Scott Hildreth’s training in physics and astronomy stopped short of teaching him how to read minds.
For much of his career as a professor at Chabot College, this presented a problem. Hildreth recalls the daily routine of trying to figure out which concepts he should try to reinforce in his lecture. His students were timid about asking for help on specific points, probably for fear of appearing slow, Hildreth says. And when students were courageous enough to ask that he clarify a particular concept, Hildreth couldn’t be sure if other students in the class shared that student’s confusion. Nor were students always lucid in describing what exactly it was they were struggling with.
“Now, it’s totally different,” Hildreth says. “I literally spend my time now tuning my delivery for each class according to so much more information.”
What changed was that Hildreth started instructing his students to do their homework online through a suite of “Mastering” tools from Pearson , which the publishing giant is marketing alongside its textbooks. Not only does the software tell Hildreth which problems students are getting wrong, it tells him why they are getting them wrong, so he can tailor his class sessions to reinforce certain concepts accordingly. It also relieves him of the burden of grading homework for dozens of students — a task so time-consuming, Hildreth says, that it forces many math and science professors to extrapolate homework grades on assignments based on only a few answers. Historically, this flawed grading method has prompted professors to count homework for a disproportionately small percentage of each student’s overall grade, giving their students little incentive to spend much time on it.
Since adopting the online tools, which grade homework automatically, Hildreth has made daily assignments count for a higher percentage of the final grade. Meanwhile, he says he uses the hours he used to spend “mindlessly” grading assignments in tailoring his lectures to be more responsive to what the software’s metadata suggest the students need. Hildreth says he can also measure his students' success against the grades of students working from the same textbook at other institutions -- a good barometer for a professor at a community college like Chabot, which aims to prepare students to gracefully transfer to a four-year college.
While some professors are leery of automatic grading , Hildreth believes it has made him more efficient, and therefore effective. “It totally, for me, has changed the dynamic of teaching,” Hildreth says. “I feel like I’m a much better teacher now.”
Over the last two decades, such software has gone from a pet experiment for computer-savvy professors on a couple of campuses to a must-have for textbook publishers who wish to stay competitive.
Pearson isn’t the only one in the game, although it is the biggest player. Other major publishers, such as Cengage , W.H. Freeman , and McGraw-Hill . have developed similar add-ons that they now offer in hopes of persuading professors to adopt their textbooks. Others have partnered with WebAssign , a company that produces online questions, exercises, simulations, and other e-tutoring complements to textbooks from a variety of publishers.
These publishers say that as instructors begin to realize the capabilities of e-learning tools, it is not enough to pitch professors -- particularly those in the natural sciences -- a traditional textbook or even an e-textbook. These days, professors expect more.
“It is a fact that we are aggressively trying to add curricular solutions to what traditionally would have been our print textbooks — that’s really driven by what the professors want,” says William Reiders, executive vice president for Cengage’s Global New Media division. About 75 percent of professors believe such technology improves student engagement, by Cengage’s count.
“I will now not adopt a book unless it has one of these equivalent online homework delivery, scoring, and remediation systems,” says Hildreth, the Chabot physics and astronomy professor.
He is not alone in his enthusiasm. Professors are adopting the technology at a substantial rate. Pearson reports that it enrolled 6 million users in its Mastering and MyLabs  programs in 2009, up 40 percent from the previous year. McGraw-Hill, which unveiled its Connect software last fall, recently announced it has already reached 1.2 million users in its second semester.
Hildreth says the market is rife with publishers trying to build the best mousetrap. Although he has taken up the mantle of evangelist for Pearson’s mastering software, Hildreth says he does not accept any money from the company and has volunteered to run pilots for competing products as well. He says he is currently testing W.H. Freeman’s e-tutoring “Portals,” which he says is putting the heat on Pearson because it incorporates learning-management tools such as blogs and discussion boards.
David Echevarria, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi, says he thinks the self-contained assessment tools offered within these publisher-based e-learning platforms could threaten to replace certain functions of learning management systems such as Blackboard, or else partner with them. (Asked whether the publishers' grading and organizing tools threaten to chip away at its user base, Blackboard officials said those tools complement its software, rather than compete with it. "The combination of content with an institution-wide online learning platform as a central hub for collaboration and engagement around courses, content and so much more is what is really important," wrote Diana Childress, senior director of Blackboard’s Content Providers Team, in an e-mail.)
Echevarria adopted McGraw-Hill’s Connect for his courses after a brief and frustrating trial with a competing product. He now holds his introductory psychology lab session online -- a move that he says has saved a lot of money and effort. “We had 10 sections of that lab, so we had 10 people who had to staff each section,” he says. “So we cut down on people-power, and also saved actual dollars because we had to pay to rent that space from the library.”
The Southern Miss professor says the software has allowed him to serve his students more efficiently, freeing him up to devote more time to the neuroscience laboratory he runs. Meanwhile, he has seen the average score in his 300-student introductory psychology class rise by ten points. Textbook publishers across the board boast that their e-learning add-ons are decidedly improving student learning outcomes.
That added value comes with added costs, of course. And in some cases that cost lands disproportionately in the laps of students who buy used textbooks. If a professor decides to adopt Pearson’s Mastering software, her students can buy access to it with a new textbook for the price of the new textbook alone. Same with McGraw-Hill. However, if a student opts not to buy a new textbook, access to the add-on tools costs extra: $40 for McGraw-Hill’s Connect, $58.50 for Pearson’s Mastering.
This pricing system differs from that of WebAssign and its partners, who sell access to the e-learning tools for about $20 per semester, regardless of whether the textbook is new.
Mary Skafidas, vice president for marketing and communications at McGraw-Hill, says that students buying used textbooks and the Connect access fee still pay less than those who buy new textbooks with access included. She also notes that the Connect tools are packaged free with the publisher’s e-textbooks, which cost significantly less than either print option. Studies show that the vast majority of students still don’t use e-textbooks, but Skafidas said McGraw-Hill hopes its pricing model might help change that.