eBooks Know When You Do Your Homework

Welcome to the future of education where your textbook—and therefore your teacher—knows exactly how much of your homework you did, how, and when. Nine colleges are testing e-reader software from CourseSmart, a Silicon valley startup, that tracks how often students open their digital textbooks, how long they spend on each page, and whether they’re highlighting important passages. 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.

While helping professors understand why certain students are struggling is a good thing, as we’ve learned repeatedly, it’s difficult to predict how people will use data.

Students know that the books are tracking them, but it’s still unclear to all parties involved whether the “engagement index” is a fair or valuable metric. If nothing else, it could be gamed, and it makes assumptions about optimal learning styles. Some students, for instance, may get more out of homework assignments involving working out problems or out of the class itself, while a well-thumbed digital textbook could just as easily be an indicator of a clueless student frantically trying to catch up on hours they spent sleeping or spacing out while the professor was speaking at them