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Books study whether students are reading

Updated: 2013-04-28 05:46
By David Streitfeld ( The New York Times)

SAN ANTONIO - 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.

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

The faculty members here at Texas A&M-San Antonio 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. But CourseSmart individually packages for each professor information on all the students in a class - an effort that is beginning to affect how teachers present material and how students respond to it, even as critics question how well it measures learning.

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

"Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test?" said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. "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 Charles Tejeda, the real revelation that he was struggling was a low CourseSmart index.

"They caught me," said Mr. Tejeda, 43. He has two jobs and three children, and can study only late at night. "Maybe I need to focus more," he said.

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.

Eventually, the data will flow back to the publishers. 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.

"Before this, the publisher never knew if Chapter 3 was even looked at," said 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 3.

The start-up said its surveys indicated few privacy concerns, and this was borne out by students in Mr. Guardia's management training class at Texas A&M.

"Amazon has such a footprint on me," said Carol Johnson, 51, who works in the tech industry. "It knows more than my mother."

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard University'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; a student might improve his score just by leaving his textbook open.

CourseSmart says the data it collects now is a beginning. Mr. Devine said, "There's a correlation and causality between engagement and success."

After two months of using the system, Mr. Guardia is coming to some conclusions. His students generally are scoring well on assignments. Once, that might have reassured him. But their engagement indexes are low.

"Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more," Mr. Guardia said. "Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought."

The New York Times