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Understanding the Implications of Using Perusall Social Reading Platform

As faculty and instructors are considering how their classrooms will function this fall, the library wants to encourage the teaching community to approach new tools and technologies critically. Some social reading platforms that are gaining popularity with post-secondary instructors have hidden risks and downsides that we want you to be aware of.

One of these tools is Perusall, a platform that can be integrated into CourseLink to facilitate student engagement. Instructors can upload course materials to Perusall and students can annotate readings and asynchronously respond to questions and comments. Instructors can assess student comprehension through their annotations and their reading history. Perusall also acts as a bookstore, selling students access to textbooks from all major publishers, and thereby aggregate the textbook, course readings, and the instructor’s teaching materials all in one place.

While Perusall may have some appealing properties, it also presents some significant drawbacks with respect to copyright, student surveillance, and data collection. As such, the library recommends that instructors consider other less problematic options for use in the classroom.

Perusall encourages instructors to upload their course materials to its platform as an alternative to using course reserves, but unlike course reserves, Perusall does not contain any copyright management provisions. In fact, Perusall’s terms of use make it clear that any liability for copyright infringement rests with the individual uploading the content. This may result in serious legal repercussions for instructors who may be unaware of the copyright status of the materials they are uploading. Other sites that encourage faculty and instructors to upload content openly (such as Academia.edu or ResearchGate) operate under the same model – and by virtue of using such sites, instructors are implicitly agreeing to accept this liability.

By using Ares (the library’s course reserve system) an instructor can ensure that all course materials are compliant with the University’s copyright policies and licensing agreements, and that any required copyright permissions are sought and paid for, without having to be concerned about personal liability. Furthermore, the staff who process course reserves ensure that all materials posted in Ares are accessible to students with perceptual disabilities. As course materials in Perusall cannot be downloaded or printed, students who prefer not to read from a screen will find the platform limiting. Even students who pay Perusall a premium for perpetual access to a textbook are not permitted to save the text or transfer it to another platform.

Perusall also raises issues with respect to student surveillance. Significant amounts of student data are collected with concerning implications for student privacy. For example, Perusall’s website indicates that the platform tracks student usage of textbooks and other resources and suggests grades to instructors based on the data collected. Having an algorithm replace instructor expertise when it comes to the assessment of student learning is arguably not in the best interest of students or instructors. Even though instructors have the ability to turn off this feature, it central to Perusall’s assessment model and is likely to be adopted by many instructors.  Perusall’s model also makes student evaluation and assessment contingent on their participation in the platform, even though this comes at a cost.

Perusall is just one example of a problematic trend on campus and within higher education more generally. When instructors design their course so that an e-textbook or access to a third-party platform is required for participation and/or assessment, students are put in the position of having to spend money in exchange for grades. Regardless of whether this fee is $250 for a commercial textbook or $25 for a TopHat subscription, students who are unable to pay these costs are at a disadvantage in the classroom. This creates a significant equity issue.

What are the alternatives?

  • Use Ares Course Reserves to provide course materials to students. Ares content is copyright-cleared, AODA compliant, and there are no implications for student privacy or data collection.
  • Adopt an open educational resource (OER). OERs are freely available course materials that are openly licensed to allow for re-use and modification.
  • Consider other tools that provide similar social annotation functionality. For recommendations on freely available, institutionally supported tools, contact the Office of Teaching and Learning and Open Learning and Educational Support.