Textbooks as bait for “engagement”

Yesterday, the Wired Campus blog reported that CourseSmart will begin piloting an analytics feature in their electronic textbooks:

The book will be integrated into the college’s course-management system. It will track students’ behavior: how much time they spend reading, how many pages they view, and how many notes and highlights they make. That data will get crunched into an engagement score for each student.

I’ve speculated about this before, but was wrong about it in two ways. First, I didn’t believe the publishers would do it because I didn’t see how it supported their business. That was short-sighted, and I’ll comment more on it later. If they did it, I predicted it would be used for something other than the current plans. On one count, I was dead on: the data will flow into the course management system.

I was thinking about it (of course) from the standpoint of a teacher, and the fundamental utility I saw for a feedback loop was to improve student learning. I envisioned a system whereby the textbook improved as students used it and were evaluated. If students show poor understanding of a particular process after studying from the book, change the book and try again. Or better yet, set up A/B testing on a chapter-by-chapter basis and do performance evaluation on the learning results. This is the approach that big internet companies use to make nearly every decision that makes them money.

But this is not the plan, at least not yet. No, the tracking will focus on collecting information on “student engagement,” allowing faculty (or administrators) to identify disengaged students before they fail out or leave the school. This is too bad, a missed opportunity to impact learning more directly. But it does answer the previous question I had about the business incentive to build this kind of system. Administrators are keenly interested in metrics for “student engagement”, and are increasingly wiling to pay for it. Integrating the data with the CMS gives the publisher a feature than can differentiate them from competitors in an increasingly competitive market for these systems. In a sense then, this isn’t about textbooks at all. The text is merely the content with which the student engages, the bait. The engagement is the thing, or more precisely, the data and analytics surrounding engagement.


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