CourseSmart Monitors Student Reading, Tattles to Teachers

New software designed by a startup called CourseSmart will put a power in professors' hands that they've never had before – knowing exactly whether students have done their assigned reading. The program, which is being tested out at nine colleges across the country, provides each professor with a digital snapshot of each of their students' reading habits – which some predict will totally change the way course material is assigned and presented.

According to The New York Times, CourseSmart goes one step further than many other digital publishers by allowing instructors to peek at the information already being collected as a matter of course. Tracy Hurley, the dean at the school of business at Texas A&M – one of the schools participating in the initial trial, describes is as "Big Brother, sort of, but with good intent."

Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M 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."

Although students don't have the exact information their professors have about them, they do know their books are tracking their habits. Although for some, the program no doubt violates some preset creepiness index, for others it serves as a wake up call in a way that maybe even low grades do not.

CourseSmart, which counts among its owners a number of large digital and traditional publishers, including Pearson and McGraw-Hill, is supposed to aid instructors, schools and students in in evaluating how well the latter is keeping up with their studies. For the publishers, the information will be useful in designing the next edition of their textbooks.

After two months of using the system, Mr. Guardia is coming to some conclusions of his own. His students generally are scoring well on quizzes and assignments. In the old days, that might have reassured him. But their engagement indexes are low.

"Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more," Mr. Guardia said. "Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought."

04 24, 2013
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