Silicon Valley’s education solution: More Big Brother

Creepy and impractical: Software that tells professors when students don't crack open their digital textbooks

Topics: CourseSmart, Education, Online education, MOOCs, Big Brother, Privacy,

It’s never a good sign when Orwellian dystopia is cited in connection with a commercial product, even when the intent is laudatory. In the third paragraph of a New York Times story about CourseSmart, a Silicon Valley start-up that helps professors monitor whether students are reading their digital textbooks, Tracy Hurley, the dean of the school of business at Texas A&M, says, “It’s Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent.”

My guess is that even the original Big Brother, “1984′s” all-seeing dictator of Oceania, justified his surveillance as in service of the greater good. So it’s not all that reassuring to hear that CourseSmart’s product is made to be used with the best of intentions, even if it’s entirely understandable that professors might be eager for better data measuring how students are “engaging” with their textbooks. In the context of our current digital lives, in which everything we do is measured and recorded and sliced and diced, CourseSmart seems like just one more brick in the panopticonic wall. One also has to wonder, how do such strategies fit into the larger trends remaking education?

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The Times article describes the experience of Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, who figures out, via CourseSmart, that one of his students had opened up 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.”

I salute any teacher who takes advantage of the information available to him to directly engage with a student. That’s great teaching. But how can it possibly scale? Silicon Valley is packed to the gills with start-ups whose vision of the educational future hinges upon adding more technology to the education equation, while subtracting actual humans. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are designed to have thousands of students take the same class. These MOOCs will naturally generate vast amounts of data about how exactly students are interacting with their educational materials — presumably, products like CourseSmart will plug into their infrastructure as snugly as a Lego block.

But who will be around to analyze that data and “reach out” on a person-to-person basis to discuss those habits? Figuring out how to grade papers and proctor online exams is already a huge challenge for MOOC enthusiasts. Going a further step and taking advantage of  the engagement data produced by all those students in any kind of individually targeted, human-mediated fashion will be flat-out impossible.

Nope, the only thing that will be able to crunch all that data will be another algorithm. The computer will know when you aren’t reading your digital textbook and the computer will send you alerts chiding your slacktivity or will automatically adjust your grade upward or downward. And if there is a glitch, getting a human’s input will be as hard as getting tech support from Google or Facebook.

Which sounds a little like Big Brother, but in a bad way.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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