Apr 17 2013

Technology Tells Teachers if Students Do the Reading — Or Not

Startup education venture tracks students’ study habits, but does it go too far?

For years, the pop quiz has been among the best barometers for teachers to determine whether students have completed assigned class readings. Students who do the assignment pass with flying colors. Those who neglect the reading struggle even to guess at the answers.

But the pop quiz, while popular, is far from foolproof.

Now, if a recent article in The New York Times is any indication, K–12 teachers soon could have a new tool at their disposal to determine whether students are doing the assigned reading.

From San Mateo, Calif.-based e-book provider CourseSmart, a new technology reportedly generates individual student reports compiled from assigned e-book readings. The reports reveal whether students completed the reading, how many passages they underlined or highlighted during the exercise, and how many times they referred back to the text prior to a test.

At its best, supporters of the technology, which is currently being piloted at a handful of colleges and universities, say the service gives teachers yet one more tool to home in on the needs of individual learners. At its worst, detractors say the technology is intrusive and does little more than tell good teachers what they already know.

What Are the Advantages?

The CouseSmart tool tracks students’ e-book reading habits and beams them back to instructors in the form of customizable reports and a proprietary “engagement score.” The score, which takes into account a number of factors, including initial completion of the assignment and rereading or referencing, is intended to help teachers better target individual lessons—and, if all goes well, improve students’ individual study mechanics.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurley, dean of the Texas A&M University-San Antonio school of business, told the Times. The university is one of the institutions piloting the technology.

Educational publishers, such a McGraw-Hill and Pearson, both of which have a stake in CourseSmart, agree. In addition to plying educators with study data, publishers envision using the information collected to produce better products for schools.

What Are the Drawbacks?

But not everyone is excited about the technology. Chris Dede, a Harvard University professor who specializes in learning technologies, told the Times that teachers could be easily misled by the data. For instance, students who take notes outside of the e-reader or do additional research or study not captured by the software would not see those efforts reflected in their engagement score. It is also conceivable that students could find a way to dupe the system into giving them credit for more work than they actually did.

“The possibilities of harm are tremendous if teachers are naïve enough to think these scores mean anything for the vast majority of students,” Dede told the Times.

Some students have complained that the technology is intrusive. “People take their own time doing what they do with their books,” Syracuse sophomore Muhammed Jallow told the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Orange, for a story about CourseSmart. “There shouldn’t be someone watching over you.”

What do you think? Is there room in K–12 education for a technology that helps teachers keep track of students’ reading habits? Does the CourseSmart software go too far? Not far enough? Let us know in the Comments.


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