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Teachers Know If You've Been E-Reading 348

RougeFemme writes with this story in the New York Times about one disconcerting aspect of the ongoing move to electronic textbooks: "Teachers at 9 colleges are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up that lets them know if you're skipping pages, highlighting text, taking notes — or, of course, 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 at Texas A&M.' 'Major publishers in higher education have already been collecting data from millions of students who use their digital materials. But 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.'"
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Teachers Know If You've Been E-Reading

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  • I don't want my professors knowing that I am totally using SparkNotes!
  • by Xugumad ( 39311 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:48AM (#43399965)

    Why is it disconcerting?

    I mean... yes, it can be mis-used. The data should be used to flag up pupils who may be struggling, but will also flag those who may already know the material, but just because data could be incorrectly used doesn't make it inherently worrying.

    Does it?

    • Re:Disconcerting? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:54AM (#43400005)

      Because it is worthless.

      Again the easy thing to measure is the wrong thing. If the student read the material from this ebook has not a thing in a the world to do with the student knowing the material or not. He may have learned it in the past, he may read another book about the subject or hacked the ebook so he could read it on another device.

      The danger here is substituting the easy to measure metric "Pages Read" for the much tougher "Material Understood".

      • hacked the ebook so he could read it on another device.

        Or even ... printed it.

      • The danger here is substituting the easy to measure metric "Pages Read" for the much tougher "Material Understood".

        Not only easier to measure, but more "socially desirable". Instead of grading students on whether they've learned the material, you can grade them on whether they've tried to learn the material. This avoids the sometimes embarrassing fact that not everyone can hack certain courses.

        At a lower level, I'm not a hard-ass about this. "A for effort" may be appropriate, to a certain extent, in elementary school, where you have to take into account that kids mental abilities may develop at different times, and ca

        • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

          The problem with allowing the "A for effort" in elementary education is that this then breeds an expectation in the student and the whole system.

          If you cannot read by end of First grade, you should be repeating. Instead today we "A for effort" until 6th grade and then maybe a higher level teacher does more than promote them to get rid of them. The end result is people graduating high school that can't read at a functional level.

          • That's taking it to an extreme, which may well happen some places. At a more moderate level it's another story.
        • My problem is what really constitutes "effort"? A student in the earlier grades who performs well may not put much effort into individual assignments, but has an attitude and lifestyle that permits good marks. While kids from a good home where the basics (ABC's and 123's) can do the entire homework with no mistakes and no effort, some kids who didn't receive such things in their childhood may have to put forth a lot of effort to do a particular assignment, but ultimately will still be unable to get all th
          • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

            My problem is why does effort matter?

            In the real world we care about results not effort. If you have to reduce your department head count by one and your have to to select from the lazy guy who gets all his work or a hard worker bee who never completes his assigned takes, lazy will still be collecting a paycheck while the hard worker will be on unemployment.

            Results are what matter, teaching kids any different is a disservice to them and the society they join.

          • some kids who didn't receive such things in their childhood may have to put forth a lot of effort to do a particular assignment

            So there's the effort that they should be getting credit for.

            A related problem is that kids who are bright and/or come from a good environment come to expect to get A's without much effort. That sets them up to be discouraged or poor students as they get older and the going gets tougher. My 4th grade daughter is a bright kid who (I hope) comes from a decent environment. People used to tell her she was smart, which infuriated me, despite (or because) it's true. I've finally gotten them to stop (mostly) and

      • by lxs ( 131946 )

        If only somebody would invent a way to examine the student's level of understanding. Some sort of "test" if you will. You could call it an "examination", or maybe an "exam" for short.

        • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

          Those are difficult to write well, harder to grade well and it is extremely difficult to present that data to others.

          Pages read on the other hand is easier in all aspects.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Xeranar ( 2029624 )

        You're making some pretty strong assumptions. First that professors care whether students read the material, we don't. This is big person school and you should be doing what we assigned as it is nominally expected. I'm the biggest giver in my department, if young adults come to me and ask for help or a more thorough explanation I always give it. This is a really great metric to see if assigning a reading is worthwhile as to see if the majority reads it or refers to another source. Second the alternativ

        • Re:Disconcerting? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @09:30AM (#43400325)

          Some professors do care if pages are read, or will once they realize that this is an easy metric to gather.

          I once got a 3.0 in a class instead of a 4.0 even though I scored a 97% on the Final, a 96% on the tests and a 98% on Labs. I never attended any class meeting other than examinations. For that my grade was docked by a moron who surely would use this pages read metric as another way to be a petty dictator. He could not write a simple sort on the board without consulting his notes, but somehow I was supposed to waste my time in his class.

          I don't think knowing the material before is that outlandish, nor is downloading a simple tool to crack an ebook. We did that when I was in university and that was pretty much the beginning of that sort of thing. These were generally PDFs that would only open in some DRMed client.

      • by readin ( 838620 )
        If the ebook is to be used on a internet browser, it could be that the parents had to purchas a hardcopy of the book due to a poorly designed website.
      • And, since I pay to go to college, it's none of their business. If someone wants to pay thousands of dollars and fail a course because they don't read the course material, that's their right. It's none of the professor's business really. I never took any notes in college or highlighted anything, and did just fine. Probably could have done better. But I didn't fail anything. And I paid for every dime of it.

        On the other hand, if I go to the professor and am having issues, and he suggest that he monitors m
    • Why is it disconcerting?

      I mean... yes, it can be mis-used. The data should be used to flag up pupils who may be struggling, but will also flag those who may already know the material, but just because data could be incorrectly used doesn't make it inherently worrying.

      Does it?

      But who wants teachers/bosses/whoever prying into everything they do? Those who want to learn will learn, those who don't won't, irrespective of whether someone's spying on them.

      • This was the entire point of Freshman year - in return for your tuition (!!) among other things you got to get away from a daily "papers please" mentality of the lower grades, and then you were graded on the fewer metrics for that class, "however you (presumed honestly) got there". Cue the brilliant slackers types having to face their latent tendencies.

        This just another sad factor showing that data leads to people getting a carnal lust to control people with.

    • Yes, it is inherently wrong, especially in a college setting where the student is paying to attend the classes. Maybe if the tech had proper controls where the student was in charge of what got shared, with whom, and when it could be a positive (ie... struggling and can ask for help, then provide the access for review and suggestions).

      Otherwise, it's just an outright invasion of the student's privacy.

    • What makes it disconcerting is that it shows that the publishers of e-books have the ability to know what parts of it I am reading.
      Of course, the article actually makes a point of showing as an example of how it is good by highlighting what I would call a misuse of this technology. A professor noticed that a student, who by every traditional measure of doing well was doing excellent, didn't read the textbook. Instead of concluding that the student was able to learn the material from his lectures and othe
    • by six025 ( 714064 )

      The data should be used to flag up pupils who may be struggling

      IANAT and probably don't appreciate everything that being a teacher entails, but whatever happened to engaging with students and knowing who requires extra attention or some other method of engagement to get them motivated?

      I'm all for technology, but some problems are human problems and won't be solved by adding new technology to the mix. If anything it will make some situations worse, as we become lazier (rely on the machines to do our job) and further removed from each other.

      Just my 2 cents.


    • That sounds suspiciously like the argument, "If you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.", that is brought up to support all kinds of big brotherish laws.

      We have had a perfectly good system to measure how well people are learning material. It's called a test. You pass it, you know the material. what difference does it matter if the person is good at highlighting? maybe I happen to already know the material but have to take the course because there's no mechanism to allow me to te
    • These days, it should be disconcerting whenever people start collecting data which can easily be misused, especially when the valid uses for that data is limited. The reason you should be concerned is that data will almost certainly be used for something, most likely by someone who doesn't really understand how to analyze the data.

      We're a society obsessed with metrics. We've had a lot of success with science and automation and statistical analyses, and we've been primed to expect that numbers mean things

    • by Jawnn ( 445279 )
      Why disconcerting? Let's say I read with a truly unusual level of speed and comprehension. Come exam time, I've spent only a fraction of the "expected" time with my "nose in a book", and yet I ace the test. Repeat. It's not long before I am suspected of cheating. Fuck that and the notion that my instructors need to know how much time I've spent studying. They need to know that I've mastered the material I was assigned. Period.
    • Do you really think students will struggle to get used to touching the 'next page' button about every 1-5 minutes, while playing their computer games?
      Teachers will only catch the odd unprepared student who honestly did not have time to study. The professional slackers however will walk free.

      We should give students the responsibility. It is their life, their responsibility. Takes about 18-25 years on average to grow up. And this kind of thing just is not helping to achieve becoming an adult.

      Cramming some stu

    • by MacTO ( 1161105 )

      It all depends upon how the data is used. Proper use can suggest where students are struggling, so that in class instruction can be improved. In conjunction with other data, it can be used to identify and help at risk students. Of course, it can also indicate whether a textbook is a valuable resource or otherwise.

      On the other hand, it can be abused. I was forced to drop a course back in the days of paper textbooks because I refused to buy a book that the instructor had written. The book that I had from

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:48AM (#43399967)

    F that.

    I don't care about intent I care about ability. Intent can change unexpectedly.

    • by fermion ( 181285 )
      It is sad that some consider such micromanagement necessary for a college student. It is like taking roll. When I was in college prof came in, lectured, gave assignments, never mentioned or in larger classes knew who was there. Responsible adults know who to get where they need to be, and if they are not responsible they should not be in college or get a degree.

      So the problem is the good intent here is to help students be responsible. Of course one value of a college degree is that is shows that one c

  • Aren't they all? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fox1324 ( 1039892 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:50AM (#43399973)
    Aren't all 'big brother' systems put into place "with good intent"?
    • by Ksevio ( 865461 )
      This article immediately reminded me of the part of Snow Crash where the US Government monitors its employees reading the memos and disciplines them for taking too long or not long enough - and how the good employees will go back to reference earlier parts of the memo, etc.

      Of course the employees were all basically gaming the system so they appeared to be doing it correctly.
  • by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:52AM (#43399991) Homepage

    The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

    -- C. S. Lewis

    (who, on a side-note, also wrote a snazzy novel which more or less served as the blueprint for 1984 []

  • Thereby forcing everyone to buy an ebook. All Hail

  • Just test! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by White Flame ( 1074973 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:52AM (#43399995)

    If they pass the test, who cares if they just learned from lectures, knew the material from beforehand, looked it up from another source, or other non-textbook methods of learning? The point is that, at the end of the class, the student can show they learned the material.

    • by Xugumad ( 39311 )

      Well, if they're doing this properly, it shouldn't be about whether the student learnt the material, but how.

      It should be used to show:

      Students who aren't engaging with the material, and may require early intervention
      Levels of interest in the material (would different material suit the learners better?)
      Problems with the material (are there particular parts many learners highlight and/or comment on? Could indicate confusion, for example)

      • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

        How would you deal with a student that already knew the material?

        He will read 0 pages, does not need intervention, has no interest in it or any other material about this topic and cannot tell if there are problems with the material or not.

        So long as he knows the material there is no problem to solve.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      That is a hard metric, this is an easy one. People love easy metrics, never mind if they are actually worth anything. With this you can make spreadsheets and powerpoint slides, those allow you have meetings and pretend to be important.

      • Tests aren't always great metrics either. Some people are good at tests, while others are bad. Tests are too easily swayed by stress level, recent sleep patterns, and diet.

        Personally, I think teacher should get to know their students and talk to them rather than relying solely on metrics, but I understand that we don't think education is important enough to spend all that time on it.

        • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

          Life is full of stress, poor sleep and bad diet.
          Tests are better because of those things, not worse.

          I agree a teacher doing a one on one evaluation would be even better, but if we spent money on that schools could not have such elaborate sports programs.

          • Life is full of stress, poor sleep and bad diet. Tests are better because of those things, not worse.

            In my working life, I've never had to deal with an evaluation remotely similar to the SATs. Granted, if you have a job with a bunch of certifications and such, you might need to do some similar testing, but those certifications are also generally very poor metrics for determining competence.

    • The problem is, tests become metrics which go beyond the single classroom and teacher - suddenly the school, the district, the national bodies and the PTAs all want access to the testing data, and they start to equate test metrics with teacher quality rather than student effort (when the reality is a mix of both).

      I don't see an issue with the features raised in the article, so long as the teachers do not solely rely on it - it does become a good way to ensure that pupils are spending time with the resources

  • I haven't taken a note in my entire life, and I consider highlighting books to be sacrilege.

    Taking notes is overrated. If your brain can't process the information, taking notes won't mean anything in the long run. It's just a exam-passing technique, but it won't help you understand better and certainly will not help you hold on to more knowledge beyond the date of the exam you are studying for.

    Read the damn book. Then read some more on the subject, and by all means skip pages and passages if you consider th

    • It's just a exam-passing technique, but it won't help you understand better and certainly will not help you hold on to more knowledge beyond the date of the exam you are studying for.

      Maybe for you, but it sounds like you havent taken many notes, and it certainly sounds like you can only speak for yourself.

      For me and many that I know, taking notes can be a way of summarizing and processing the information coming in. By restating what the teacher says in a different way, and by taking it down, one is re-committing it to memory in a more lasting way than passively sitting in the classroom.

      IIRC its not even up for debate that "active" learning styles are on the whole more effective than pa

      • And you can speak only for yourself. Each person's brain works differently.

        In my case, I'm not strong on "I/O", so if I'm taking notes, I'm clogging up channels that would be better used to absorb the lecture in the first place.

        I figured this out gradually during college. The first year, I took copious notes and filled thick notebooks. After realizing that the note taking was counterproductive for me, the last couple of years, I took essentially no notes. My GPA remained the same, but my stress level dropp

      • For me and many that I know, taking notes can be a way of summarizing and processing the information coming in.

        In other words, everybody learns in a different way. All the more reason this Big Brother software is a bad idea. The worst possible thing would be to try to force everyone into a standard way of studying.

      • by Hatta ( 162192 )

        IIRC its not even up for debate that "active" learning styles are on the whole more effective than passively listening to a lecture.

        Simply writing something down is not "active". Thinking about it is active. Writing notes takes time away from thinking.

    • Ah. Your anecdote contradicts all the research. I hasten to adjust my pedagogy!
  • by BigSlowTarget ( 325940 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @08:56AM (#43400029) Journal
    Next up: an app which automatically turns the pages and shares highlighting. (If this is used for grading or implicitly incorporated into paper/project grading).
  • If data can be collected someone will collected; once it is collected there is a strong "need" to use. This certainly can be used to help improve coursework; especially if aggregate data shows patterns where material can be improved. If there is correlation between scores and performance than it is worthwhile to see if their is causation as well and use that to help improve learning. OTOH, factoring that into grading would be problematic, since learning styles differ. I took an English Lit class in college
  • by concealment ( 2447304 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @09:10AM (#43400145) Homepage Journal

    Education in 1900: you need to be able to do things.

    Education in 1980: you need to be able to know how to do things.

    Education in 2000: you need to memorize things.

    Education in 2013: you need to have done the reading, been present, breathing and perhaps even conscious.

    • Education in 1900: you need to be able to do things.

      Those who do not know history are doomed to make shit up about it which is demonstrably false and look silly on the internet.

      Rote memorisation used to be HUGE.

      2x2=4 2x3=6 2x4=8 2x5=doodles on exercise book.

  • ...what "Big Brother" policies HAVEN'T been motivated by some superficial 'good intent'?


    Last time I checked, the pavement on the road to Hell was still the same as it always was.

  • The Aggies can read!
  • Metrics are usually used to push down and back, not usually to lift people up. Regardless of the nice and helpful intent asserted by one professor in the article who said "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." I have a feeling these "metrics" such as "engagement" which somehow tracks "how engaged" you are with a class can be misused to help justify giving a student a lower score or flunking them.
    Students in that article complained that the CourseSmart assessment software unfairly judged their "engagement level" as low if they took class notes on a different software package/editor or even if they took handwritten class notes which were not even considered by the software:
    At a recent session here of a management training class, Mr. Guardia addressed how to intervene efficiently with underperformers. The students watched a video of a print shop manager chewing out an employee without knowing the circumstances. The moral: The manager needed better data.
    . . Then Mr. Guardia discussed with his students the analytics of their own reading, which he had e-mailed to them. The students suggested that once again better information was needed. Several said their score was being minimized because they took notes on paper.
    . . Others complained there were software bug

    And as to the question of whether these analytics mean anything, the software developer had this to say:

    CourseSmart says the data it collects now is a beginning. "We'll ultimately show how the student traverses the book," Mr. Devine said. "There's a correlation and causality between engagement and success."

    Note the phrase "ultimately show", which means that this is still an experiment. And note the jumping to a conclusion about correlation and causation between engagement and success. While that conclusion may be warranted by other studies, and depending upon the definitions used for "engagement" and for "success" (you can always game the definitions too), the problem is that the monitoring systems way of numerically evaluating "engagement" may be all fucked up if you use handwritten notes or read auxillary works (other textbooks, older classes' texts, or even "outlines" of texts).
    The worst uses of these metrification analytics was highlighted in a Los Angeles Times article [] yesterday called "Monitoring upends balance of power at workplace, some say". That article had some examples of over-monitoring and over-detailed "supervising" with bad or partial numbers:

    She recently was reprimanded for taking 29 minutes to move a load of boxes; the boxes were much heavier than usual, but the numbers didn't show that, she said.

    Or the example of how to read in what you want:

    One major retailer, for instance, started measuring its employees, only to discover its most productive workers were part-timers who had been there less than a year. It then began to focus on hiring short-term part-timers, said Ed Frauenheim, a senior editor at Workforce Magazine.

    Shouldn't it have focussed on finding out the things that made those workers more productive, and wouldn't it have made more sense to have turned those very productive part-time employees into full time employees with better compensation? Having analytics just gives you/the teacher/the supervisor one extra checkbox to check-off as the supposedly valid reason for giving someone a bad evaluation / a bad or failing grade / a demotion or firing. It creates fake evidence or fake justification which can be fallen upon as a crutch or "just cause" for the action which the person in power may have already wanted to take.

    • That's a nice theory, but you ignore the fact that the incentives are reversed. Employers are incentivized to lower evaluation scores so that they can justify lowered wages or not raising wages. Educators are incentivized to pass students and raise grades. Faculty retention, raises, and promotion are all tied to this, and so is funding for the whole school and/or school-district. That's why you're seeing scandals like the one in Atlanta, where public school administration and faculty are being busted for ch
      • I think this is more of a matter of the education level at which this is implemented: High School vs. Junior/Community college vs. University undergraduate. Except at the college level, where you need to be able to "push back" at administration to say why you gave a student a poor grade. If a student fails, they might have to take the class again. At a community college, this means more income for the college. Your comments about cheating upward is true for high-school, junior high-school, and middle sc
  • Students deserve academic freedom too. Maybe they're learning the subject via library books on their own time, and have no use for ebooks. The goal of the professor (at the end if the course) is to determine how much a student knows, not to enforce that the professor's method of learning was used.
  • To this bad idea, I say no thank you. Why don't we actually treat college students like adults.

    Fast forward 25 years...

    "Mr. President, we have here a log of your reading of your 'systems of government' textbook and you underlined all these passages about communism, would care to respond to the claim that your actually a communist?!?"

    Nothing about this idea is evenly remotely good. It's so bad that who ever thought it up should be fired along with the manager who approved it.
  • This is fucking bullshit, and why I don't e-read to begin with FUCK IT ALL!
  • by noldrin ( 635339 ) on Tuesday April 09, 2013 @10:21AM (#43400873)
    The problem is Professors want you to read the book as enrichment, but don't actually teach from the book, or test from the book. My last few years of college I stopped buying the textbooks (as the professor would put one on hold at the Library) and found that not opening the book didn't reduce my grades. Now they can reduce your grade for not reading. This is similar to homework, which I found no link between that and understanding homework. I had classes where I performance with excellence on the testing, but the lack of my homework reduce my grade to unsatisfactory.

    Most Colleges subscribe to the theory there is one way to learn, which is not true. I've been in classes where they berate the class for not taking notes. I've never take notes as I found they actually reduce learning for me. They way I learn is listening to lecture, walking around and thinking about them, and then a good night sleep. Most of the other methods of study lead me to temporary remembrance of the subject matter. I stand by my methods of learning as I find that I'm able to recall facts and apply them to subject matter I learned in High School and my peers who sometimes performed better than me on tests appear to have no memory of ever learning the topics.
  • '"It's Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,"

    Said every dictator, thug, and authoritarian ever...

    Seriously, how can someone say this with a straight face? Oh, wait, I forget...this is a college campus.

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