Electronic Versions Of Textbooks Spy On Students As They Read Them

from the that-will-teach-them dept

The rapid uptake of ebooks by the public shows that there is a widespread recognition of their advantages. This would be good news for the publishing industry as it faces the transition from analog to digital formats, were it not for the fact that some publishers keep finding new ways of making ebooks less attractive than physical versions.

Here’s the latest idea: electronic versions of textbooks that spy on students as they read them:

Say a student uses an introductory psychology e-textbook. The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

The idea is that faculty members can reach out to students showing low engagement, says Sean Devine, chief executive of CourseSmart. And colleges can evaluate the return they are getting on investments in digital materials.

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.

What’s really tragic is that digital textbooks have the potential to be used in all kinds of truly innovative ways — for example, allowing a class to share annotations in real time, making the whole reading experience more social; or perhaps editing and combining texts to produce exciting re-workings and re-imaginings. Instead, publishers are obsessed with tracking users and controlling how they use ebooks, largely out of an absurd, underlying fear that somewhere along the line somebody might be doing something without paying for it.

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Comments on “Electronic Versions Of Textbooks Spy On Students As They Read Them”

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Kingster (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m not sure I agree with you. As the father of two children that carry about 12-15 pounds of textbooks to and from school every day (like I did, and likely you did)… I see enormous benefit in them.

I would have killed to carry an iPad (or similar), that I could “mark up” and annotate. Take notes in class? Of course! Put them right on the page that you’re discussing! It’s digital – it will (or could) be there forever!

And for reference? I dunno – I bet an electronic indexed search will find things just as fast, and probably faster, than you would on paper.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I find myself having to agree with you there. I think the technology is available to replace paper, BUT we need some competent device builders to step in and make a device worth having.

For example, How about a e-paper device with a screen the size of standard textbook page. Touch screen that accepts a REAL stylus, not a clunky thing that is no better than you finger.. You know, so you can actually write with it. Then also have back lighting that can be used to highlight parts in the book. (How awesome would that be, take your stylus and drag over some text and have it highlighted with soft colored glow)

So in other words a device that allows you to do what is natural. Be able to open your book in class and read, highlight and doodle just like a normal book. Once this is done then I think e-books can replace paper. The e-readers now though are just too clunky a device for reference books.

I almost forgot that you also need a VERY well developed book mark system for reference books. Something most e-readers also suck at.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Absolutely especially since unless a student can type at over 120 words per minute (or more) to take notes of the class/lecture/seminar/whatever an actual computer with a keyboard (physical or virtual) is absolutely freakin pointless.

Writing and taking notes is one of the major ways people learn. Just reading text is one of the hardest ways to actually retain anything.

Unless the student is learning something that specifically requires using a computer/device or to research/read on the computer, computers in classroom situations (especially at high schools & lower grades) are basically useless until at such time they can become a ubiquitous tool that has a simple and extremely easy to use Human Computer Interface (HCI) that actually allows and even enhances the learning curve.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Writing and taking notes is one of the major ways people learn. Just reading text is one of the hardest ways to actually retain anything.

I disagree w/ this, and I think in some ways this is the type of generalized thought that is what the article was warning against. I personally learn better just reading and not taking notes. Although again, different subjects will need different types of reinforcement.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Even just reading though, most modern e-readers are not a good format for text books. They are made to be nice little pocket sized things. Great for a novel but not for a text book where you might want larger charts or diagrams.

The interface is also normally terrible for anything other than straight liner reading, you know like how you read a novel, but terrible for jumping back and forth like you do with reference books.

G Thompson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Okay what I meant by this is what I said in comment just below here.

Different people learn in different ways. Though it has been shown that just reading a textbook is a very unusual way to actual learning for most students. Mainly because the way we actually remember things is normally via doing something and reading is to most people not ‘doing’ in the standard physical way. That doesn’t mean that some people, yourself included, cannot learn using pure reading. It’s just not the norm, otherwise textbooks, and pure lecture notes could replace Face To Face teaching in every classroom.

In fact to acquire and process information (learning) most people use a method based on mainly on one of Visual, Aural, Verbal, Physical (kinesthetic, and Logical (reasoning) with a mix of the others to enhance the learning.
[and yes for those that ask where the other tow of the seven styles are.. Social and Solitary are preferences.. not specifically styles]

In fact it’s now known that that kid in the class who was always doodling andgetting in trouble for it.. yes you know who you are you disruptor you πŸ˜‰ .. they were actually allowing themselves to learn by their preferred method of learning, kinesthetic. With the kinesthetic action of doodling allowing there brain to filter properly the words on the blackboard or what the teacher was saying etc.

In fact there is a whole heap of sites online that can analyse your learning style from multiple choice questionares and most are pretty acurate. Teachers use them to allow them to know the best way to assess and train individual students.

New Mexico Mark says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That’s an absurd premise. Who can WRITE at 60 WPM, much less 120? I’ve directly typed my classroom notes since 1996. It works great for me. I would love to have electronic texts to pair with my notes, reports, etc., but not at the expense of a freakishly controlling/monitoring textbook ecosystem.

Bottom line is that I love the idea of electronic textbooks, and while the interfaces could use a lot of improvement, they don’t need to completely replicate “how we’ve always done it”.

Unfortunately, the unlimited greed of school book publishing houses combined with the laziness and lack of creativity of most school administrators will surely turn this concept into nothing more than a corporate money mill in exchange for institutionalized training in mediocrity.

DCX2 says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Personally, I believe the exact opposite. For most of my generation and those younger than me, our proficiency at typing FAR exceeds our proficiency at writing.

But for that matter, I never took notes in class, anyway. The reason is that while you spend time trying to scribble down what you saw on the board, I am spending time deeply processing what the professor is saying. I try to mentally predict what the prof writes on the board before it is written. I have found that this deeper level of processing helped me far more by making me understand instead of memorize.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re:

This a thousand times.

It’s so much easier for information literate people to learn what they need to know via a text searchable and bookmarkable source instead of spending a lot of time flipping through the reference material looking for where a particular topic is covered or trying to remember which page you saw it on previously. The table of contents isn’t often specific enough and the index in the back can be 50 pages long depending on the text.

John Gialluca says:

Re: Re:

I really liked to digital format. I’ve used Barnes and Noble student. It was helpful to be able to carry my books around with me annotate and then export those annotations into a Word doc which I later used to quickly create presentations based on the notes that I had made. I’ve also been through classes where even masters level students did not read the material.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

> I don’t see the appeal of e book format for reference textbooks. It is an excellent format for novels and autobiographies but for reference books, paper is still king.

I would have loved to have had all my case books on my iPad when I was in law school. Those things were like cinderblocks. I actually got back problems carrying around each days’ textbooks in my backpack for three years. To have them all on an iPad would have been glorious. Not to mention, the search/annotation features that would come with it.

Of course the downside is all the DRM and efforts to defeat the resale/return value that the publishers are putting into ebooks, but just as a general concept, e-texts would have been fantastic to have as far as I’m concerned.

G Thompson (profile) says:

As someone who actually teaches at University (Bachelor level) and Trade Level Courses for LEO’s etc I can see the potential pedagogical benefits this might have especially in regards to assessing the ability and methods of learning on each individual student.

Though looking at it from a privacy, ethical, quasi-legal and psychological viewpoint, and also knowing that not everyone learns the same way (reading is just one method and not the most prevalent) the absolute answer to this is

Not in my classes..NO!

Anonymous Coward says:

Money, always the issue. Digitize a textbook and it’s hard to justify charging every single student $100 or more for them.

When you pay nearly 1/4-1/2 of your tuition for just books alone it makes a great deal of sense for someone to try and make this market work. It’s somewhat surprising that no one seems to be trying, and the only offerings available are more concerned over IP/licensing than actually educating anyone.

Anonymous Coward says:

Looks like it is also another way of ensuring that each student buys a new copy of the book, as for this to work the books are registered to a student. The next use of this could be allowing reduced price books for students, which self destruct at the end of the course, so that if the person still wishes a copy for reference they have to buy a full price copy.

mack k says:

not the problem

As always, the USA does everything a**-backwards, & fails at wheel reinvention. Delivery is is not the problem; content and competent staffing is more urgent. When the rest of the developed world (and some undeveloped) is cleaning our clock in educational achievement, what difference does it make in what form our failures are delivered & disseminated?

out_of_the_blue says:

No, shows lackwits ignorant of the drawbacks.

“The rapid uptake of ebooks by the public shows that there is a widespread recognition of their advantages.”

Must buy the locked hardware for DRM, the displays aren’t so good, you don’t “own” the digital copy, AND the gadgets plus distribution system spy on you. For me adds up to the gadget-buying public is stupid.

By the way, the myth that “computers make learning fun” has been around since the late 70’s for sure, and it’s a lie, you kids have just gotten a veneer of real education.

All hail Mike “Streisand Effect” Masnick!

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: No, shows lackwits ignorant of the drawbacks.

The very-relevant portion:

M: I came here for a good argument.
A: No you didn’t; no, you came here for an argument.
M: An argument isn’t just contradiction.
A: It can be.
M: No it can’t. An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.
A: No it isn’t.
M: Yes it is! It’s not just contradiction.
A: Look, if I argue with you, I must take up a contrary position.
M: Yes, but that’s not just saying ‘No it isn’t.’
A: Yes it is!
M: No it isn’t!

A: Yes it is!
M: Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: No, shows lackwits ignorant of the drawbacks.

Must buy the locked hardware for DRM

No you don’t. The CourseSmart stuff doesn’t require particular hardware or even a dedicated eBook reader. besides, eBook DRM is trivial to remove and then you can read the work on any device you like. If you’re buying eBooks and not removing the DRM from them, you are being foolish.

Anonymous Coward says:

Uh, question:

Why can I no longer see the “reported” comments or reply to them when I have NoScript enabled?

I use NoScript to make the web more bearable, and although I am fine with missing out on some functionality (like being able to vote insightful/funny on this site), not being able to see the reported comments (as I used to be able to) basically kills the whole point of even coming to Techdirt (which is the comments).

Please fix this. (Also, please don’t turn this into a discussion of if/why Techdirt censors comments).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I use NoScript and have none of the issues you mention. Maybe you should try to ‘allow’ this sight, and the few others that matter to it.

AdBlock Plus takes care of any advertisements. Ghostery finds 12 trackers, and blocks them all, but no impact on functionality.

Are you using an updated Hosts file? You might look in there for issues (any link related to this site or those feeding it like Akamai), I have found that my updated Hosts file blocks ‘Docstock’ until I comment it out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I understand what you and others are saying about NoScript, but the thing is that I always block everything on this page and never had issues until about yesterday (which was when I began noticing the problem, but I assumed it was a temporary bug).

I will try this on a different machine later on, and raise the issue again if it becomes relevant.

Grover (profile) says:

Evil is as evil does

We all know the old adage that “money is the root of all evil” – or something to that effect. Figuring out how to squeeze every last drop of blood (money) as possible, without considering the benefits of humanitarianism (“…which is an ethic of kindness, benevolence, and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all human beings…”) simply has to have it roots in greed; and greed, in its simplest form, has no room for anyone else other than those it directly benefits. I tend to view such people, and/or corporations, as evil and greedy beyond belief. It is one thing to yearn to make a decent living, by offering to sell your services or wares; it is entirely another to devise methodologies, such as outlined here, to squeeze more money out of something that has already been sold.

The Real Michael says:

Re: Evil is as evil does

This particular story has more to do with privacy erosion than profits.

Now when kids go to school, they’re being watching by cameras.

When students take home school-issued laptops, they’re inviting the school to invade their privacy. Remember what happened in Pennsylvania, where it was revealed that teachers were watching students at home?

Refresher: http://www.geeksaresexy.net/2010/04/19/school-laptop-spying-case-just-keeps-getting-creepier/

The school forces the students who take the laptops to sign an EULA. However, there are some rights which you cannot waive, particularly where it concerns students who don’t even realize that their privacy is being intruded upon. The LED light next to the camera would flash on and off, so when students asked why, the school told them that it was simply a glitch. :/

nasch (profile) says:

Made up

Not that there aren’t legitimate concerns here, but… “you can bet… it might be… it’s easy to imagine… will doubtless…” This is really just a news item starting point followed by a string of unsupported speculation. This story would be better with some references to back up your fears. Again, I’m not saying the fears aren’t legitimate, just that this article provides no support for them at all.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Made up

The speculations seem within the realm of reason to me. Between surveillance cameras, pat-downs, random searches, spying on student’s off-time use of social media, and so forth, schools have consistently shown an extreme eagerness to engage in exactly this sort of behavior whenever they have the opportunity. It would be weird if they didn’t engage in the same sort of thing with this stuff as well.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Made up

The speculations seem within the realm of reason to me.

I agree with that. I’m not saying they’re unreasonable, I’m saying they’re not supported with any references to anything. I know this isn’t a news site, but it helps being taken seriously if an article is backed up with references to facts. “See, here are three examples of this kind of thing happening before, which is why I think it will happen again.” Much more convincing than “I can imagine bad things happening”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sorry for off topic, but i think everyone should see this….the consequences of a war of aggression

Israeli Soldiers Arrest a Mother in Front of Her Children ‘Distressing’
14 Nov 2012

If you search in google video
” israeli soldiers arrest a mother in front of “

You get this, or at least i get this, two listings of the above video

If you click the first video you get this
” The youtube account associated with this video has been terminated due to multiple third party notifications of copyright infringement”

Did the user infringe, with another video?
Did the news company take down the video?
Should’nt a video like this be protected?

Danny (profile) says:

As someone who actually teaches with this technology

I teach all levels of college. We don’t have smart ebooks as described here, but we do have capabilities in our learning management system (Desire2Learn) to do much of what is suggested by Glyn’s post. It contains a plagiarism detection system, and–if I am careful in how I embed reading assignments directly into D2L content, I can get a report of how long the student was engaged with the content (though I don’t know how focused they were during that engagements period–a student who knows this meter is there and wants to game the system can do so.)

The issue is not whether or not to build these tools; rather the issue is how we use these tools to enhance education. Most of us agree that tools should not be prohibited simply because they can be misused–as almost any tool can be misused. Rather, policy, ethics, and teacher education should suggest constructive use of tools to enhance education.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: As someone who actually teaches with this technology

The issue is not whether or not to build these tools; rather the issue is how we use these tools to enhance education.

There’s a more fundamental issue that has to be addressed before we even get that far: trust. Schools have shown themselves to be untrustworthy in their use of tools that can be easily misused. Until and unless that trust can be restored, I object to giving them even more tools that can be easily misused.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: As someone who actually teaches with this technology

Unfortunately this is not how it works in real life. To create the trustworthy thing you must ignore a lot of crap before it becomes true, that means having to trust blindly for a period of time.

But I do agree with you, schools don’t need more ways to abuse students these days.

Now what this shows is that there is a cultural problem inside society, those abusive people don’t come to be there because they were nurtured in an environment that loathed that behavior they came to be because at some corner of society or even ourselves allow this to happen.

Bergman (profile) says:

So if small amounts of time spent reading is used as an indicator of cheating, wouldn’t that penalize the students with faster reading speeds and higher comprehension levels?

While above average in IQ, I’m not spectacular. But one of my talents is page-at-a-glance reading speeds, in excess of 1800 WPM. Would I flunk e-textbook courses due to my “cheating”?

great says:

Oh Great.

Yet another thing that students will have to game in order to try to extract actual information from the “education” system. It is the saddest thing in our lives that schools have gone the way of corporations. We are just pawns to tracks like animals and extract the maximum value from. Screw you all. Aren’t you tired of being the bad guys?

Brent (profile) says:

A surprisingly small number of people opposed this ‘technology’ directly but I see it having HUGE drawbacks that make it unusable. First, buying a textbook for a class should not ever be required. Second, even if everyone did buy it, two people could read together, especially with digital technology, they could put it on a big screen and read the pages at the same time which would only show 1 student’s work and not the other(s). Third, I had a good friend in college who was not too far below that off the charts genius level who didn’t have to read very much (or do much of anything) to get straight As all four years. How would this technology account for the rare cases like him?

This is yet another example of colleges trying to leverage technology to ‘enforce learning’ but that is completely contradictory to higher education You can’t force adults to learn, if they don’t want to learn, they should not be in college. If ‘college’ is seen as ‘required’ then it should actually be required…

I’m all for higher education but its not for everyone. A lot of what is taught in college should be taught in high school, that’s where changes need to be made – not spying on students to enforce homework (that’s what parents are for – in high school).

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