior to monitoring by Amazon.
Isn’t it a bit creepy to have textbooks watching their users?
Mr. Devine’s answer: “Not if it helps you succeed.” But he also points out that students will be able to opt out if they don’t want their data shared.
“We do understand the Big Brother aspects of it.”