March 5, 2021

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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Bucks: All About Chase’s New United MileagePlus Explorer Card

For United Airlines customers wondering about the fate of their miles-earning credit cards in the wake of the airlines merger with Continental, the airline offered up an answer today. It’s a new Visa card called the MileagePlus Explorer.

The annual fee is $95, which is more than the $60 that many United customers are paying for the entry-level mile-earning Visa currently. But the new card comes with a number of benefits.

Cardholders (and traveling companions on the same reservation) who don’t already have elite status will be able to board early, albeit after everyone with status has already gotten on the plane. Still, this should be sufficient for everyone in that boarding group to find overhead bin space and avoid having to check their bags at the gate.

Big spenders will get an extra 10,000 miles each year once they pass $25,000 in annual spending (and earn the usual one mile per dollar they spend).

Cardholders and one traveling companion will each be able to check one bag for free on United flights, a handy perk for people who don’t carry everything on and don’t get free baggage checking due to their elite status on the airline.

You’ll also get two passes to United’s airport clubs each year. A one-day pass normally costs $39 if you buy it ahead of time online or $50 if you buya pass at the airport. They are good for one person per pass; you don’t get to bring traveling companions along for free.

One thing cardholders won’t get, however, is a waiver on those dreaded 3 percent surcharges for purchases that take place outside of the United States, something that Chase’s more expensive United Club Visa offers.

I asked David Gold, senior vice president for Chase Card Services, if Chase had determined that it didn’t need to offer that perk because customers would forget about the surcharge or shrug their shoulders and use that card outside of the United States anyway rather than switching cards for their trips.

He countered with a more benign explanation. “There are customers who that is a pain point for, and we have a product for that,” he said. “Not every product necessarily needs that.”

People who have the current $60 annual fee Chase United card can keep that card; Chase won’t upgrade you automatically. If you want to upgrade to the new one, you can call the number on the back of your card and ask to make the switch. Chances are, you will not have to change your credit card number (and redo all of your automated monthly payments with billers) if you upgrade.

So those are the basics. For the true mileage junkies out there, however, there are a few more twists.

With this announcement, United is revealing a couple of decisions about how it is settling conflicting rules between its loyalty program rulebook and that of Continental’s OnePass program, according to Mr. Gold.

First off, Continental miles never expire, but United’s do. United’s policy will prevail, but miles will never expire for people with any of the combined company’s credit cards that levy annual fees.

Second, United customers are able to use 50,000 miles to book any seat on the airplane for a domestic flight as long as it’s available for sale; Continental customers face capacity controls when trying to book those seats. Here, Continental’s policy will prevail, but annual-fee paying credit card customers will not face those capacity controls.

Implementation of these special privileges will likely present a formidable information technology challenge to the combined carrier, so watch your program statements closely and appeal up the supervisory ladder if you are not getting what you are supposed to.

If you’re a Chase Continental cardholder, you may be wondering what this all means for you. The combined airline intends for the United Explorer card to become the standard miles-earning card; people who have Chase’s Continental OnePass Plus card will soon receive whatever benefits the Explorer card offers that the Plus card doesn’t already.

Then, sometime next year, the Continental cardholders will receive new Explorer cards to replace their Continental cards. Here too, Chase hopes to spare everyone the hassle of having to switch credit card numbers.

As always, the mileage experts on FlyerTalk are picking these developments apart if you want to learn even more. Feel free to post your own assessment of the new card below as well. Will you elect to pay more than 50 percent more in annual fees to access these new perks?

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