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Not reading the book? The book is watching you.

favicon 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? favicon


  1. Michele

    You are crazy. But so is this Big Brother business. Good intent or not.

    On another note: are you mad at me?

    • Mark Isero

      Hi Michele. I like your avatar. Do you? The good people over at NY Times comments (who are nicer that those at sfgate) say that there is no such thing as Big Brother with “good intent.”

      The note, in calligraphy, that you will receive soon shall reveal that I continue to harbor deep affection for you. And now it’s on Iserotope, which means that millions of people now know the truth.

  2. Dave Keller

    We all know you are crazy (did you get the sarcasm?). I like the idea of being able to share student reading data with the students or to withhold the data. The more information and flexibility to use information the better. Am I missing something here? Am I crazy and in need of a psychologist? Speaking of psychologists, are there ethical guidelines for psychologists when it comes to the amount of information they gather on their patients? (For the record, I also harbor deep affection for Michelle.)

    • Mark

      Why withhold this kind of reading data (which is based on engagement rather than their reading level)? If the teacher is using this data for grading purposes, then yes, she should share it with students. If it’s not for a grade, then that’s a different story.

      I like your point about keeping things flexible. One school I work at now decided not to share their diagnostic reading assessment results from the beginning of the year. The teachers felt like there wasn’t yet a strong enough reading intervention program. If they told students, “Hey, you’re at a fourth grade level,” and didn’t have anything to help them after sharing that information, the teachers felt it was not going to be constructive.

      Still not sure what I think about that.

      You are, in my opinion, neither crazy nor in need of a psychologist, though I am pretty happy that Kelwyn and Godler have both joined this comment stream.

  3. Meg Griswold

    I don’t think we have to be cagey. I make students “actively read” by marking, underlining, and writing marginalia. They know that I am going to check it periodically and give them a grade. I feel like sneakiness breeds sneakiness. They will find a way to cheat the system if they feel that it is being unfair to them.

    • Mark Isero

      Last year, I instituted a system where I checked annotations on a daily basis. This didn’t work because I didn’t have enough time to really read them. It was just a spot check. So my students started doing fake annotations. They would write general (and sometimes random) notes on pages. It wasn’t fun. Fake-reading is a very strong phenomenon, and the only appropriate response is to care about students and their reading in a real way. Meg, I appreciate your call for us to be genuine in our approach.

  4. Meg Griswold

    I think you are completely right about the response being genuine care. As a fake reader in high school, I have sympathy for those students. I have realized now that the lack of choice in what I read made me feel rebellious. Often times, if I just admit to students that I wasn’t always the best student, they feel a little less rebellious. I do think there is some letting go that we have to do. If attachment (to books) is the source of all (teacher) suffering, we can take a somewhat Buddhist stance. Sometimes our teaching and passion for reading takes years to finally sprout and grow. Keep up the good work!

    • Mark Isero

      I was a somewhat fake reader, too; many of my friends also were, especially in AP English Literature, where many of us did very little reading but still somehow managed to pass the examination. As a teacher, I’ve never figured out the right balance. Do you tell your students that you know that not too much reading is taking place? Or does that somehow lower your standards?

    • Mark Isero

      I’m a fan of Subtext, though I don’t believe in iPads in general (because they lack a keyboard). Gobstopper, a competitor, does similar things as Subtext but on the web. Both services aren’t quite there yet, in my opinion, but I do like the idea of using technology to promote a shared reading experience in a classroom.

      Do you think something like this is possible with Kindles? The shared highlights feature is pretty cool, especially when students get to post to FB or Twitter. But I still find Amazon’s kindle.amazon.com interface pretty old-looking and clunky. Then again, I suppose a student can see another student’s shared highlights in her copy of the book, right? I’m intrigued but haven’t been too successful yet. It seems too “out there” for my students. What has been your experience?

      Thank you for the article and your thoughts.

Please share your brilliant insights!