May 24, 2017

CourseSmart E-Textbooks Track Students’ Progress for Teachers

They know when students are skipping pages, failing to highlight significant passages, not bothering to take notes — or simply 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.

The faculty members here are neither clairvoyant nor peering over shoulders. They, along with colleagues at eight other colleges, are testing technology from a Silicon Valley start-up, CourseSmart, that allows them to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks.

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. The plan is to introduce the program broadly this fall.

Adrian Guardia, a Texas AM instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “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.”

Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them. For a few, merely hearing the number is a shock. Charles Tejeda got a C on the last quiz, but the real revelation that he is struggling was a low CourseSmart index.

“They caught me,” said Mr. Tejeda, 43. He has two jobs and three children, and can study only late at night. “Maybe I need to focus more,” he said.

CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers, which see an opportunity to cement their dominance in digital textbooks by offering administrators and faculty a constant stream of data about how students are doing.

In the old days, teachers knew if students understood the course from the expressions on their faces. Now some classes, including one of Mr. Guardia’s, are entirely virtual. Engagement information could give the colleges early warning about which students might flunk out, while more broadly letting teachers know if the whole class is falling behind.

Eventually, the data will flow back to the publishers, to help prepare new editions.

Academic and popular publishers, as well as some authors, have dreamed for years of such feedback to direct sales and editorial efforts more efficiently. Amazon and Barnes Noble are presumed to be collecting a trove of data from readers, although they decline to say what, if anything, they will do with it.

The predigital era, when writers wrote and publishers published without a clue, is seen as an amazingly ignorant time. “Before this, the publisher never knew if Chapter 3 was even looked at,” said Sean Devine, CourseSmart’s chief executive.

More than 3.5 million students and educators use CourseSmart textbooks and are already generating reams of data about Chapter 3. Among the colleges experimenting this semester are Clemson, Central Carolina Technical College and Stony Brook University, as well as Texas AM-San Antonio, a new offshoot.

Texas AM has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in the state, but only half the students make it out in that time. “If CourseSmart offers to hook it up to every class, we wouldn’t decline,” said Dr. Hurley, the dean.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/technology/coursesmart-e-textbooks-track-students-progress-for-teachers.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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