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Should Teachers Be Able to Spy on Students’ Study Habits?

| April 9, 2013

A detail from one of the many covers for Orwell's 1984.

A detail from one of the many covers for Orwell’s 1984.

Imagine your child’s teacher assigning George Orwell’s 1984. The assignment is by way of an electronic book, so your child can read her copy on one of those iPads spreading through school districts like shades of gray. But there’s a catch. The teacher will know exactly how much time your child will spend with the book, whether the pages are turned, whether there’s any underlining, whether your child is actually engaging with the book. And the teacher will be able to give that study time an “engagement index” score that could be part of any assignment’s overall grade.

pierre tristam flaglerlive editor's blogThis isn’t an imaginary scheme from the future. It’s a technology already available on college textbooks, from a California start-up called CourseSmart, and it’s being used in nine colleges, with professors literally spying on their students’ study habits, and tallying up scores according to those habits. “It’s big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurly, dean of the school of business at Texas A&M, tells the Times in an article on that new form of e-spying today. But does the good intent override the disturbing implications of this latest intrusion in private lives?

On Sunday I wrote about the blurring of lines between home and the workplace, which enables companies to creepily assume that their employees’ speech and behavior even away from work is the employer’s to police. Individual privacy is eroding at East German speeds. Spying through e-books is another example.

Reading is one of the few truly private activities left us, depending entirely on the isolation created between book and reader, and the way the reader chooses to engage with that book:  reading a page over five times, skipping five pages, underlining five lines, cursing at five others. It’s all between the reader and the book, an act that shares some of the intimacies of sex (and passion) down to its exhilarations and disappointments (a bad writer having a lot in common with a lousy lover). Reading a textbook may not rate in the same category. But it’s no less intimate. The act of reading a textbook still belongs exclusively to the reader. How you read a textbook is irrelevant. If you’re performing well in class, that’s all that should matter.

For those teachers spying on their students’ study habits, it isn’t: they’re intruding on those manners of study, and making judgments about them whatever the results. One student did very well on a test, but the teacher discovered that the book had barely been cracked. That was a problem. Why? Are teachers now going to start down-grading their students because the work they produce isn’t in line with the expectations of studying in a particular way? There are innumerable ways to read, to study, to meditate on a subject (or not). A teacher’s idea of studying has no place imposing itself on a student’s.

Worse: “Students do not see their engagement indexes unless a professor shows them, but they know the books are watching them.” How could any data-gathering system be justified when the person being spied on is not privy to the data? The motive behind the new system explains plenty. It’s not about improving habits or good intentions. It’s about market share: “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,” the Times reports.


Publishers also want to use the information to craft new editions, thus further diluting the editorial integrity of a work at the expense of marketing or popular corruptions. Meanwhile teachers can further dilute their own responsibility to judge their course’s effectiveness on their own by relying on yet more stashes of outside “data,” further reducing the need to do teaching’s heavy lifting. When is the last time your child had to write a paper?

It’s policing by data—a data-driven fetish that substitutes short-cutting technology (and let’s be blunt about it: spying) for critical judgment, while hiding behind presumptions of efficiency. I wouldn’t entirely discount some advantages to the technology. Readers’ habits could better direct a teacher to hone a course’s effectiveness, make it more interesting, less easy. But good teachers can do that now, unaided. Spying on readers’ study habits is deceptive gimmickry that gives the illusion of empowering teachers (or students) while wrecking the creative isolation the reading experience depends on most to be effective.

E-readers are familiar with the spying already. They participate in it. An electronic book tracks the highlighted passages of its readers across the country, across the world, so that my electronic copy of Richard Ford’s Canada, for instance, came already polluted by the collective underlines of who knows how many readers. Not just underlines, but notes, comments, shares, too. Mine would be added to the bunch, if I let it. I don’t. At least Kindle gives you the option of turning off those intrusions, and preventing your own from going into the universe. There are few more distasteful perversions of the reading experience than to be bombarded by the impersonal underlines and reactions of a collective blurb (just as there are few more tasty pleasures in the reading experience than to share a book or a passage with someone). Just don’t butt in uninvited.

But schemes like CourseSmart are all about butting in. “There is also correlation, the students are learning, between perception and success,” the Times goes on, with perverse results: “Hillary Torres, a senior, is a good student with a low engagement index, probably because she is taking notes into a computer file not being tracked. This could be a problem; she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose local chapter is advised by Mr. Guardia [a Texas A&M teacher tracking 70 students]. “If he looks and sees, ‘Hillary is not really reading as much as I thought,’ does that give him a negative image of me?” she wondered. “His opinion really matters. Maybe I need to change my study habits.”

Don’t.

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10 Responses for “Should Teachers Be Able to Spy on Students’ Study Habits?”

  1. Nancy N. says:

    What if the student already read the book in a previous class? Or on their own? And owns another copy of it? Or what if they learn better through audio and choose to find an audio version of the book? What if they prefer to take notes by hand? Or in another program?

    Forget the Big Brother aspect (which I also have reservations about) – I have a REALLY hard time with any system that penalizes students for not doing their learning in exactly the way that some computer program or professor wants them to. All kids (and adults) learn differently. They should be allowed the freedom to do so, not told that if they can’t learn in some cookie cutter mass market way that they are going to be penalized.

  2. Samuel Smith says:

    There are a number of problems with e-texts. When you “buy” the book, you aren’t really buying the book. You are buying a license, which may or may not expire. It’s impossible to use the book in the classroom without investing in a reader or a laptop. The existence of e-texts in the classroom means that testing styles that use the book, e.g. “open book tests” are moot because readers and laptops allow access to the internet as well, giving a route for cheating.

    I can 100% guarantee you that Pearson and co might be selling this as an extra monitoring method but in reality they are using it to generate statistics on what chapters students find most difficult and how frequently books are used by students, so that they can set prices and adjust content accordingly. My advice: buy a hardcover, and if a teacher demands you use an e-text you should demand either a way to opt out of data collection or a cut of the money.

    • Palm Coasting says:

      This is incorrect. With proper MDM implementation (mobile device management) you can restrict specific aspects of a device during testing time, over the air. And when you purchase an ebook, you OWN IT, just like when you purchase an app from the App Store. Ebook leasing, something Pearson is implementing now, is totally different. With ebooks, the publishers have the opt to update and correct incorrect information. Did you ever have a rep from a book company physically visit you to correct information in your outdated textbook? Are you aware how much a textbook cost vs a digital copy? Or how much consumables are, in which you use only once? Did you know when taking the FCAT, if you cursor drags outside the scope of the allocated window for testing you are locked out and have to have an official “resume” your test for you?

      Textbooks need to go away. There is not reason for them when you can have all of your books on your device, along with all if your digitally created work, derived from a note taking app and a stylus.

      • anon says:

        Wrong, wrong, and wrong. A virtual machine will defeat “proper” MDM implementation with the click of a mouse. When you purchase an ebook, your license depends upon the textbook company, but using Pearson as an example access duration is 6 months to 2 years depending on your level of access to their masteringxxxx website. And who said anything about the FCAT? What about normal classroom situations? What if campus internet is down, now, suddenly your students have no access to the book.

        How well will your ipad work when you drop it 20 feet? My textbook works just fine.

      • Samuel Smith says:

        Prior to my current job, I taught in the sciences at the university level for many years,and what I’ve said is complete correct. MDM implementation won’t defeat virtual machines, which are trivial to set up and blow past it with the click of a mouse. You also don’t own the book, you buy a license for access, an example of which can be found at the Pearson website for the masteringxxx series of science texts, which I’ve used – purchasing access to the website and the etext gives you access from 6 months to 2 years, which is useless for people that might use the text for future reference. You also don’t get corrected information from a rep, I have had many, many, many reps visit me over the years and they are there to sell you products. Your corrections, just like any text, come from the publisher or from the original author on their website. Enjoy accessing your etext when there’s no internet access, it’s impossible if you are using the standard model of remote access or if it needs to check your key to see if you can gain access.

  3. BW says:

    I’m loving these articles about tech! Great topics.

    I agree and disagree. What if . . . that data now provided a means to help the student improve? Or provide insight for educators to make better decisions concerning texts? for example, junior if falling behind and says he’s reading the work. Mom and Dad think he is too, but the data shows he’s not. Accountability! OR student trends show a lot of flipping of multiple pages which could very indicate a lack of interest in the text and decisions can be made about other more engaging digital texts.

    I would gather that you get data about visitors to your website here. I know it would be very important to your business. You know how many are coming, on which days, at what times, what content they viewing, how long the staying, where they are coming from, so forth and so on. I’m sure you have IP data of those commenting (heck, you have the email address and that’s often enough to discover a lot about the individual), so how is this any different? Side note that is pretty funny – there are some in our town that think you get paid from some magical source every time someone clicks a headline and reads a story. I didn’t have the heart to event try to explain how it all works to them.

    Anyway, the information and data is helping improve things a great deal today. Educators who learn to read, interpret, and make good decisions based upon the data could greatly improve our extremely out-dated education environment. I see it as a good thing and not a bad thing at all.

  4. Sherry Epley says:

    The printed page is quickly becoming antiquity/art across all areas of the ”publication” industry. The digitizing of data, information and knowledge saves money and trees, and makes education much more accessable. . .IF you have all the resources available. BUT, there are problems associated with such an “interactive” knowledge base. The first thing that comes to mind is the horrifying lack of “Fact Checking”, especially on what can, at times, laughingly be called “News” programming. But, that is quite another discussion.

    The common thread I percieve here in Pierre’s latest articles is what I would call the “Big Brother” (Orwell’s 1984) effect. We are, in this moment, undergoing a revolutionary time in how we communicate on a universal scale. At the same time there are consequences that invade our sacred privacy, influence the assessment of our study habits, our job attitudes, our political and social stances, etc. etc.

    As strange as it may sound, our ” hell bent” drum beat of “Tea Party” anti-regulation, anti-union, anti-government, no spending on social/public progams is coming back to haunt us. Strong Unions would help to protect employee’s rights and influence teachers’ human authority. Back before “The Right to Work” (which is actually the right to fire, without cause) laws were implemented in many states, the Department of Labor had the authority to require employer’s to adhere to consistant and fair rules governing the work place.

    I cannot remember at time when the ACLU was more relevent . . but, here again, does anyone care?

  5. tanstaafl says:

    I’m a professor at a university where around 1/3 of entering freshman students graduate within 6 years. Most of the rest flunk out, despite being given tremendous opportunities for remedial courses and tutoring and an entire community focused on freshman success.

    Why do they fail? Because they do not study. At all. This is a very bad, engrained habit they have gained from their days in the K-12 public school system.

    If you want these students to succeed, you must force them to change this habit. You must force them. No appeal to reason or logic will work. This completely out-of-touch idea that the student may read differently than a meter can measure is ridiculous when applied to these failing students. These students are incurious. They don’t read anything, except their cell phone screens. The point is to force them to change until they see that it is in their benefit to change, and then they will be self sufficient and you can leave them alone.

    For failing students, an e-textbook is a way for them to get “bonus points” for actually reading the textbook! An alternative would be a mandatory study period in which they are forced to read.

    • Samuel Smith says:

      How do you know that they’ve read the material for the bonus points as opposed to just flipping through the chapter? You might think you can pepper the chapter with quizzes, but what’s stopping them from paging through the chapter, clicking on the quizzes, and then taking their 4 tries per question to just guess the answer?

  6. Seadog says:

    I favor the bunghole theory of raising kids, you put them in a barrel and nail on the lid and then feed them thru the bunghole until they are 21 and then you drive in the bung.

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