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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.

Eventually, the data will flow back to the publishers, to help prepare new editions.

Academic and popular publishers, as well as some authors, have dreamed for years of such feedback to direct sales and editorial efforts more efficiently. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are presumed to be collecting a trove of data from readers, although they decline to say what, if anything, they will do with it.

The pre-digital era, when writers wrote and publishers published without a clue, is seen as an amazingly ignorant time. "Before this, the publisher never knew if chapter three was even looked at," says Sean Devine, CourseSmart's chief executive.

More than 3.5 million students and ­educators use CourseSmart textbooks and are generating reams of data about chapter three. Among the colleges experimenting this semester are Clemson, Central Carolina Technical College and Stony Brook University, as well as Texas A&M-San Antonio, a new offshoot.

Texas A&M has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the state but only half the students make it out in that time.

"If CourseSmart offers to hook it up to every class, we wouldn't decline," says Texas A&M's Professor Hurley.

At a recent session of a management training class, Guardia addressed how to intervene efficiently with underperformers. The students watched a video of a print shop manager reprimanding an employee without knowing the circumstances. The moral: the manager needed better data.

Then Guardia discussed with his students the analytics of their own reading which he had emailed to them.

The students suggested that once again better information was needed. Several say their score was being minimised because they took notes on paper.

Others complained there were software bugs, a response Guardia heard before.

A student who was cramming at the last minute says, for example, that he had opened the textbook several times, not just once. Perhaps these are the digital ­equivalent of "the dog ate my homework" .

CourseSmart says it knew of no problems with its software.

The start-up says its surveys indicate few privacy concerns among students or ­colleges, which is borne out by the class.

"[It's like] Big Brother," says one student as a joke. Being watched is a fundamental part of the world they live in.

"Amazon has such a footprint on me," says Carol Johnson, who works in the technology industry. "It knows more than my mother."

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, is more apprehensive.

He believes analytics are important in the classroom but they must be based on high-quality data.

The CourseSmart system has other potential problems; students could easily game the highlighting or note-taking functions. Or a student might improve his score by leaving his textbook open and doing something else.


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