Privacy, education, e-texts

I found an interesting blog post¬†recently that discusses briefly software that tracks how much and when you read your e-textbook. There’s so much nuance to this discussion. Compare the following:

This e-textbook integrates seamlessly with technology designed to analyze student reading habits, allowing teachers to understand where students are having trouble with readings and target classroom intervention. Data on when students read their textbooks and for how long will help teachers and students work together to create good study habits.”

I made that up to try to make this sound good. Now let’s see how it could sound bad:

“Student reading data can be used to evaluate their effort and commitment to a course; if reading quotas are used in grading, a student who already knows the material or uses other sources will not receive credit. In addition, student reading data could be used to profile students, selecting for those who seem to have long attention spans or discriminating against those who seem to jump around too much.”

What do you think? I’m really fascinated by this stuff, because I think data on student work habits and knowledge can be really useful. I’d love to know where students all gave up on a certain type of problem or reading. I would love to be able to show a student a graph that helps them understand that their pain point on probability problems wasn’t really probability, but full mastery of the algebra used in the solution. However, I’ve been victim of enough bad teaching or grading to be afraid that time spent reading might become a criteria for a certain grade, or that other proxies that don’t measure mastery of material might be pulled out for busywork grades.

I find the data in Moodle handy: it tells me when students are accessing different pieces of information, for instance. Using that I can conclude that nobody read my review sheet, or that everyone has accessed that video, or that only two people accessed the project grading guidelines earlier than the night before the project was due! This information allows me to adjust teaching or have a discussion on planning and pacing — whatever’s appropriate. I don’t know how much difference this makes. Is it an invasion of student privacy? Would it change my teaching if I couldn’t see it?

Perhaps one solution is that students have control of that data and whether or not to release it. This is something we might trust college students with, but it’s a decision that 8-year-olds might not be qualified to make without guidance. At some point, though, we do need to start having discussions with students and children about the data that is collected about them and who gets to have access to it. Schools are already discussing appropriate use of Facebook and cell phones. When do we start talking with kids about student data?

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