E-Textbooks Tell Teachers If You Actually Read Them

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New technology is helping professors spy on student study habits to make sure they're trying to learn.

Those 60 pages the class was supposed to read by Wednesday night? The professor can now tell if students didn’t — without looking at their blank expressions.

Even the ones good at bluffing with a quick skim are more likely to get caught.

Some classes at Texas A&M, Clemson, Stony Brook University and half a dozen other schools are now testing technology provided by a company called CourseSmart to track what students read in their digital textbooks, The New York Times reports. The software can identify skipped pages, what students highlighted, and how many times the book has been opened.

The students don’t see the data unless the professor shares it, but they’re told up front the book is spying on their study habits. In theory, the software’s ability to track engagement with the textbook could encourage students to be more thorough, and tell the professor when to slow down or revisit material.

A cynic (or a recent college grad like me) might say it won’t change things much. The first thing you learn in college is where to get free food. The second is how to make the grade with minimal effort. The article highlights some of the emerging excuses: I took my notes on paper instead of in the program. There must be bugs in the software.

But CourseSmart will keep refining the software and expanding its reach. Inside Higher Ed reports that the company already has 40,000 electronic textbooks from more than 50 publishers (many of which have a stake in the startup) and the software can plug right into classroom Web portals many universities already use, such as Blackboard and Desire2Learn. CourseSmart says e-textbooks will account for 14 percent of the market by next year.

Stacy Johnson

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