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College instructors feel frustrated when students don’t do the reading. We understand. Faculty want their students to succeed. There are few teaching experiences more awkward than questioning students about a reading assignment only to be met with silence.

Yet a silent class — whether online or face-to-face — may not indicate lack of engagement or comprehension. It may reflect a lack of trust.

Pandemic-era teaching has revived debate about print versus digital reading. Whether students read from a book or screen, we know this about how they read: It’s social. Students are asked to annotate together, post to forums and reply to peers.

So-called social reading is thriving. Digital texts are increasingly accessible across devices. As technologies change, so do reading habits. Students are no longer reading privately in class. Rather, texts are gathering places for back-and-forth dialogue as students share with peers. And evidence suggests that social reading helps students learn, encourages collaboration and is perceived as a valuable addition to coursework.

Yet as practice shifts, instructor expectations — and technical innovations — can conflict with students’ expectations for their learning. An engaging technology-aided activity guided by an instructor might feel like an invasion of privacy for students hesitant to make private thoughts public. An instructor encouraging open-mindedness can make students feel like they’re being watched. An over-reliance on technology assessing participation can make students feel like homework compliance is valued more highly than comprehension and the substance of their responses.

As reported in The Georgetown Voice, students may distrust social reading technologies that give “professors access to the amount of time a student spends on a reading and how many of the assigned pages they’ve viewed.”

To avoid these disconnects, we believe instructors should promote what we call “socially responsible social reading.”

To advance socially responsible social reading, instructors and administrators must adopt technologies with care.

The “socially responsible” aspect rests, in part, with companies that design social reading technologies. Vendors pitch easy solutions to teaching challenges, like that silent classroom. Social reading technologies are touted as quick fixes to promote engagement and compel students to “do” the reading. Salespeople foster a belief that precise metrics — time on task, pages read, annotations written and how frequently a document is opened — will enable instructors to confirm that their students are engaging with their texts and peers.

But such metrics are misleading because students read in many different ways. For some, reading is neither visual nor silent, as certain reading technologies assume. Reading might mean listening to an audiobook or using a text-to-speech application. Texts may require conversion into another file format or into braille. Some readers, regardless of disability, may want to download readings into file formats compatible with use on a mobile device. Other readers may simply take more or less time with a reading. For multilingual learners, reading is also translation. Relying too heavily on one-size-fits-all metrics could reinforce student and instructor assumptions alike about “good” reading and “acceptable” behavior.

Also, while instructors may envision an ideal social reading activity, not all students may be able to equally participate. Indeed, technologies used for social reading are often not designed for diverse student needs.

To advance socially responsible social reading, instructors and administrators must adopt technologies with care. It is up to those who purchase and use these products to be mindful of unanticipated impacts.

Thus, we contend that educational technologies, from publisher-provided textbook platforms to default learning management system discussion forums, risk making social reading more about compliance and less about learning. Further, these systems can reinforce assumptions that reading is always silent and visual.

We caution against the use of analytics as blunt measures of student reading. Analytics do provide shorthand information about some student behavior. However, these indicators are insufficient proxies for engagement, much less learning. Teaching with social reading doesn’t mean peering over students’ shoulders. Rather, teaching with social reading should help students share and connect.

How can social reading benefit student learning and reduce unintended surveillance?

Socially responsible social reading will require intentional investments, partnerships and practices. It begins by investing in people, most especially the adjunct and contingent instructors who teach the bulk of course credits on many campuses. Institutions must incentivize instructors to pursue professional development and partner with centers for teaching and learning. Instructors should receive material and policy support to experiment with new technology, share insights, reflect on challenges and improve teaching.

For example, one approach to social reading that we find promising is social annotation. Social annotation technologies enable students to mark-up shared texts with communal highlights, notes and media. Over a decade of research about social annotation in higher education demonstrates that students who share digital comments with peers construct new knowledge, engage diverse viewpoints and build vibrant learning communities. When practiced with care, social annotation sparks productive social reading.

Socially responsible social reading also entails partnering with students to encourage beneficial social reading. Students should be directly involved in campus conversations and decision-making about social reading technologies. Within courses, instructors should elicit student questions about social reading and craft supportive responses to any concerns. Social reading can make peer engagement more accessible for students underserved by “real-time” discussions, while also helping students build academic skills for future courses.

Fostering socially responsible social reading will be a continued and ongoing need. Informed technology adoption, thoughtful institutional investment, supportive policies and faculty professional development are needed, especially as online learning grows and increasingly features social reading practices.

We must make choices that benefit learners and their well-being — wherever, whenever and however students choose to read.

Jenae Cohn is director of Academic Technology at California State University, Sacramento and author of “Skim, Dive, Surface: Teaching Digital Reading” (West Virginia University Press). Remi Kalir is associate professor of Learning, Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver and is lead author of “Annotation” (The MIT Press).

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