Today “smart” e-books are in the news. These books give professors access to a stream of data about how individual students are using their e-books—whether they are skipping pages, highlighting specific passages, or taking notes in the book. The software that makes such monitoring possible even provides an “engagement index” for each student. The news stories I’ve encountered have mostly focused on how the data enables professors to identify and then reach out to students with poor study habits.
I don’t know how to spell the sound I made when I first heard this particular news angle, but it was something close to the classic UGH. The company that created the software says its surveys indicate that few students or colleges have privacy concerns. But I know I would feel like I was spying on the adults I teach.
Which is not to say that I couldn’t put the data stream to some use, at least in an aggregate form. If a meaningful portion of my class does not appear to be reading the textbook but is nonetheless performing well in class and on exams, then my course is too easy or the textbook is a dud, or some combination of the two.
The data stream may also be of interest to the institutions that employ professors. Every university, college, or graduate school has at least a couple gut courses—classes in which students can do very little work and still get good grades. One concern in law schools is that GPA-conscious students will flock to a gut course instead of one that would better prepare them for the bar and eventual practice. A dean who is trying to convince a professor that her class needs to be harder could put the data from smart e-books to very effective use. In fact, some professors will be disinclined to embrace smart e-books once they realize that students aren’t the only ones who can be watched.
Last, I am struck by the connection between the emergence of smart e-books and a post Larry wrote a few weeks ago. Larry’s post laments that as e-books become increasingly dominant, he will no longer be able to peruse the bookshelves of colleagues or friends as a means of sparking a connection or sizing them up. E-books do not serve the same (often inadvertent) signaling function as a print book. E-books mean that no-one can get a window into my interests by scanning my shelves or seeing what’s open on my coffee table. They also mean that I can no longer pick out law students on the subway by looking for a telltale red binding. But with smart e-books, a select group will know more about these students’ reading habits than most of us would have imagined just a few years ago.