Who's watching you learn?


Adrian Guardia, a Texas A&M instructor in management, took notice the other day of a student who was apparently doing well. His quiz grades were solid, and so was what CourseSmart calls his “engagement index.” But Mr. Guardia also saw something else: that the student had opened his textbook only once.

“It was one of those aha moments,” said Mr. Guardia, who is tracking 70 students in three classes. “Are you really learning if you only open the book the night before the test? I knew I had to reach out to him to discuss his studying habits.”

This from a NY Times article on a ‘new technology’ that allows teachers to track in detail how students are reading the assigned e-textbooks. I’m all for education advances (ebooks instead of paper books is a no-brainer) but there’s a some things problematic with this.

For starters, this kind of intense tracking just shouldn’t have to be part of a teacher’s workload, unless they’re dealing with very young children. The function of an educator should be to provide environments, direction and motivation that facilitate a culture of self-starting education — not spoon feed students at every step. Maybe in a future where educators aren’t stretched so thin tracking like this might be more feasible.

Hillary Torres, a senior, is a good student with a low engagement index, probably because she is taking notes into a computer file not being tracked. This could be a problem; she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, whose local chapter is advised by Mr. Guardia. “If he looks and sees, ‘Hillary is not really reading as much as I thought,’ does that give him a negative image of me?” she wondered. “His opinion really matters. Maybe I need to change my study habits.”

The “engagement index” is a metric used by the system to (somehow) rate the student’s reading of the texts. The comments section of the article, unsurprisingly, was full of indignation and outrage at this. Who cares about process? Results are what matter! This is a shortsighted symptom of the prevalent results-based education philosophy, in my view. The whole education system — including the results — is really part of the process.

The main problem with the CourseSmart system isn’t that it’s too much trouble for educators and too intrusive into the learning process, it’s that it’s not in-depth enough. Until there’s a much more comprehensive and reliable way of incorporating different learning styles and techniques into it, it’s only going to lead to misplaced confidence in the abilities and “engagement” of some students, and unhelpful pressure to adapt on those who learn differently.