When College And Technology Don’t Mesh


EdX and CourseSmart products undermine the importance of professors and invade students’ privacy. (Hannah O’Donnell/The Observer)


From Kindles to iPads (and even iPhones), students and educators alike have their favorite pieces of technology that make college life easier. But would you be intrigued by technology that tracks your reading habits for your teachers to see? What about having your papers graded by a machine as opposed to the living, breathing and trusted professors?

I for one am terrified by the prospect. Developers at education software company EdX and nonprofit organization CourseSmart are marketing these products as the next big thing that will advance college education. They argue these programs will be giving people exactly what they want: professors will have help in monitoring their students’ study habits and lighter workloads while students will have the instant gratification of getting a grade as soon as they submit assignments.

But this software (as flashy as it may seem) takes away from some of the most important aspects of the college experience. Making students use digital textbooks that track their reading practices is an invasion of students’ privacy. Also, having skilled human eyes (as opposed to a series of coding) review our work is crucial to students’ development from being laymen to scholars themselves.

Considering there is a host of educators that have strongly criticized this software, we clearly shouldn’t take EdX and CourseSmart’s products seriously. One particularly outspoken critic, Les Perelman, submitted essays into EdX’s grading computers filled with unintelligible text and got almost perfect scores. Another educator, Professor Chris Dede of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education pointed out that students could easily manipulate CourseSmart’s digital textbooks to earn higher grades by randomly highlighting text or jotting notes and even leaving the textbooks open while doing something else.

If a program as basic and as widely used as Microsoft Word can barely tell me which of my sentences are grammatically incorrect or which words I’ve spelled incorrectly, why should I trust any computer software (despite what promoters say) to tell me if I’ve constructed a sound argument on DuBois’ theory of double consciousness? I would much rather have the person who spent decades researching and writing about what I’m studying evaluate my work than a computer that has no insight on my personal strengths or academic interests.

EdX’s digital textbooks may be able to quantify how many pages I’ve read or how many notes I’ve taken. But they can’t literally tell me how much knowledge has been lodged into my brain as a result of it.

One of the things I have enjoyed about my college experience is that it has allowed me to learn on my own terms. That means that when I do my readings and whether or not I take notes is my choice and my business. Why should I suddenly have to have a digital device interfere with that? Plus, once booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon start selling these digital textbooks that would likely mean more price-gouging students would have to battle each semester. It would be unfair to impose more costs on students for unnecessary and inefficient technology.

Paying for college tuition means paying for the hands-on guidance of educators to help students advance their careers and learning experiences. Trying to replace professors with computers eliminates that crucial part of a college education. Besides, even after having graded my work, I could never go back and ask a computer to write me a recommendation letter for a job or for graduate school.

Some may argue that giving professors tools to track students’ reading habits can help professors adjust their course assignments to the needs and capabilities of students. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if professors used digital textbooks to unfairly penalize students for using alternative studying techniques even though they may be competently absorbing the material.

Creating technology to facilitate college life is important but computerized grading systems and digital textbooks are clearly going to create long-term problems for students and should not be implemented in our schools. I am confident I speak for many other college students when I say I prefer to learn in an environment where students are trusted to complete their work rather than be monitored by their professors as they study. Students’ relationships with their professors need to be preserved and seemingly cutting-edge technology can get in the way of that.