Big news about homework: a new technology allows professors to monitor the reading and studying of their students outside of class. Digital tools record what students do on their e-textbooks: how often they open it and to what pages, whether they highlight or not, whether they take notes. It’s called CourseSmart, and it offers a whole new angle of assessment, adding to tests and papers an “engagement index” that measures actual work even when the student is alone in a dorm room at midnight. The New York Times story reports that 3.5 million students already use the technology, and publishers as well as teachers are collecting “reams of data” about student usage. For instance, if they show that students pore carefully over Chapter 3 of Textbook A but skip Chapter 4, we may have a problem with the latter. If a professor finds a close correlation between engagement index and final grades, then an early engagement score can signal problems and provide a teacher the evidence to intervene in a student’s poor performance early in the term. Or, if the teacher finds that engagement indices are low but student grades are high, the grading scale may be too easy.
That might be the real value of this kind of monitoring. If students earned A and B+ grades without doing much homework, then we may assume that in spite of the transcript, not much learning may have taken place. Given the low homework rates for undergraduates (on average, around 13 hours per week), the high grades (note grade inflation data here) a new yardstick for actual engagement with course materials is a welcome corrective. It will intervene not only in delinquent students, but also in slack professors who for one reason or another don’t work their students hard enough or grade them rigorously enough.