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I am a little late to this story, but apparently digital textbook provider CourseSmart will be introducing a new tool that, in the words of my parent publication, "could make identifying unprepared students even easier, and, the creators hope, improve outcomes and retention."

The idea is that CourseSmart Analytics can quantify student interactions with the text. The software "tracks students’ engagement with their e-textbooks and provides and allows professors and colleges to evaluate the usefulness of learning materials and to track student work."

The theory, as I understand it, is that this additional data will help universities “prove” their students are learning, presumably by showing how much and in what ways they interact with their reading.

But I will not be using this tool because I don’t care if my students read the materials assigned in class.

That came out wrong. Let me try it again.

I will not be using this tool because I have a better way of measuring their engagement. I call it “their grade.”

If the students can do well in my course without reading the assigned materials, then I have to ask myself why I’ve assigned them because they clearly aren’t necessary. That’s just bad teaching.

Perhaps this is overly cynical, but this quote from Cindy Clarke, CourseSmart’s senior vice president of marketing is how I know this is a bad idea.

“The big buzz in higher ed is analytics. Based on what we had and what issues there are with institutions around improving the return they’re getting on their investment in course materials, we realized we had a valuable data set that we could package up.”

Buzz, analytics, return they’re getting on their investment, data set, package up.

Something that buzzes is an annoyance to be swatted away. CourseSmart is peddling a product for which there is "buzz," but no actual need. This strikes me as a particularly 21st Century mindset. These words have nothing to do with education as I understand it.

Though maybe the problem is that I don’t understand education.

Perhaps there is some utility for this tool in the MOOC world, but in a classroom where an instructor knows names and faces, where eye contact can be made, where we are human beings on a semester-long journey together, I don’t know a single teacher out there who thinks what we need is more data.

Though it may open up a new administrative position: Vice Provost in charge of Reading Engagement.

Clarke offers an additional rationale: “Every individual student is different. You’re going to hear about the student who never cracks open the books and aces the test, and then the other end of the spectrum where the student does all the reading but doesn’t do well on the test.… The instructor is going to know the personality of the student, but CourseSmart can provide a valuable set of facts for him to incorporate into that.”

Here’s how I learn the personalities of my students: I talk to them. In class, in office hours, in conferences. I ask them about how they view writing, about their work habits, where they see their own strengths and weaknesses, what they think they need to do better, what they don’t know how to do better. I ask them about the readings, what they responded to or didn’t respond to. What was helpful, what wasn’t.

I engage them by making them responsible by reminding them that when it comes to learning we are in partnership, that I am not there to pour knowledge into them, and that learning is an active process that’s going to be a little bit different for everyone.

I’m as big a fan of Nate Silver as anybody, but the move towards the “data-fication” of everything needs to be examined. How many of us think the U.S. News & World Report rankings have value? How about student evaluations of instructors?

How’s that No Child Left Behind testing working?

We don’t need data to tell us the degree of our students’ engagement, and by even accepting that engagement is something that can be measured in this way, we put ourselves on the slippery slope to irrelevance.

Because if we are truly engaged with something, it haunts just about every moment of our day. While we are showering, or walking the dog, or supposed to be paying attention to what our loved ones are saying to us, we are thinking about a current problem, like what to put in a blog posting about how misguided you find a particular technological “innovation.”

I want my students to experience that kind of obsession, the kind where your spouse asks you three times if you’re listening because you clearly are not.

Telling my students that engagement happens in chunks of time easily measured and quantified would be a lie and I try not to lie to my students.


That button below is to follow me on Twitter, where I am always engaging, promise.