Books that Read You Back: Measuring Engagement, Proprietary Services

CourseSmart recently announced that it would begin beta-testing a new textbook technology designed to track and measure student interactions with certain textbooks. This technology would, ostensibly, deliver an “Engagement Score Technology”:

a proprietary algorithm that evaluates standard usage data such as page views, time spent in a textbook, and notes and highlights taken by a student, and assimilates them into an overall assessment of students’ engagement with the material. Provosts, deans, course designers and others can then easily assess the utility of adopted digital titles to ensure course materials are being used effectively. Faculty will be able to identify “at risk” students based on engagement with assigned course materials and correlate this to overall student performance, which will help to aid retention and ultimately, improve learning outcomes. (via CourseSmart – Media.)

Surveillance technologies almost always make me a little nervous. I’ll admit that I don’t really mind security cameras in retail stores and offices, GPS systems, or even most browser cookies. But I have to say, I’m pretty uneasy about CourseSmart’s claim that it can offer some sort of meaningful “engagement score.” It’s not that I don’t like the idea. It’s just seems like another one of those situations that is marketed as something positive, but really turns out to be far more destructive than productive.

What does engagement really mean?

Haven’t we, as educators and scholars, already learned about the difficulty (and futility?) of agreeing on definitions for abstract concepts like critical thinking, literacy, technology, reading, writing, books, etc? I’d like to see CourseSmart offer some specific, concrete, and measurable definition of “engagement,” and enter into some sort of dialogue with instructors, scholars, and researchers about what, exactly it is that they are measuring and how they assign value to that array of data.

Who will own this data, and who will have access to it?

Again, haven’t we learned our lesson about paying a private company to collect data on our students in order to build a database of considerable value? That data set is valuable to all sorts of companies and educational institutions. Shouldn’t these companies be paying the educational institutions and/or the students for the privilege of collecting this data? And will students be able to opt out? Yes, I’m looking at your plagiarism-detection-services “providers.” (My students want their papers back, or they’d like you to pay for them.)

If it’s an open technology, it could have research implications.

Maybe we’ll have more information at our disposal as we continue to think about what engagement is and how it fits into the learning process. Related conversations and research have already been going on for years in fields like human-computer interaction, interface usability, and industrial product design. As books continue to move off-page to on-screen, we’re having to reconsider all sorts of technology and design conventions. Having more information and better strategies for collecting data could be valuable to emerging textual forms.

(image source: here)

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