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April 11, 2013 7:04 AM   Subscribe

CourseSmart software enables professors and teachers to track how much of the assigned reading students have completed.
posted by reenum (80 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Charles Tejeda got a C on the last quiz, but the real revelation that he is struggling was a low CourseSmart index.
“They caught me,” said Mr. Tejeda, 43. He has two jobs and three children, and can study only late at night. “Maybe I need to focus more,” he said.


Ah, sweet! I wasn't feeling guilty enough lately, and was hoping the Panopticon might be able to help with that.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:13 AM on April 11, 2013 [30 favorites]


In addition to tracking reading assignments, McGraw also cut Apple, Google, Amazon, and B&N out of the loop.
posted by birdherder at 7:16 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am an average person! I herald these measures in our classrooms! And I deplore them in our workplaces!
posted by etc. at 7:17 AM on April 11, 2013


“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.

"To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic...Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink."
posted by googly at 7:18 AM on April 11, 2013 [11 favorites]


If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:22 AM on April 11, 2013 [11 favorites]


This is great because there is literally no conceivable way of measuring whether students are doing the reading using non-technological means.
posted by gerryblog at 7:23 AM on April 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


I could see this being useful to see if there is a strong correlation between reading the material and demonstrating competence on exams and various forms of grading. A few potential outcomes I think of offhand:

1) Instructors get better insight into students who learn more orally versus by reading
2) Textbook vendors could see where some chapters have less instructive value
3) Students get an idea how disciplined they were to read the material

The least imaginative way to use the information is to critique and penalize students over it.
posted by dgran at 7:25 AM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


This sounds like it might work really well for those students who study exactly as anticipated by the people designing the software. Everyone who takes paper notes1, or reads quickly enough that the total time spent looking at pages is low2, or doesn't highlight 3, or - worst of all - goes outside of the textbook to find other sources of information4 will appear to be a "disengaged" student.
  1. Good digital note-taking apps exist but not every app works for everyone. When trying to get down massive amounts of info at once - for example, during lectures and conference presentations - I strongly prefer paper; even if you're super-good with an app like Evernote, I doubt the publishers are using Evernote to track student notes, they are almost certainly using an app developed in-house. And it's almost certainly awful.
  2. I am a fast reader. In a course tracking time spent looking at pages, I'd probably be flagged for "skimming" or just flipping through blindly. And this also won't accurately reflect existing knowledge - if I know part of a subject already, I'll be flagged for skipping that section of the text.
  3. I find highlighting distracting. If it doesn't fit my learning style, what makes the publishers so damn sure I'm an at-risk student if I don't do it? I had no problem earning a PhD without highlighting passages in texts and papers.
  4. This is only an issue for the publishers. For a student, seeking additional points of reference and not blindly trusting the text to be accurate and comprehensive is actually a very good sign of engagement and intellectual development.
I am sure that efforts like this one will in many ways help improve the educational system, but like so many of the ideas we have pushed on us, this seems to be all about assessment without regard to how well the assessment actually matches success rate in learning the material.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:25 AM on April 11, 2013 [24 favorites]


Eventually, the data will flow back to the publishers, to help prepare new editions.

I thought the only thing they needed to prepare a new edition was switching Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 and shifting everything down two pages.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.

It's like that old saying: "the road to an excellent education is paved with good intentions."

Wait, hang on my producer is telling me ... what? Hell? Oh.
posted by griphus at 7:25 AM on April 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Several said their score was being minimized because they took notes on paper.

Fucking Luddites. Probably reading other books, too.
posted by Segundus at 7:25 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Failing to highlight significant passages"? I never used highlighter in textbooks. I still did fine. And I found that taking notes by hand was most effective for me.

His students generally are scoring well on quizzes and assignments. In the old days, that might have reassured him. But their engagement indexes are low.

“Maybe the course is too easy and I need to challenge them a bit more,” Mr. Guardia said. “Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought.”


Or maybe the engagement index is bullshit.
posted by jeather at 7:25 AM on April 11, 2013 [18 favorites]


Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”
Or maybe the problem is with your syllabus or maybe the student is too intelligent for your class or maybe...
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:26 AM on April 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


I like CourseSmart as a teacher because it is an easy way for me to get review copies of books I want instead of review copies the publishers are pushing. Students not doing their reading is a problem, but this seems like a creepy, ineffective way to deal with it. Probably inevitable in the long run, though.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:27 AM on April 11, 2013


This sounds like one of those things people are going to figure out how to min/max like, I dunno, highlighting literally every single thing or leaving pages open while they go do other things, then we'll be seeing those a-bloo-bloo-bloo articles about how the damn kids aren't using it as intended.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:29 AM on April 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Yeah, speaking of someone who only bought the books that I needed to get problem sets out of, this is stupid. Rather than forcing students to do the reading, it's going to prevent them from taking the class. I probably would have dropped out of college had someone forced me to pay for all my books every semester.

A better way to encourage the reading would be to

a) make plenty of copies available from the library
b) demonstrate the relevance by, you know, eventually talking about or covering some material from that book, not just throwing it on the reading list with no prioritization
posted by DU at 7:30 AM on April 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


A system that requires all textbooks to be electronic in order to be tracked? Surely that will lead to lower textbook prices.
posted by cjelli at 7:30 AM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Oh and the other thing, which may only really apply to college, is: Aren't the students supposed to be self-motivated? I thought the entire point of college was that you learn how to learn. If someone forces you to Do It Their Way, you aren't doing that. It's just more high school. Or even elementary school.
posted by DU at 7:33 AM on April 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Several Texas A&M professors know [...] whether students are reading their textbooks. They know when students are skipping pages

Someone should recommend a basic logic e-textbook to both the article's author and its subjects: while not turning the pages probably implies not "reading" for most senses of "reading," it does not follow that turning the pages therefore implies reading. After they pass that assignment, we can track their page-by-page progress through Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read.
posted by RogerB at 7:34 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The first problem is figuring out what kind of impression I want to give. The second problem is making a Greasemonkey script to clickety click through pages to give that impression.
posted by Free word order! at 7:36 AM on April 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


“Or maybe the textbooks are not as good as I thought.”

Pearson and McGraw-Hill: OH NOES!
posted by Kabanos at 7:39 AM on April 11, 2013


...while not turning the pages probably implies not "reading" for most senses of "reading," it does not follow that turning the pages therefore implies reading...

We had to take some conflict-of-interest training that worked like this. You had to dwell on each page of the presentation a certain minimum time or it would "suggest" that you "absorb it more thoroughly". So rather than quickly zipping through something I've seen a dozen times and didn't need to know in the first place to answer questions with obvious answers, I had to follow a work-for-a-while-then-tab-back-and-click-next cycle for most of a day.
posted by DU at 7:39 AM on April 11, 2013


failing to highlight significant passages

Fucking god almighty, someone needs to be crucified for this. I went through all of my college courses with NO highlighting. For one thing I've always treated textbooks as something I might want to preserve (and I do still consult them sometimes in my work), and second, going through the physical motions of highlighting is extremely distracting when I get into that zen state of mind of learning a chapter. It's pitiful that this kind of thing is essentially homogenizing and monetizing a basic and personal thought process.
posted by crapmatic at 7:41 AM on April 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hey remember that excruciating scene in Snow Crash where the walled office compound of the remains of the Federal Government are filled with workers who carefully measure how long it takes them to read the pages and pages of notes given to them daily - read to fast and you'll stick out as stuck up - read too slow and you'll be seen as dumb while the actual content of the notes are nothing but trying to figure out who's turn it is to bring in toilet paper cause they no longer have the budget to anything, anymore?
posted by The Whelk at 7:44 AM on April 11, 2013 [17 favorites]


Another idiot here who did a PhD with no highlighting whatsoever.
posted by Wolof at 7:46 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The next step is to use webcams to track eye movements. That way, professors can know exactly what words are being read and how fast, and what passages are being read more than once, perhaps due to being unclear. In addition, sensors in the chair can track how much they are fidgeting or shifting, indicating restlessness or frustration with the material. Light electric shocks can be applied in response to these cues in order to optimize student engagement.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:47 AM on April 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


1) Instructors get better insight into students who learn more orally versus by reading

I'd love to think this would be the case, because I would have been the world's worst student by this metric. I mean, I'm not a particularly good student anyhow, but I did manage to earn an undergrad degree from a well-regarded school by mostly listening to lectures. Learning from books just doesn't work for me, at all.

But yeah, there are blessed few instructors who will "get" how to use these data.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:48 AM on April 11, 2013


I have never highlighted a single page of any book, and for the most part didn't take much in the way of notes. Somehow, I also graduated with high honors, since I knew the concepts and spent most of my time reading primary sources and taking notes on THOSE.

On the other hand, when I literally recopied my organic chemistry book by hand (the only thing that actually got things into my brain), this system wouldn't have been able to keep track of that either.
posted by rockindata at 7:49 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


“I think I’d make a good Handicapper General.”
“Good as anybody else,” said George.
“Who knows better’n I do what normal is?” said Hazel


I always thought that part of success was learning to be intrinsically motivated by one's own potential future. People who want to do well at a course will take the steps necessary to do that. Similarly in work environments.

“It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent,” said Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business.

It doesn't seem Big Brother-y as much as it looks like a solution in search of a problem. Educators already have a proven methodology for ascertaining a student's mastery of material – tests – and ample tools for measuring real-time progress – participation, homework, assignments, projects, etc.

This seems to have little to do with education, and more to do with a valuable contract. I think it's safe to grade this assignment with a D. Needs improvement.
posted by nickrussell at 7:49 AM on April 11, 2013


Looking at the prices for an Organizational Behavior course offered by my school, I see five* options from the school bookstore to get the book. You can buy a new hardback for $156, Rent a new hardback for $87, buy a used one for $117, rent used for $78, or rent an electronic version for $89.

A student has to decide which option to choose, likely before they even see a syllabus or know how much the book will be used. Students who opt to rent the book cannot mark or highlight anything inside it, so students looking to save money on their texts have learned not to highlight.

* - There is, of course, a sixth option - use one of the two copies of the book I keep on Reserve at the library. Sure, you only get it for 2 hours at a pop and you're sharing access with other students, but the TurboScan app is only three bucks. There are 528 pages in the book. You can get a lot of scanning done in two hours.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:52 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am in a Ph.D. program and have found throughout my academic career that textbooks provided almost nothing beyond the lectures. This is especially true for classes where exams are based almost entirely on lectures (read: almost every class I've ever taken). When I needed clarification on specific topics, I found random articles on the internet to be far more clearly written and helpful than most textbooks.
posted by palindromic at 7:53 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


eye tracking and read tracking for advertisements. NOT looking at them is a form of theft, of course, so you have to fill your quota per month - and purchase the product or service being shown in a reasonable time frame, don't worry you can apply for some very low interest loans to keep up with your Required Purchases.
posted by The Whelk at 7:53 AM on April 11, 2013


Hey remember that excruciating scene in Snow Crash

That was actually the first thing I thought of.

Is it just me, or has the dystopianization of These United States sped up recently?

****

I add that the assumption behind this software is that no one enjoys learning, and no one likes or dislikes some material more than other material; and that all material demands the same degree of engagement - it's all boring, it's all vaguely useless/vaguely useful, and it all needs to be chewed through in the same way.

When I was in college, during what I have increasingly come to describe as The Last Good Time - otherwise known as the early/mid-nineties - I enjoyed much of my coursework, with the exception of economics textbooks. Some of it I'd read before - literature classes, I look at you! - and so I only skimmed it when we prepared for class. Some of it was extremely easy for me. Some of it was really difficult (Sartre's Nausea in the original, OMG). Some of it was Not Relevant To My Interests, and I skimmed it enough to discuss it and test on it; some of it was super-important to my goals, so I read it with care.

Jesus god, I hate this world we live in. Every time there's some article about global warming or bird flu or whatever, I fight my natural panic by reminding myself that humans are terrible, human society is terrible and while there are certain losses that will be regretted, for the most part the universe will be better off.
posted by Frowner at 7:56 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


robocop is bleeding: “...rent an electronic version for $89...”

Yep, $89 to borrow an e-book, without the option of annotating it. You can buy a song permanently for 99 cents now, you can buy a book on Amazon for around $10, but simply borrowing an electronic textbook is almost a hundred dollars.

This is completely ridiculous. It's funny, because I read this whole CourseSmart article and didn't see a single mention of price at all; that makes me wonder how much CourseSmart paid the NYT to print this crap. Textbooks are a massive scam, a parasite-industry on the ballooning costs of higher education. It's criminal that they get to charge what they charge, and I am willing to bet that CourseSmart is just another tactic designed to allow them to increase prices while cutting overhead yet again.
posted by koeselitz at 7:58 AM on April 11, 2013


The next step is to use webcams to track eye movements.
I've seen a talk by someone at a psych teaching conference that had done just that, at least with standard textbooks. They found that people spent way more time looking at all the extra materials (visuals, quotes, pictures) than the actual content of the text.

My absolute best texts that I've used in class often have very little extra material -- they're long paragraphs of content, but the authors are funny and engaging. It's like storytelling, with a lot of historical and pop culture references. I'd love more major textbooks for general classes to be like that too.
posted by bizzyb at 7:58 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Came for the Snow Crash reference. I see y'all have that covered.
posted by unixrat at 7:58 AM on April 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Students who opt to rent the book cannot mark or highlight anything inside it, so students looking to save money on their texts have learned not to highlight.

I rented my textbooks this semester (got a book that would have cost $250 new for $49, woo-hoo!). Interestingly, you are allowed to write and highlight in them "to a reasonable extent" while being asked to consider their continued usability for future students. I never highlight, but both the texts I rented had some highlighting in them. I suppose this varies from rental source to rental source, but I found it interesting.
posted by not that girl at 7:59 AM on April 11, 2013


that makes me wonder how much CourseSmart paid the NYT to print this crap

Where the technocratic-neoliberal educational bandwagon is involved, the Times will jump on it free for the asking.
posted by RogerB at 8:02 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think this COULD have some positive application. A struggling student who really seems to be engaging with his work might be handled differently than one who isn't reading any of the texts. But realistically, A) a good teacher probably can intuit the difference between those two students; and B) the software will surely be used mostly for stupid/evil purposes.

I never highlighted, either. It makes it almost unreadable for me. I did fine.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:06 AM on April 11, 2013


The way to see if students have read the material is not to use PowerPoint slides the whole class and engage the them in discussion, or simply make the class sufficiently difficult that they have to read it. But the former takes work and requies a reasonable professor-to-student ratio. The latter, I think, is a problem with easier majors (business, psychology).
posted by smorange at 8:08 AM on April 11, 2013


I can already imagine the process where higher administration gives McGraw Hill a million dollars to implement this campus-wide, they do, and then it's summarily never used by any of the professors, and those who do use it find it essentially useless as their over-stressed students quickly find ways to game the system.

It doesn't seem Big Brother-y as much as it looks like a solution in search of a problem. Educators already have a proven methodology for ascertaining a student's mastery of material – tests – and ample tools for measuring real-time progress – participation, homework, assignments, projects, etc.

Exactly. The entire goddamn purpose of assessment (whether that's a test, a short response paper, or class discussion) is to see if they've internalized the material. Why add an ineffective technical layer on top of that? These solutions always seem targeted at research professors who have to teach a few courses by mandate and always think 'if only I didn't have to teach these students, then I'd get a lot more real work done.'
posted by codacorolla at 8:10 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Textbooks are a huge scam and the tricks built in the system pretty much stacks the deck against the frugal student. "Hrm, students are buying used or having a friend in Thailand mail them a cheap copy... Let's push editions unique to a certain university, nay, a certain course! That way, the student has to buy it! And we'll change them a bit every year so there's no local used market!"

We got sick of that this year and simply stopped buying the "custom editions." Sure, it's a little more expensive to buy the texts the customs are based on, but at least we use the book for several class sections (ARGH EACH SECTION HAS ITS OWN CUSTOM) and again next year.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:12 AM on April 11, 2013


WHAT. WHAT NO WHAT.

I am an academic writing tutor at my school. One of the big problems I see with my tutees involves readings - they have way too much to read, the professors expect them to read every last one the same way word for word, and then they get to class and the readings are barely even dealt with.

We have plenty of resources on different ways of reading - skimming, word-for-word, starting with a question and reading the text for answers. We try to impart on the students the idea that they don't have to do every last reading to great detail, but to prioritize and do their best - and sometimes to collaborate with their classmates via things like study groups so that they can share the load.

CourseSmart throws all of that out the window. It assumes there's only One True Way to read a text. It's less about the students - not at all about the students even - and caters to professors who are more obsessed with metrics than with actual learning. This is just going to make students even more confused and frustrated. Gaaaaaah!
posted by divabat at 8:21 AM on April 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Ew ew ick no. Even laying aside the whole spying-on-our-students issue, who is this useful for? Who are these educators who have no idea if their students are doing the reading or not, but also have enough time to leaf through reports on each individual student's 'engagement index'?

Ironically, the feature of this they're mentioning as a casual aside under the cover of what's best for teachers - the idea of seeing how students use textbooks - is actually really interesting. I would like to know more about how many students read through the assigned material in one uninterrupted chunk vs. in instalments, or make notes directly in the text rather than elsewhere, oro whatever. It is interesting and useful to know more about how students work, whether that changes depending on what you do, how well students with approach X tend to do in a lecture-based course as opposed to those with approach Y, etc. But I'm not about to start chasing down my students with a printout telling them that their CourseSmart report says they're failing to learn in the One Approved Way. 'Failure to highlight important passages', indeed...
posted by Catseye at 8:22 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


failing to highlight significant passages

Tell me, how many of the passages in your textbook are insignificant, and why are they in there?

Slightly less sarcastically, if a student recognizes a passage as significant does that not suggest to you that the student must perforce understand the passage and therefore does not need to highlight it?
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:23 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


To paraphrase the best comment from that NYT article
In Soviet Union, textbook studies you.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:25 AM on April 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers,

Aren't they supposed to be competitors? Who compete? Instead of collude?
posted by ook at 8:26 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Catseye: "Ew ew ick no. Even laying aside the whole spying-on-our-students issue, who is this useful for?"

You know that professor who's always angry that nobody Does The Reading? The one with the attitude that people should show up prepared and premotivated to learn (an idea oft repeated in this thread)? This app is for them. Perhaps it provides ammunition for them to yell at specific people, or perhaps it will provide the divine guidance required to reduce reading sizes.

But really, it's also useful for book publishers who'd really like to find a technology that puts an end to the used textbook market.
posted by pwnguin at 8:59 AM on April 11, 2013


Does their little notetaker also let you doodle elaborate cartoons and abstract patterns while you listen to a lecture? Because that helps me learn. I still have my classical lit notebook, with pretty good notes on the material side by side with cartoons of Zeus smiting people and Athena looking stern and whatnot. I got an A in that class and actually learned a great deal, mostly because the lecturer was passionate about the Odyssey and classical literature in general and chose good translations to work from.

I never highlighted a book, and I never wanted to, because the books I learn from are not collections of discrete factoids or zippy quotes but long conversations between the author and the reader, that flow differently on each read. If they want me to learn in tiny bits, just give me pages of listicles to memorize. Otherwise, bugger off. How I learn is my own business.
posted by emjaybee at 9:01 AM on April 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


ook: "Aren't they supposed to be competitors? Who compete? Instead of collude?"
People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aren't they supposed to be competitors? Who compete? Instead of collude?

Vertical as well as horizontal integration at that.
posted by klarck at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2013


Count me as another one who has done rather well in school without much in the way of highlighting or reading every word of every textbook. Different people learn differently -- I tend to be an extreme lecture-based learner. I pay attention during class, take excellent notes, condense the notes when done and add in stuff from the textbook as needed. I definitely don't read every word of the assigned reading and I have never found it to be necessary.
posted by peacheater at 9:06 AM on April 11, 2013


Now that I know RTFM/RTFA technology exists, I'm off to MetaTalk with a pony request
posted by klarck at 9:09 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I tend to be an extreme lecture-based learner

I, too, find it difficult to retain material unless it's presented in the form of wicked air. I never truly understood The Canterbury Tales until it Dr. Tyler presented it via a series of Fakeys and McTwists with sick amplitude.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:14 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I actually did read the textbooks -- reading the chapter before class always helped a lot.

Though I cannot think of a single professor I had, throughout undergrad, who would have bothered to check up on my "engagement index" with a text.
posted by jeather at 9:15 AM on April 11, 2013


they have way too much to read

One of the things that made me a better student was learning to be an active reader. That meant less time spent reading everything, and more time spent reading the important stuff well. I write short summaries of the important papers and save them to a file, I follow up on points that I find confusing or controversial, and so on.

There are only so many hours in a day -- and only so much time I can spend reading before mental exhaustion sets in. So I can't read everything. Just physically can't.

But I remember much, much more about the stuff that I do read.

A student's focus should be on learning the material, not on reading every word. If you're reading every word but you don't have the time to figure out how the reading fits in with the course concepts and you don't remember it in two weeks, you're not really learning.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:17 AM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Textbooks are a huge scam and the tricks built in the system pretty much stacks the deck against the frugal student.

This is a common misconception. Like every scam, it takes a con and a mark to work.

For the con, a textbook is essentially a course in a can; it's insurance against careless, ineffective, overworked instructors. Now, you may not think of your university professor/TA highly, but think how much worse it might have been if the course weren't canned. Bottom-line: it's much cheaper to spend $200 on a textbook than to pay someone to actually teach.

For the mark, you can take a "course" just by following the programming, even haphazardly. A course that actually relied on self-motivation would be brutal for the students. You think you got an education by sitting through 4 years and pretending to follow the insutrctions but you got conned instead.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:19 AM on April 11, 2013


This reminds me of some bullshit served to me recently by a woman teaching a technical communication class (read: powerpoint) class I have to take... she gave us a song and dance about how we should treasure our textbooks, because they represent a collection of the best, most recent knowledge by the top experts in the field.

That very fucking night I went home and read in my textbook about the World Wide Web has the potential to really change the way people do research, with such powerful search engines as Yahoo and AltaVista.
posted by COBRA! at 9:21 AM on April 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


I never truly understood The Canterbury Tales until it Dr. Tyler presented it via a series of Fakeys and McTwists with sick amplitude.

I took a course on The Canterbury Tales taught by a stodgy old coot, immensely passionate about the material, but also very old-fashioned. The lecture hall was small, but large enough to need amplification, and in these days there wasn't a proper lavalier microphone around, but rather one that hung around the neck. During one of the first few classes, the neck strap was broken and wouldn't stay in place, but nobody could hear the lecture without the mic.

A teaching assistant suggested that the professor hold the microphone and speak into it, to which he replied, with great fury, "I won't stand here, holding the microphone like some kind of crooner!"

Needless to say, he rode goofy, and executed a sick 50-50 grind all the way down the railing after class.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:26 AM on April 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


For the con, a textbook is essentially a course in a can; it's insurance against careless, ineffective, overworked instructors.

This can be true but it's not always true.

Even careful, effective instructors who are blessed with the time to plan a course well can benefit from having a textbook. It depends on the course, but it's especially true for introductory courses that need to impart a lot of basic background.

I have kept many textbooks because they were helpful and I know I'll refer back to them, or refer others to them for explanations of particular topics.

It's certainly true that some courses don't need textbooks or could be better without them, but I wouldn't, for example, want to take calculus without a text. I even wouldn't want to take something like undergraduate phonology without a text, although that's the kind of course where I can imagine it working without a textbook.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:30 AM on April 11, 2013


You know that professor who's always angry that nobody Does The Reading? The one with the attitude that people should show up prepared and premotivated to learn (an idea oft repeated in this thread)?

I do get annoyed when students don't do the reading, and on bad days I have seriously considered catching them out using less-than-generous approaches ("so, what did you think about the ostrich at the end of Macbeth?"), but even there I don't see how CourseSmart would be telling me anything I didn't know already. In smaller classes, it's usually pretty obvious who's done the reading; in bigger classes, it's easier for them to slip through the net, but if I don't have enough one-on-one student time to find out whether they've prepared or not then I certainly don't have time to read 500 CourseSmart 'engagement index' reports and then pull students up on it.

I could see it appealing to angry-yet-unconfident teachers who are sure that nobody's doing the reading because Students These Days Are Bad!, but not confident or competent enough in their own teaching for that to become obvious through the usual ways. I don't see it actually working as an approach even for them, though.
posted by Catseye at 9:46 AM on April 11, 2013


CourseSmart is owned by Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers,

Aren't they supposed to be competitors? Who compete? Instead of collude?


Very nervous about the unfamiliar world of electronic publishing and learning, the major publishers circled the wagons and created CourseSmart in hopes of self-preservation. But their eggs are not all in one basket; you'll find the major publishers are investors in just about any e-textbook/e-learning start-up that gains any traction.
posted by Kabanos at 9:51 AM on April 11, 2013


Look for the for-profit higher ed sector to jump on this hard. While there's a lot more variability in the quality of instruction than is often acknowledged, the schools are motivated to show lots and lots of metrics that "prove" they're "delivering content."

Whether or not the content's of any consequence is another question. This sort of thing is practically purpose-built for that sector.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:05 AM on April 11, 2013


Last year a colleague began teaching a legal-writing class. After his first semester he told me about an experience with a student who was having difficulty with his assignments. They worked together after-hours, he spent extra time writing detailed notes for her, he did everything he could think of. Finally one day, she came into his classroom with a big smile. "I discovered something," she said. "The assignments are so much easier when I do the reading!"

This seems to have little to do with education, and more to do with a valuable contract.

Agreed. It's pretty transparent.

and then they get to class and the readings are barely even dealt with.

Oh God I hated that.

In smaller classes, it's usually pretty obvious who's done the reading; in bigger classes, it's easier for them to slip through the net

In law school I took a class with an elderly professor who was known for storming out of class at least once every semester because he was unhappy with people's grasp of his assigned reading. Incidentally, he was a fantastic teacher and I learned more from that class than maybe any other, ever. But he did indeed storm out during our semester.

That was a relatively small class. My first-year Civil Procedure class was much bigger, and the professor called on students randomly. I'll never forget how one girl handled being (apparently) unprepared. She was sitting in the second row, right down at the front of the lecture hall. The professor called her name out, and she sat perfectly still. He looked up from his book, scanned the room, and called her name again. No response. Now, understand: He had a seating chart. He took a couple steps toward where she was sitting, and he stood there. He didn't look directly at her. He called her name one last time, and she sat motionless and silent, looking straight forward.

He moved on. I always wondered what grade she got in that class.
posted by cribcage at 10:07 AM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


"reads quickly enough that the total time spent looking at pages is low"

My immediate thought on seeing this article was of the Illinois state employee ethics exam, taken on computer, which was instituted by Blagojevich (yep!) in response to corruption complaints, and was the same test across every state employee from tenured state university professors to road construction flaggers hired for summer work. Sixty-five Southern Illinois University professors were accused of cheating on the test (using cheat sheets) because they completed it in less than ten minutes and required them to sign statements admitting they cheated or be fired for cheating and refusing to admit it. Lawsuits ensued.

When I started working as an adjunct professor I had to do this ethics test and I went into HR and they said, "Are you a fast reader?" "Yes?" "Okay, what we need you to do is, open the ethics test, and then let it sit there on the first screen for fifteen minutes while you read a book, and THEN take the test. It'll fail you if you finish too fast." "Doesn't gaming the ethics test sort-of undermine the purpose of the ethics test?" I got A LOOK and she said, "Wait until you take the test."

The test questions were all, like, "Is it permissible to sell state contracts to your relatives in exchange for kickbacks?" Which is clearly the kind of question adjunct professors and road construction flaggers struggle with ALL THE TIME. When I became an elected official with actual authority over contracts, there was no ethics test or training, because Illinois voters are perfectly free to elect the most corrupt people in the world as long as they haven't been convicted, and you can't invalidate the will of the voters because an official doesn't want to do an ethics training. (There actually now is some minimal training required for school board officials, mainly on the Open Meetings Act, but nobody's challenged the requirement yet so I have no idea if it holds up. And it wasn't particularly onerous to complete, and was relevant to actual meetings I actually go to, though the course delivery system was crappy and hard to use.)

The only question that was remotely applicable to my job was one about whether I could use a state Xerox machine to photocopy campaign materials. (Well done, Illinois, on providing undifferentiated ethics training consisting of ten total questions to 58,000 employees in a huge variety of jobs that addresses ethics questions that apply to elected officials but VIRTUALLY NEVER apply to state employees, and certainly aren't tailored to the specific issues that come up for specific types of employees.)

Anyway, I'm sure this is the sort of thing this will get used for. "You're reading too fast! You can't possibly be learning!" Our technocratic overlords fix marginally related non-problems that live in the same general neighborhood as actual problems by treating people as widgets and failing to understand the problem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:10 AM on April 11, 2013 [12 favorites]


What struck me was that students doing well but scoring low on "engagement" was taken to mean there was a problem with the student.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:29 AM on April 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe it's better that we don't live forever. The future is sounding more and more dystopian every day.

I have never highlighted nor taken notes. I find it distracts from my learning. I just kind of read the material, and, you know, understand it. Rote memorization implies you didn't absorb the material.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 1:02 PM on April 11, 2013


“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”

This is precisely how I studied throughout my academic career. Pretty much, before the test I read through the material we'd covered in lectures to refresh my memory. Had I read ahead of time, I would have taken fewer notes, and since writing helps me remember, that would have been a mistake. If some prof had "reached out" to me about my study habits, I would have been sorely tempted to tell them to fuck off. Additionally, this guy must have too much time on his hands if he's tracking his students like this.

The way to see if students have read the material is not to use PowerPoint slides the whole class and engage the them in discussion, or simply make the class sufficiently difficult that they have to read it. But the former takes work and requies a reasonable professor-to-student ratio. The latter, I think, is a problem with easier majors (business, psychology).

Please tell me you didn't just suggest that psychology and business are so easy it's hard to make them difficult.
posted by CoureurDubois at 1:13 PM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Please tell me you didn't just suggest that psychology and business are so easy it's hard to make them difficult.

I might have, but I didn't mean to. I just meant that, as things are, some majors more than others don't require a lot of critical thinking, which is what most students find difficult, at the undergraduate level.
posted by smorange at 1:45 PM on April 11, 2013


Also how would this work with classes where your readings aren't from a single textbook but from a curated reader? None of my grad school classes have needed a textbook, it's all been readers and articles all the way. (Granted, it's also an MFA at an unconventional school, which allows for some level of flexibility, but still.)
posted by divabat at 1:52 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like to selectively highlight letters to spell out "fUcK yoU, aSshoLe" to the monitoring software.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:04 PM on April 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Very nervous about the unfamiliar world of electronic publishing and learning, the major publishers circled the wagons and created CourseSmart in hopes of self-preservation. But their eggs are not all in one basket; you'll find the major publishers are investors in just about any e-textbook/e-learning start-up that gains any traction.

So... Yes and no. I happen to work in this industry; among other things I've worked on in-house ebook and distance learning tech for both Pearson and McGraw. Ten years ago I'd have certainly agreed with you that this sort of tech was 'unfamiliar' and nervous-making to the major publishers; I don't think that's been anywhere near accurate for a very long time, though.

The part that surprised me is not that they're investing in this sort of thing; that's very old news. The new news--to me anyway--was that here they're sharing ownership rather than coming up with competing offerings. Which seems odd to me.
posted by ook at 3:23 PM on April 11, 2013


I sat it on a session with McGraw-Hill last week about CourseSmart. It didn't seem quite so Big Brother when we were looking at it. They don't actually have the digital version of the book we were previewing available yet, but have promised it will be available by mid-May. We also previewed some other aspects of their system. I mostly liked the gamified adaptive learning quiz system, which asks questions on the material (the professor is able to control the number, type and range of questions) and uses a combination of student self-evaluation of knowledge before they answer the question and whether or not the student got the question right in the gamification. It was actually a cool idea, and one I would like to use. The big feature of that is that I could see for an entire class what topics everybody understands and what topics nobody understands and cater our class time accordingly. I am less likely to use the e-book feature for all of the reasons identified above, with the main one being that most of our students either buy used or just read the library copy.

Overall, I can see some usefulness to their tracking of student use of the whole CourseSmart system in that I teach students who tend to have limited study skills and also not be aware of that. Theoretically, using this system, I could identify the difference between students who are not doing well because they are not spending time studying and students who are not doing well despite spending time studying, which is a useful distinction to be able to make and which can be hard to make even after a one-on-one conversation with a student whose evaluation of their own study skills may be questionable (i.e., Does "I study all the time" mean that you are spending 2 to 3 hours outside of class for every hour in class, like I expect, or does it mean that you do your homework begrudgingly but otherwise first glanced at the material for a couple of hours the night before the test? What do you even mean by 'study'?)

But overall it's just too expensive, and I doubt we would ever adopt the entire system anyway and thus is probably not worth the cost.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:00 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is not for the professor who is angry that nobody does the reading. This is for the professor who doesn't care if anyone does the reading, because all they have to do is enter grades bases on some metric created and calculated by someone else (an "educational technology specialist" - not necessarily a professional or experienced educator.) This is a tool for professors who care more about how many overload hours they can cram into their schedule than about making any meaningful connection with students.

Pearson's "My [Subject] Lab" is another such tool.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:08 PM on April 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder what's the usability of the software. I once "bought" a chapter of a textbook (=licensed for a year) and it was packed with some Adobe DRM that made it so unwieldy and slow that it was barely fit for purpose. I bought a used dead-tree version the following day.
posted by ersatz at 3:34 AM on April 12, 2013


This is not for the professor who is angry that nobody does the reading. This is for the professor who doesn't care if anyone does the reading, because all they have to do is enter grades bases on some metric created and calculated by someone else (an "educational technology specialist" - not necessarily a professional or experienced educator.) This is a tool for professors who care more about how many overload hours they can cram into their schedule than about making any meaningful connection with students.

Pearson's "My [Subject] Lab" is another such tool.


I respectfully disagree. We use many electronic tools in education for a variety of reasons. Personally, I prefer in-class activities, class discussions, things on paper, and books. Most of my students vastly prefer electronic formats, for reading, note-taking, discussions, and assignments. They ask for us to use these tools. My students love the Pearson product "Mastering Biology" and I really don't get it because it's clunky and old and looks like the internet in 1997. When we don't assign them, some students will still go online and use them, paying for access themselves with the knowledge that no grade is involved. For some students, particularly those who have not worked out how to "study" with just a book, their notes, pencil, and a blank sheet of paper, these are tools that help them review the material and "study" in a different fashion.

Personally, I am conflicted because I think they need to learn how to learn things without this sort of tool and I also think these programs are far too expensive to require for my classes. But at the same time, some of my students are learning things using these tools that they are not learning without them. And ultimately my goal is that they learn things.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:13 AM on April 12, 2013


I suspect that this kind of grading the sub parts of the process of plodding through readings rather than simply assessing mastery of the material at the end either on exams or in discussion is going to end up as another marker of differentiation between "elite" education and "college as work training" schools.

Small liberal arts colleges aren't going to go for it, valuing the small and personalized; at the "great books" schools there are not even any textbooks as such. Similarly the ivies and the like won't use them except perhaps vestigially. Their students are less likely to need the kind of remedial "learning how to study" these texts are stressing, and their whole self image and culture of teaching runs counter to this approach.

Community colleges, for profit colleges, and non-elite schools will lap it up for all sorts of reasons, relating to issues of (among other things) remediation, metrics and standardization.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:48 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


And, since most Americans go to community colleges, for profit colleges, and/or non-elite schools (many people take multiple tries at college), and since many, many students enter college needing remediation, these products are very popular, especially, as I said above, among the students.

As somebody who actually attended one of those "'great books' schools [where] there are not even any textbooks as such" and now works at the other kind of school, the kind most Americans attend, I'm just reporting what I see at work everyday. Would I prefer to be teaching without a textbook and without the vaguely silly online products? Yes. But that is not how most of the world learns or has an interest in learning. I actually had some great discussions in my upper level Evolution class on readings from Wallace and Darwin and modern primary literature. But my freshmen are nowhere near ready for that. So I teach using the tools available, and I reach my students the way they can be reached.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:08 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


hydropsyche, I never disagreed with you about their utility, my regret is for the ever widening gulf between the two worlds. It's one more small step, largely innocuous in itself, but taking us a little further along the path of inequality. When the differences between the two worlds become great enough moving between them will become essentially impossible. No more starting in community college, doing really well and transferring to Stanford, no more going to the cheaper school because the education is just as good, and so on. We're not nearly there yet, but it seems like we're heading in that direction.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:53 PM on April 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I share that concern, and that's among the reasons I chose to take a job at a "non-elite" school. At the moment, I think we're doing okay. Our standards remain high, grade inflation is pretty low, and we're good at giving students with varying backgrounds the extra assistance necessary to meet our standards. We have plenty of folks transferring to the state flagship university and plenty more going on to prestigious grad and professional schools after graduating from here. I thnk we can still do better. But I don't think our failures can really be blamed on the textbook industry. (I mostly blame No Child Left Behind for giving me students who pretty much don't know how to or care to learn things.)
posted by hydropsyche at 4:29 AM on April 14, 2013


As far as I can tell, the main problem the textbook industry is part of in higher education is the general problem: money. It doesn't help to have a massive parasite-industry leeching off of an already-cash-starved system of higher education and taking thousands of dollars out of the pocket of the average student. But I guess the ways in which that directly impacts the classroom are probably complicated.

We're in a time, however, when I think things like textbooks (like scientific journals) can probably be collaboratively produced by the people who utilize them most. The parasite industry isn't really necessary anymore, but it hangs on because the changeover will take some effort.
posted by koeselitz at 10:37 PM on April 14, 2013


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