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Universities to pilot ebook program that monitors student reading habits

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It's difficult to know for certain how much time students spend with their traditional, paper textbooks, but ebooks have opened the door to new tracking capabilities for educators. Three universities — Texas A&M, Rasmussen College, and Villanova University — have teamed with CourseSmart to pilot a program that monitors students as they read through digital textbooks. Professors will be able to dive into specific details of progress: the amount of time students have spent reading, number of pages completed, and even a tally of notes / highlights will all be collected. From there, an "engagement" score could be reached for each student.

As you might expect, the program has been met with a number of privacy concerns. Those involved are quick to point out that students will have the choice of opting out, however. “We do understand the Big Brother aspects of it," said CourseSmart's chief executive Sean Devine in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather, supporters champion the program as a way to better understand whether course materials are having a positive effect.

Not exactly an uncommon trend

Ebook monitoring isn't exactly a new concept. Amazon states flatly in its terms of use that the company mines Kindle devices for similar data. "The [Kindle] Software will also provide Amazon with information related to the Digital Content on your Kindle and Supported Devices and your use of it (such as last page read and content archiving)." But the idea of voluntarily bringing such tracking capabilities to education will likely continue inciting criticism among students and privacy advocates alike. Should the pilot prove successful, the program will become available elsewhere in 2013.