'Big Brother' textbook software that monitors studying an invasion of privacy

Johnny Manzel may not be the greatest threat coming out of Texas A&M. The university is part of a group of institutions experimenting with software that allows professors to see how students use textbooks.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” Tracy Hurley, dean of the A&M business school, told the New York Times.

Texas A&M should be wary of letting Hurley determine which intentions merit invasions of privacy. Obviously the school feels like its intent is good; so did Big Brother’s authoritarian government in “1984.”

The students are monitored by technology sold by CourseSmart, which provides electronic textbooks for students on tablets like the iPad. According to the Times, it provides engagement scores for each student that are accessible only to their professor.

Despite the countless ways in which students could easily manipulate the technology to fake participation, CourseSmart and schools are hoping to gain insight into students’ reading patterns. Doing so could help them connect student engagement with achievement, and could help publishers identify the most useful chapters in their textbooks.

While such data may be helpful in the aggregate, there is no benefit to allowing professors to monitor individual students. It would become another method for professors to use student input, instead of mastery, as a peroformance measure.

To some extent, professors already do this with mandatory attendance policies, but this represents a very small percentage of a the final average.

This doesn’t give professors the precision of monitoring how much time students spend on each page of their textbook, what they highlight, and what notes they take.

Students learn differently, though, and tracking reading behavior could easily lead to false explanations for poor student performance. The focus should be on ensuring students master the subject material.

For instance, if a student doesn’t complete a reading assignment but is still able to discuss the subjects covered by that assignment, then skipping out on reading shouldn’t count against him. Some students read about subjects from other sources and do independent research into the topics they find most interesting.

Instead, monitored students could find themselves in a standardized study routine and never actually engage the material they’re trying to learn.

Professors should not be monitoring student study routines – they should be testing and challenging students to coherently write about and discuss complicated subjects.

The privacy implications of this technology are even more severe than the educational consequences. Instead of Google or some distant company monitoring web behavior, CourseSmart allows professors a direct line into our libraries.

CourseSmart’s technology should be rejected. If it becomes mainstream, it may be the beginning of a slippery slope, giving even more people more information about us.

Universities should use technology to give educators and students more access to more information. They shouldn’t use it to watch them.

Tray Smith is a senior majoring journalism and political science. His column runs weekly.

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