Future Tense

In Soviet Russia, Book Reads You

The creepiness of software that monitors students’ e-reading.

Students of the Hondsrug college use iPads.
Students use iPads during an English class in 2011

Photo by Lex Van Lieshout/AFP/Getty Images.

There are good reasons to be excited about the immense potential of digital technologies to help spread knowledge. For instance, “massive open online courses” (or MOOCs) have rightly been the center of much media attention. Thanks to for-profit ventures like Coursera and Udacity and nonprofit initiatives like edX (a collaboration of Harvard and MIT that now also includes the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Texas), thousands of lectures have become available at no cost—and soon, some students might even be able to get academic credit.

The learning experience it delivers may not match the thrill of being in the classroom with a virtuoso instructor but, in the absence of other options in much of the developing world, this is good enough. MOOCs look so appealing because they add heaps of curated content to the millions of YouTube clips and lecture texts that already circulate online but in a mostly chaotic manner. They take away the risk of watching a professor on YouTube only to discover that he is a disreputable crank. But to focus on the content alone would be to miss the other, less obvious side to the ongoing digitization of formal education: The very infrastructure of learning is changing as well—and in ways that are less unambiguously positive.

Take a company like CourseSmart, an undisputed leader when it comes to the provision of textbooks and other course materials in the digital form. Founded in 2007 by several giants of textbook publishing (including such heavyweights as Pearson and McGraw-Hill Education), CourseSmart provides more than 20,000 textbooks in electronic format (roughly 90 percent of all textbooks published in North America). The textbooks can be read on computers, tablets, and smartphones, in both online and offline modes. The company has global ambitions as well: It has recently announced expansion into the Middle East and North Africa.

In early November, the company unveiled its latest innovation—an online tracking system called CourseSmart Analytics. Since its textbooks are digital, CourseSmart can track how much time each student spends with each page of the book, what chapters they skip, what passages give them trouble, and so forth. By aggregating this information, the company produces an “engagement score” for each student, which is then communicated to the teacher. So far, Villanova University, Rasmussen College, and Texas A&M University at San Antonio have signed on to take part in the experiment. Their enthusiasm for this scheme makes sense: It might help teachers identify difficult material in the textbooks so they can be sure to go over it in class. The system’s next version will also feature a special dashboard so publishers can see student interaction with their textbooks, which would help them present material in a more accessible manner.

But there’s also something eerie about this scheme. Imagine a literature class in which students are assigned to read about George Orwell’s 1984 using electronic textbooks that spy on them as they read. Or consider a history class in which students use such “smart” textbooks to learn about the history of surveillance in the Soviet Union. Students who were pretending to learn the tenets of Marxism-Leninism in the Soviet Union—along with the teachers who were pretending to teach them—may have been violating some of their school’s policies, but it’s hard to fault them for being ”unengaged.”

Such perversity aside, it’s important to ask how the very existence of such self-monitoring textbooks would affect the development of students’ critical thinking, even if it succeeds in dealing with their laziness. Being “critical” also means learning how to discriminate between different texts and, occasionally, swimming against the intellectual currents of the time and refusing to read the assigned texts. Not everyone can be a maverick and publicly live up to one’s reluctance to read an obnoxious text—sometimes, resistance is passive and less heroic.

Other students may already know the material and have no need to read the entire chapter. Their engagement score, predictably, would be low, but it would say nothing about their knowledge. Besides, once engagement scores are incorporated into learning assessments schemes by school administrators and government authorities, there would be strong incentives to game the system—perhaps, simply by having students flip the electronic pages as often as possible (unless students’ eye movements are monitored). This would raise the engagement scores but, once again, tell us nothing about the quality of education. Whatever might be ailing our schools today, it’s probably not the lack of quantified goals and targets.

The problem with CourseSmart’s engagement score is that it subjects learning to the logic of gamification, getting students to read not because they are motivated to explore a given subject but because it will help them bolster their score. Granted, the very process of grading already introduces some of those very gamification incentives. But engagement scores, disconnected from the actual knowledge and measuring only how often this knowledge is accessed, might amplify the most utilitarian and competitive aspects of modern education. Would students be as keen to read a paper book if it doesn’t reflect positively on their engagement score?

It’s also easy to imagine quite a few governments—and especially those in countries like Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe—wanting to know what sections of history books students find particularly boring or exciting. Will authoritarian governments get dashboards of their own, like publishers and teachers do? Will students with low engagement scores on key events of the national history be invited to talk with the local equivalent of the KGB?

But even in democratic countries, it’s important to investigate what happens with all the data generated by students: all those clicks, page flips, and underlinings. This data may seem trivial but once merged with other data—say, their Facebook friends or their Google searchers—it suddenly becomes very valuable to advertisers and potential employers. This goes back to the threat of electronic textbooks—or, rather, the infrastructure through which they are provided—fostering more conformity. If there’s a small chance that your reading habits might one day be reflected in your overall “online” file—the one that employers will look at after interviewing you for an entry-level position—the odds are that students will think twice about reading something subversive or not reading something conventional.

And this doesn’t just apply to companies like CourseSmart that handle the purely virtual electronic textbook end of the chain. It applies—even more so—to the likes of Amazon and Apple, which manufacture the gadgets on which such textbooks are accessed and often sell the books themselves. These big technology firms also affect not just what students learn but how they learn it. Amazon, for example, has recently launched a new platform called Whispercast, which allows schools that use its Kindle e-reader in the classroom to limit or turn off their functionality. Thus, they can block access to social networking sites or to the Internet altogether. They are even able to disable Kindle features that they find distracting.

All of this might prove useful in the short term, but it seems that students—the supposed beneficiaries of the “digital revolution”—might be getting shortchanged by the revolutionary rhetoric. The era when students can look up anything they wanted on their tablet or e-reader—say, an unknown word or a historical figure—may be over before it has even begun in earnest.

This may help solve the distraction problem—undoubtedly, a big plus. But it might also inhibit the development of highly interactive, mixed ways of learning that could, when properly used, satisfy—and even expand—the insatiable curiosity of the most promising but difficult students. Highly monitored electronic textbooks and heavily controlled e-readers are unlikely to give us another Einstein. 

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.