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Digital textbooks expose students who aren't reading

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Will the textbook of the future automatically report to teacher? (iStock)

Students able to convince teachers that they did the assigned reading by skimming a few pages before class may soon have to retire those skills.

Teachers at Texas A&M University are among those pioneering the use of digital textbooks that send them data - or "engagement indexes" - about how often students open their books, which pages they read, whether they skipped sections, and if they bothered to highlight important passages.

 A selection of textbooks displayed in a CourseSmart mock-up. (CourseSmart/YouTube) Textbook makers, too, would have access to the numbers and would design future editions with the statistics in mind. "It's Big Brother, sort of, but with a good intent," Tracy Hurley, the dean of Texas A&M, told The New York Times.

The report sent to teachers includes charts and categories like average amount of time spent in a study session, and average number of highlights and notes the students made in that time.

CourseSmart textbooks, which can be read on computers, tablets and smartphones, may not surprise students making their way through school today, but for those who remember dog-eared pages and scribbled notes in the margins, it may be strange to see how closely one's reading habits can now be monitored.

One student in a class using the software remarked that the digital textbooks know more about her than her mother.

Ta-ta traditional textbooks?

Critics of the program say that not everyone learns the same way, and that teachers should be careful not to weigh the index reports too heavily.

Some students claim they take their notes on paper or in separate word documents, for instance, and others say bugs in the software could miscalculate the number of times they opened their books. (Although the company behind the Texas pilot, CourseSmart, denies that there are any glitches.)

Others argue that, conversely, students could flip through the pages while doing something else and otherwise game the system.

'I haven't used a textbook in my teaching for over a decade.'

-- Robert Campbell, UBC-Okanagan
The Texas school is only one institution thinking about whether backpacks of the future will contain heavy hard copies at all.

Robert Campbell, an associate professor at UBC-Okanagan who specializes in Educational Technology, recently spoke to CBC News about what he thinks the next generation of teaching materials will look like.

"I haven't used a textbook in my teaching for over a decade,"he said, adding that traditional textbooks are single-use, single-copy, expensive to transport and quickly outdated.

"More and more [textbooks will] look like webpages. They'll have built-in videos, and movies and photos and maybe even opportunities to go in and share notes with other people who are reading the textbook as well."

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What do you think the textbook of the future should be like? Do you like the idea of teachers monitoring how the materials are used?

Would you have liked to learn from a more interactive, social book?

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