Idea of the day: using e-books to learn about learning tells me that the Kindle is the hottest holiday gift this holiday season.  And not long ago, several law professors had a lively discussion of law e-textbooks on a prominent law blog.  It seems that, ready or not, widespread use of e-textbooks are just around the corner.

To be sure, traditional paper textbooks will not disappear immediately, but e-textbooks will surely gain more popularity as prices for e-readers fall, technologies become perfected, and more publishers make textbooks available electronically.

I must admit that I am not yet enamored by e-readers, and do not own one.  I prefer the texture, the weight, the craftsmanship of real books.  I love certain publishers just because I like the designs of their paperbacks, and a beautiful book cover always sends a little shiver of pleasure down my spine.  To think that a new generation of children will be weaned on a screen and never know the loveliness of paper makes me a bit sad.

Nonetheless, lately I have gotten more excited about the prospect of e-textbooks when I realized that e-readers might be used — indeed, is probably already being used — to track the reading habits of its readers and to generate data and trends.

To average adult readers reading for pleasure, the idea that their reading habits may be meticulously tracked by a machine might seem like an enormous invasion of privacy.  But collecting such data may be indispensable to educators who are trying to understand effective learning behavior.

Most of the data that we collect about education measures the output of the learning process.  We test student knowledge in standardized, nationwide or state-wide exams that are given periodically, and then analyze the test scores generated by these exams to determine how well the learning process has succeeded.  But e-readers and similar devices can generate enormous amount of data about the learning process itself.

What type of data might be collected?  The possibilities are virtually endless.  The e-device might track how much time a student spends per day reading, what he reads, the speed at which he reads, the amount of time he spends reading particular pages, etc.  If, as I believe would inevitably happen, such devices would come equipped with quizzes and problem sets and exams, students can also be tracked based on how long they spend doing a particular problems and, of course, their score.

There is a bonanza of information that researchers could use to study learning behavior.  But the tracking could be used not only for academic purposes, but also as a way for schools and teachers to ensure that students are completing their homework.  Many employers already do a form of this type of tracking by, for example, requiring their employees to take an on-line training program that consists of powerpoint slides with periodical questions to ensure that the content of the slides are being read and understood.

There are a few well-known problems in education that researchers have long puzzled over.  Take, for example, the problem of the racial achievement gap.  Why do children of different races perform differently in standardized exams even when one accounts for other factors, such as socio-economic background?  Elsewhere in this blog, I have argued that we have an unhealthy focus on race, and that other, even wider achievement gaps should trouble us more.  But it is undeniable that the racial achievement gaps exist.  Learning more about children’s learning habits might give us insights into this and other puzzles.

Of course, understanding how students learn is not the only or even the most important goal.  Through better understanding of how people learn, educators can figure out ways to improve the way students learn and the way teachers teach.

Does all of this sound Big Brother-esque?  Perhaps.  But like it or not, retailers, advertisers, and website developers already do very similar things in order to understand and track consumer behavior.  Information about the amount of time a shopper spends on a webpage, the types of links that he clicks, the search criteria that brought him there, are all meticulously tracked and then fed into sophisticated programs.  It is time that our educators take advantage of these tools, for the sake of our students.