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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  1. identicon
    The Real Michael, 16 Nov 2012 @ 7:13am

    Oh, the irony

    A student is reading about the history of Nazi Germany and the former USSR, how they spied on their own people and eliminated their rights while preaching patroitism, from his digital textbook... all the while being spied on by his teachers.

    I feel sorry for our children.

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