Babysitting College Kids Just Got Easier

New technology lets professors know when students have been bad.

Ask any Penn student holed away in the bowels of the library this week for finals: There’s nothing quite as anxiety-inducing, in student life, as the fear of being unprepared. I still remember it. Listening to neighboring pencils scratch through pop quizzes while I sat there, shaking my knee and gnawing at my fingers like the answer to number four was surely written somewhere under this cuticle.

Or worse, the in-class discussion shame. You’d be thumbing aimlessly through the pages of Milton, maybe nodding your head in oblivious agreement for effect, and suddenly, like a “slacker flare” had shot toward the front of the room, you’d hear a cool command: “Thoughts, Annie?”

The shame paralyzed the room. “Uh … well, I guess … I mean, I sort of took this as, like, Milton kind of implying, like …” (I’ve blacked the rest of this trauma out).

On some campuses, though, those nerves are soon to be a thing of the past. CourseSmart e-books are a new technology out of Silicon Valley that allows professors to track a student’s reading progress: If you only cracked your history textbook the night before the exam, Professor will now know about it. He’ll also know if you opened the book but didn’t underline some crucial thematic passage. And you’ll know he knows.

A New York Times article about the new software cites a professor at Texas A&M, one of the campuses where CourseSmart is launching. A student was doing very well in class, acing quizzes and such, but once the professor examined the CourseSmart “metric,” he knew he had to intervene: “’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.’”

The last time I had someone monitoring my study habits was in middle school, when I had my parents signing off on reading schedules, and initialing bad algebra grades. It makes sense that adults teach you study habits as a kid. They also teach you the importance of deodorant and flossing, and other essential elements of functionality. But when you get to age 18, the thinking goes, you reap what you sow academically. It’s up to you what good comes of those tuition dollars, and it’s the bumps and bruises that come with screwing up that will steer you toward success.

With electronic textbooks that teleport professors’ monitoring eyes straight into dorm rooms, we have to wonder how much ownership students will—or even can—take over their work.

For the record, I am curious about and excited by online education, and was disappointed this past week when Amherst and other academic enclaves waived the opportunity to test-drive new MOOC technologies. They’re an imperfect match for classroom learning, still, but online courses signify a shift in the prescribed, elitist mentality we’ve come to take toward academia over the years. They offer colleges a chance to open their bronze gates to previously excluded communities, acting as a much-needed leveling agent in the world of higher education.

But online education should be a mechanism for expanding, rather than belittling, student ownership of work. As my still-sharp memory of Milton mortification proves, a significant piece of the college experience is that realization that no one is looking out for your in-class dignity but you, and that it is no skin off this professor’s nose if you choose to ignore those $230 worth of renaissance pageantry books.

Besides, even worse than getting a zero on a quiz or called out in class was the sense of watching the rest of the class stampede toward clarity without you. The people around you would scribble some revelatory moment in their notebooks, and you’d still sit there, twirling your hair in the dark. Realizing you want to be part of the discussion is a giant step toward forging your intellectual identity, and one that can’t be taken if students aren’t even allowed to have that self-discovery.

Technology absolutely has a place in the classroom as a means of improving teacher-student communication. Where it definitely doesn’t have a place is in the dorm room, as a babysitter.