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Digital textbooks prompt evolution in reading

David Streitfeld (via NYT/ AFR) | April 22, 2013
Several professors at Texas A&M University know whether students are reading their textbooks thanks to Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart.

Several professors at Texas A&M University know something that generations of teachers could only guess at: whether students are reading their textbooks.

The Texas A&M professors know when students skip pages, fail to highlight significant passages,don't bother to take notes - or simply don't open the book at all.

"It's Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent," says Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.

The faculty members are neither ­clairvoyant nor peering over shoulders.

They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students' progress with digital textbooks.

Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. CourseSmart goes further by individually packaging for each professor information on all the students in a class - a bold effort that is already beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this [northern] autumn.

Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice of a student who was apparently doing well. His test grades were solid and so was what Course­Smart calls his "engagement index".

But Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once. "It was one of those 'a-ha' moments," says Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. "Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits."

Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them but they know the books are watching them. For a few, merely hearing the number is a shock. Charles Tejeda got a C on the last test but the real revelation that he was struggling was a low CourseSmart index.

"They caught me," says Tejeda. He has two jobs and three children and can study only late at night. "Maybe I need to focus more," he says.

CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing.

In the old days, teachers knew if students understood the course from the expressions on their faces.

Now some classes, including one of ­Guardia's, are entirely virtual. Engagement information can give the colleges early warning about which students might flunk out while more broadly letting teachers know if the whole class is falling behind.


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