One of the biggest challenges for English teachers is figuring out whether students have done the reading. Some assign reading questions, which can be copied. Others give pop quizzes, whose questions sometimes get nit-picky. Still others assess through classroom discussion, which often lead to deep discussions unrelated to the text.
Wouldn’t it be great, many teachers say, if we could just find out if students are reading?
That is now possible, according to an article from today’s New York Times, “Teacher Knows If You’ve Done the E-Reading.” (You can check it out at Iserotope Extras!) Reporter David Streitfeld writes about new technology from CourseSmart, an etextbook company, that tracks students’ reading and notetaking in books.
It’s pretty intense.
I’m a fan of “social reading,” a newish phenomenon where students and the teacher interact inside a shared ebook. If one student highlights and annotates a specific passage, then his classmates can see it and build on it. It’s like having a virtual book club. It builds the social aspect of reading and encourages students to see reading as a conversation.
A few teachers use Amazon’s Public Notes feature (though it’s not very good yet) if they have Kindles. A few companies — like Subtext and Gobstopper — are also working on social reading and offering ways for students to demonstrate their reading directly in the text. A student’s highlights and annotations can serve as formative assessment.
Going into reading the article, I thought I was going to be a big proponent. But then I read that CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, a crazy huge conglomerate. Then came this part:
Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them.
In other words, the professor knows if the student is reading (according to a computer-generated “engagement index”), but there’s no expectation to share that data with the student.
This is, of course, completely and utterly wrong.
The point of technology is to increase human communication, to extend learning past the confines of the classroom, to promote collaboration. Unfortunately, what’s happening here reminds me a bit of Big Brother. (I know that term is used a lot, but really, I think it fits here.) In fact, a Texas A&M administrator said the same thing:
“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.
By no means am I trying to be a Luddite. As you know (from my fascination with Google Apps and SmashText and Pocket and many other online services), I believe technology can enhance teaching and learning. But CourseSmart raises my hackles like Google Glass — where the information is not shared with everyone, where it’s hidden from people at the expense of others.
Please let me know what you think! Am I crazy here?