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Everyone Panic: CourseSmart Now Lets Instructors Digitally Stalk Students

This weeks distraction from real news comes to us from the New York Times. This august publication discovered earlier this week that CourseSmart’s new analytics tools were enabling instructors to spy on students' study habits:

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

 They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply not opening the book at all.

It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.


Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

This comes as no surprise. This is pretty much what I expected to happen when Coursesmart Analytics was announced back in November 2012:

CourseSmart Analytics is still in beta, and according to the press release it uses a proprietary algorithm which integrates usage data such as page views, time spent in a textbook, and notes and highlights taken by a student. All this data is incorporated into an overall assessment of students’ engagement with the material. The school’s faculty will be able to access each student’s data from the school’s LMS (Blackboard, Moodle, etc) and identify which students need to be counseled on their unacademic behavior.

One of the students quoted in the article notes that this isn’t any worse than how Amazon, Google, et al are tracking us when we are online: “Amazon has such a footprint on me,” said Carol Johnson, 51, who works in the tech industry. “It knows more than my mother.”

Whoever thinks that is a valid parallel may have missed the point. Coursesmart is spying on students and then handing the info over to individuals who have power over the students. That makes Coursesmart the equivalent of a college’s spy service.

And no, I am not being ridiculous. Why do you think privacy advocates kick up such a fuss when tech companies hand user info over to governments? It’s because the potential for abuse is both obvious and frightening.

And I am not the only one who sees the problem:

Well, the idea might be that it will help students will low engagement, but you can bet that it won’t stop there. It will also be used to spy on whether students are cheating, as indicated by an implausibly small number of hours spent reading texts; or it might be used to check on whether books are being lent out to friends who aren’t "authorized" to read that copy, as evidenced by unusual reading patterns.

Similarly, it’s easy to imagine colleges starting to put pressure on students to read in certain rigidly-defined ways in order to "maximize" the return on that investment in digital materials — hardly what education and learning to think for yourself are all about. Maximizing return will doubtless also lead to this reporting feature becoming mandatory — at the moment students can opt out if they wish — purely in the name of efficiency, you understand.

Electronic Versions Of Textbooks Spy On Students As They Read Them (Techdirt)


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fjtorres April 11, 2013 um 10:35 am

It is a long established legal principle that minors have limited rights in academic/institutional environments. Much as employees in corporate environments.
You may have some expectation of privacy in a space you own but once you step out the literal and metaphorical door those expectations vanish. Hand wringing optional.

Thomas April 12, 2013 um 3:25 am

True, but there are legitimate fears that this sort of thing will be overused. A student reading the text quickly does not mean the student doesn’t understand the material.

When I was in college, one teacher required all students to turn in their notes and based part of the class grades on those notes. I have very good recall and do not take many notes, so I was marked down.

Grades should be based on performance, not following arbitrary study habits.

A Reader April 12, 2013 um 8:11 am

A college student we know tells us she passes all her online tests by using screenshots from the Blackboard app the school has. She screenshots the test questions and then searches for the answers in the textbook. As far as we can tell, she never reads the textbook, rarely takes notes in class, and she can often re-take the online test to up her test results after she’s located all the answers. She is quite proud of her "system". I doubt if she’s alone. Man, I used to read, highlight, and take notes and actually study to get the As & Bs she’s getting!!

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