Monday, November 19, 2012

Educator Information vs. Student Privacy: eBooks

Most educators have been becoming aware of student privacy issues in terms of information that students themselves choose to give out. One example of this is over-sharing on Facebook. However, as technology evolves, this issue is poised to become a potential case of educators invading students’ privacy outside of traditional classroom space. No, I’m not talking about the infamous cases of school-provided laptops spying on kids in their bedrooms. I’m talking about eBooks. Electronic textbooks, in fact.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on a new electronic textbook service that will data mine students’ study habits. CourseSmart is spinning their invasive technology as a way for educators to see how engaged their students are with material. What it will do is spy on students as they use ebooks, and send back information to faculty on how much time the student spends reading the text, which parts they take notes on, etc.

Current credit-hour based definitions firmly put time spent on reading assignments in the category of out-of-class time. Indeed, this has always been true, because there was no way to track what students did (or did not) do with their book other than through their performance on assessments. Beyond simply the unsettling idea that this is re-defining the classroom to be a much larger, more invasive chunk of students’ lives, there are some good questions the education world should consider:

  • What are the implications for FERPA? All of the information in these reports will be going through CourseSmart, handing them a new type of student activity data that no other commerical group has been handed before. Beyond any legal implications are ethical implications. Should a school/college/university be in effect ordering students to give away even more information about their personal habits to commercial entities? Is there an obligation to educate students about the possible negative ramifications of this type of technology?
  • Could good students be penalized by bad instructors for not fitting the average mold? Anyone who has ever been a student should be able to envision this hypothetical scenario: If you only spent 5 minutes glancing over this week’s reading, because you’re already quite familiar with that material, you could lose points on the “engagement score” that is tabulated by the CourseSmart software.
  • Likewise, what if you opt for the paper version of the text? If students are not forced to use ebooks, then the supposed usefulness of this tool completely unravels. If they are forced to use ebooks, then another set of questions entirely come to the fore.
  • If the device your ebook is on has a GPS chip, will your professor (or just the publisher) know where you shop/eat/etc.? When CourseSmart sells this information to marketers of soda-pop, snacks, or clothing, students could become a captive cash-cow, not because they have chosen to “like” a brand on Facebook, but because their school has required them to buy this technology.

These are debates that need to happen in the world of education.  Tech Dirt has some other good thoughts on possible implications of this new use of technology. What are your thoughts?

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