May 26, 2018

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.

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Bits: Apple Unveils App and Tools for Digital Textbooks

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News

10:29 a.m. | Updated Adding more details as the press conference progresses.

Apple wants students to bid farewell to the days of lugging around backpacks of heavy textbooks, and to welcome the iPad tablet as their new all-in-one reading device.

On Thursday the company released iBooks 2, a free app that will support digital textbooks that can display interactive diagrams, audio and video. At a news conference, the company demonstrated a biology textbook featuring 3-D models, searchable text, photo galleries and flash cards for studying. Apple said high school textbooks from its initial publishing partners, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, would cost $15 or less.

“Education is deep in our DNA and it has been from the very beginning,” said Philip W. Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, at the event at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Apple also announced a free tool called iBooks Author, a piece of Macintosh software that allows people to make these interactive textbooks. The tool includes templates designed by Apple, which publishers and authors can customize to suit their content. It requires no programming knowledge and will be available Thursday.

The company also unveiled the iTunes U app for the iPad, which allows teachers to build an interactive syllabus for their coursework. Students can load the syllabus in iTunes U and, for example, tap to open an electronic textbook and go directly to the assigned chapter. Teachers can use iTunes U to create full online courses with podcasts, video, documents and books.

Apple’s push into textbooks brought with it far less buzz than is usual with the company’s new product announcements, in part because of an unusual spoiler. In “Steve Jobs,” the biography that was published in October shortly after Apple’s former chief executive died, Mr. Jobs declared that he wanted to transform the textbook market with the iPad.

Mr. Jobs told the book’s author, Walter Isaacson, that he wanted to hire well-known textbook writers to create electronic versions of their books. He said that Apple could sidestep the state certification process for K-12 textbooks by making them available free for iPads.

By most estimates, Apple has not captured as much of the electronic book market with the iPad and its iBookstore as its chief rival in the business, Amazon, has with the Kindle e-reader.

But while Amazon was a much earlier entrant into the e-books business, it has been less successful in the education market.

Amazon in 2009 announced plans to target the textbook publishing industry with the Kindle DX, a larger version of its e-reader. Not only did Amazon fail to make a dent in the digital textbook market, it also did not impress students. For instance, at Princeton, one of the universities that offered a Kindle DX pilot program, students complained about the device’s sluggishness, lack of color and limited interactivity, according to the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian.

Education is where Apple has an advantage against Amazon. Apple has a deep and longstanding connection with the education market that could serve it well as it enters the textbook business. Even as its Macintosh computers were shunned by big purchasers of technology inside corporations in decades past, Apple found success selling them to K-12 schools and colleges.

The advent of the iPad and iPhone, along with a resurgence in the growth of the Mac, has made Apple products an even more ubiquitous sight on campuses than they are in the general population.

Before Apple formed official partnerships with textbook publishers, some universities had already embraced the iPad as an experimental learning tool for the classroom. In 2010, Seton Hill University, George Fox University and Abilene Christian University began pilot programs, in which students received iPads as part of their tuition and instructors were trained to use mobile software to teach their courses.

The base price of an iPad is $500, but that cost is inconsequential when considering the lower prices of digital textbooks purchased through iBooks, says Bill Rankin, a professor of medieval studies at Abilene Christian University. In 2008, Mr. Rankin helped start a pilot program in his school where students and teachers used iPhones in the classroom. He explained that textbook publishers typically mark up the prices of print textbooks by six times, because they predict the books will be resold six times, and therefore students would quickly get their money’s worth after purchasing iPads.

Mr. Rankin predicted that with digital textbooks, publishers will realize they can sell more titles for less money, which would drive down overall costs of textbooks both in print and digitally.

He called Apple’s new education apps and tools “revolutionary,” because they give teachers, authors and publishers the ability to create and share books easily. He compared this to how Apple’s App Store democratized the way software was distributed.

“This is something we’ve been dreaming about for years,” he said. “And to see the first steps of this being realized is immensely exciting.”

However, an executive at CourseSmart, an electronic textbook provider that offers digital textbooks for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices, said in response to Apple’s announcements that it was an issue that the company’s digital textbooks would be exclusively available for Apple products.

“Based on the fact that you have to mandate a specific device, that’s going to be difficult for school districts to decide students are going to take their strained budgets to purchase these devices,” said Jill Ambrose, chief marketing officer at CourseSmart, in an interview.

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Bits Blog: F.C.C. Chairman Counsels Students to Be Moderate With Digital Media

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, welcomed students back to school on Thursday by asking them to walk a line: use technology to learn, but don’t get distracted by it.

In remarks at a back-to-school forum in Washington, the chairman said that with high-speed Internet, “a student anywhere can have access to the best libraries, the best teachers, the best tutors in the world.”

“How many of you are sick of carrying 50 pounds of textbooks in your backpacks?” he asked students at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus. He went on to say that the use of mobile broadband could allow access to digital textbooks and “interactive learning tools.”

But the chairman also said that “as with every revolution, broadband Internet brings not only real opportunities but some real concerns.” Chiefly, he said policy makers and parents should be concerned about the potential for distraction; he said that research shows that the average teenager consumes 11 hours of media content a day, and sends a text every 10 minutes he or she is awake.

Mr. Genachowski said that half of driving-age teenagers have admitted to texting and driving. “We need to get that number to zero.”

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