Thursday, May 02, 2013

CourseSmart: Is Big Brother Watching You Read?

You've probably heard about the dust-up over CourseSmart, Pearson's software that tracks whether/how students are reading the e-textbook for a course.

It's finals week, and time is limited, but here are a few thoughts for your consideration:

1. Claims about Big Brother are misplaced, aren't they? 
This isnt the government watching your private reading habits. This is a college course that students take voluntarily. If you don't want the professor to know whether you're reading the book, then don't take the course. If you don't want to read the book then don't take the course. It is permissible to make reasonable, relevant demands on people when they voluntarily engage in activities. The government can conduct a background check on you if you want to take a job at the CIA; that does not raise Big Brotherish concerns. And if you're in my class and I see you furtively stuffing a piece of paper up your sleeve during an exam, I can demand to see what's on it--something that would be entirely out of line were I to do it to a random person on the street. I can force you to stop talking aloud if I'm lecturing, or force you to leave the room. This doesn't raise concerns about a police state. So, I'd say: enough with the Big Brother business here.

2. Concerning claims that students shouldn't be forced to read the textbook so long as they are performing well on assignments.
I firmly believe that if students can do well on the assignments, then they should get good grades. I don't give busy work, I don't take attendance, and if students can do well without coming to class or doing the reading, then more power to them. (Er, they never can...but I'm not against it in principle...) I do agree that professors who are giving students grades merely to force them to jump through hoops are probably teaching shit classes. (Look, the dude in the story is running a management class. IMO that's not a real college class anyway... But I quasi-digress...)

However: students who come to class unprepared ruin classes. Unprepared/disengaged students are like control rods in a nuclear reactor--inert material that prevents the rest of the class from achieving critical mass.  My policy is: students can skip class as much as they like, but can’t come to class unprepared. This is a fair policy, and a good one, but to enforce it I have to at least occasionally give quizzes—and quizzes about the reading waste everybody’s time. Honestly, if CourseSmart gives me a good way to keep unprepared students out of the classroom, I’ll use it. In fact, I’ll use the hell out of it…

So, my conclusion as of now:
There are no legitimate privacy concerns here
The thing sounds useful at least in principle.

I haven't used it, but I imagine the text offerings are pretty I probably won't actually be able to use it.

But I probably would if I could get the texts I want on it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem with this program is not the big-brotherish aspect. If the CS kids have not already hacked together an "auto-reader" to defeat the monitoring, I'll be very disappointed in them.

What's really bad here is how this is going to effect the pricing of course texts. Pearson is clearly trying to get professors to shift to requiring e-books by offering them this tool. Once students are shifted onto the platform, Pearson can start "unbundling" the content of the texts. First, it will be impossible to buy the text, only to "rent" it for the semester, killing the used text book market. Then, with the same tools that allow professors to monitor reading, pricing can linked to pages viewed or, God help us, time spent reading. Sophisticated marketing tools can be built into the text to sell "extras". (Up pops the Pearson equivalent of the goddamned Word paperclip: "You look like you're having some trouble with this problem set. Would you like some additional examples? [$1.99]") Price discrimination tools can be added, for example by charging more for a text after the add/drop period at a school is over. Class texts, already bad value for students, can be made nearly perfect money sucking machines, and the first step is leveraging professorial contempt for undergrads.

Perhaps that might sound paranoid, but remember, this is an industry that routinely rearranges problem sets and page numbers in new "editions" to try to prevent used book sales, sued a company making substitute texts under the theory that they could copyright "topic arrangements" (Google the Pearson et. al. vs. Boundless), and went to the Supreme Court to try preserving their ability to price discriminate between US and foreign students. The major text book publishers have never failed to push whatever advantage they have to get more out of the people compelled to buy their products, and there is no reason to think that they will not use e-texts that way too.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

To be honest, it *does* sound a little bit paranoid to me, A... I mean, if those things happen, couldn't we just stop using the system? Maybe that's a lot easier in philosophy than it is in, say, engineering... But we don't have to use textbooks at all. We can just buy three or four cheap classic texts from Hackett.

Anyway, unless trying out the system has a pretty good chance of irrevocably leading down the path to perdition that you imagine, I'd still be willing to give it a try.

Though, just to be clear, my only point was to call the privacy concerns into question.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that's the main question: if the pricing starts to get out of hand, could a professor stop using it? "Lock-in" isn't much of a threat in philosophy, since we teach from classics. We might use a special purpose anthology, but not a text book with all it's associated elements: problem sets, test question banks, workbooks, and so forth. I'm talking about classes where students do use such books, generally the big, technical 101s, ubiquitous enough for nicknames: Calc, Stat, Econ, Bio. A class like that really does require that apparatus for learning, and this creates a coordination problem and the need for a standard. In Phil 101, your sections aren't going to run aground if some kid buys a 50 cent old penguin of Symposium instead of the Hackett in the bookstore, but if a kid in Stat buys the sixth edition instead of seventh of the textbook, he's not going to get the right homework done. That need for an exact standard text makes lock in a real problem, since there has to be a full supply of exactly the edition being used.

I took a Business Operations course (queuing and the like, technical and ubiquitous in business school: "Ops") in which this problem was manifest. The text had recently come out in a third edition, at $120 a pop. The professor was annoyed at the extractive nature of the edition change (also, his dissertation supervisor, then deceased, was the "author") and tried to help the students out by parallel listing the homework problems in both the second and third editions, since they had been shuffled. Unfortunately, it became clear early into the course that the publisher had also changed the numerical values in the problems in small ways. To save the TA from nervous breakdown, the professor had to hand out xeroxes of the third edition problems, an act for which he could have been sued. The next year, during which I TAed, the new edition was all that was listed.

Now suppose my professor had really, really tried to stick with the second edition. What could he have done? He couldn't just list the second edition on the syllabus and force the kids to find it on the market. He would have had to ensure a supply of the texts sufficient for the whole class. He could buy sufficient old copies to hand out, like in 5th grade social studies, but this is very expensive, and he better hope there is little growth in enrollment or loss attrition of the books. He could scan or copy the material, but he's breaking the law. Basically, he's stuck assigning the new edition unless he want to write his own material; he's locked into the new edition. Now, supposing that new edition is an e-book and publishers start acting according to type in the way I suggest, are he and his students any less stuck?

So, yes, in the 101 type courses, I think the path to perdition is sloped and slippery. I admit, the topic of textbooks sales tends to get me pretty exited. Why? Textbooks are particularly galling examples of the way in which the business of higher education has made pursuit of higher education an increasingly raw deal. There is no reason, aside from publishers sitting on the standard, why textbooks should cost what they do. Also, the text book issue, since it's primarily a technical 101 course problem, hits the vulnerable kids especially hard, all those students sitting in Comminity College Calc 101 trying to bootstrap. Finally, when a professor imposes heavy textbook costs for some minor convenience, especially one founded on distrust of the students, I just get upset. It looks like abuse of power.

Let me strenuously emphasize that I don't think you, Winston, were thinking in such terms; you were interested in the privacy objection, in isolation. But I think that the privacy issue is a distraction from the primary risks of e-texts, which is increasing the market power of publishers.

12:37 PM  

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