Data Mines Open in College E-textbooks

We’ve asked ourselves whether this development in using e-textbooks to mine data on students’ reading habits is as highly unnerving as it seems:

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.

Our answer is a resounding YES! This is every bit as creepy as it seems. And the ALA agrees.

What do you think?

An iPhone Experiment

Today, I am trying an experiment: writing a blog post from my iPhone. Chances are you are wondering just how far behind the curve I am, but not in this case. It’s true that the WordPress app for the iPhone is infinitely more comprehensive than it was a year ago when I first acquired it. But I was more interested in discovering what it feels like to take something I can do in my sleep with a laptop and deal with it in a different environment.

The truth is I’m trying to get into the heads of my students better.

Here’s the thing. Our students are not dumb. But many if them are what I call functionally computer illiterate. You know what functional illiteracy is. It’s the guy who can read traffic signs, and license plates, and street signs, and can read the title of a book and the stuff on his driver’s license. But when it comes to cracking a book, or a newspaper, or a magazine, the words on the page congeal into a hardened mass that he can’t understand without tremendous effort. And, since people tend to follow the path of least resistance, he just walks away. The experience of reading eludes him. After a while he stops caring.

Our students are not that different in this one respect. Many of them own PCs and use them proficiently but many don’t. But the ones that aren’t fully computer literate are smart phone savvy. They can make their phone of choice flip over, beg, and ask for a tummy rub. Unfortunately they don’t have the ability to write term papers on their phones.

At least, not yet. And at least a few would if they could.

I’m not suggesting that such a thing would be wise even if it were possible but consider this: SirsiDynix already offers the ability for an iPhone or Android phone to search online catalogs by way of the BookMyne app. Considering that smart phones and PCs really aren’t that different under the hood, what further levels of integration are possible?

Anyway, I’ve learned a few things from doing this. One, blogging from my phone, while sort if neat, is annoying. The distractions are endemic. In the twenty or so minutes I’ve worked on this I’ve received a dozen texts from three different people and one phone call. All force me to either deal with the distraction and kill my train of thought, or shove the problem to the side for later. Second, There is a certain uneasiness to this activity and I’m not sure that its’ something that can be ignored. That makes me wonder whether my students have the same discomfort when they sit down in front of an unfamiliar (or barely familiar) PC and open a new document in Word.

Something to think about.

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