Perusall unnerves students

Big Brother is teaching you

You’re being watched while you study. Every letter that you read is being tracked. It sounds creepy, but in many courses, it’s the reality.
By Puck Swarte / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Illustration Kalle Wolters

What is Perusall?

Perusall is a digital platform that students can log on to through Nestor. The system is meant to improve students’ critical and close readings skills.

Every week, lecturers offer materials to read. Students are tasked with making notes: they analyse the text, or ask questions about things that are unclear to them. The system then uses algorithms to judge the substance and structure of the notes and grades them.

Students can also upvote each other’s notes, like on Facebook.

Anonymous studying is a thing of the past. Online platform Perusall sees everything you do: when you prepare for a course, how long it takes you to read a text, and even the parts you have trouble with. Teachers are working hard to ensure that their students are better prepared. But the system tracks almost everything the students do, and this unnerves the heck out of them.

‘It provides us with really interesting insights. Perusall shows us which part of the texts students take the longest on. It immediately shows you which parts they find most difficult’, says media studies lecturers Rik Smit, who has been using the system for a while. But, he does admit that ‘the system is a bit Big Brother-y.’

Perusall is currently being used for no fewer than sixty courses, mainly at the arts faculty. Every week, lecturers make their texts available online. Students can put remarks in the text to indicate when they have trouble with something or to start a discussion with fellow students. They can also judge each other’s notes.

In the meantime, the system determines the quality of the remarks, tracks what students spend most of their time on, and what’s worse: whether students spend enough time preparing. Lecturers automatically receive a confusion report so they can discuss the obstacles.


‘I just feel so watched’, says media studies student Daphne Douwes. ‘I tend to leave things until the absolute last moment. And they can see all that? I think it’s a little creepy.’

On top of that, she doesn’t like reading from a screen. ‘You can’t zoom in, so it’s not pleasant at all. And because of copyright, we’re not allowed to print the texts either.’

Marit de Jong, also enrolled in media studies, doesn’t like the system either. ‘Two weeks ago we had to log in to Perusall to read a text about how new technologies negatively affected our reading abilities; reading from a screen apparently meant we wouldn’t absorb as much of the text. It was so ironic that I laughed out loud. But it kind of pissed me off, to be honest.’

She also gets distracted all the time when she uses Perusall. ‘There are so many buttons to click, and parts of the text are highlighted whenever someone makes notes. And because we use Perusall in our browser, it’s really easy to go to Facebook or somewhere else instead.’

Oh shit! Perusall is still active

Marit doesn’t get why lecturers can see how long it takes her to read a text. ‘Why do they need to know all that? How fast or slow I read a text doesn’t even mean anything. Now, when I spend ten minutes doing something else, I’m like: Oh shit! Perusall is still active!’

But the lecturers see many advantages in the system. Researcher of IT and education Koos Winnips feels it’s great that Perusall allows him to see what students get out of a text. ‘If a student makes 42 notes and only two of them get upvoted, that person was just ‘spraying’. They haven’t really figured it out. Lecturers can then have a talk with the student to try and help them.’


Smit is especially enthusiastic about the confusion report. ‘It’s pure gold for teachers. I can see exactly which paragraphs or concepts students have trouble with. So then I can spend a little more time on those during my lecture.’

The program is also really helpful for slightly more timid students. ‘Students who don’t really speak up during class can make their voices heard through Perusall. They’re usually the ones who write the best notes.’

Perusall was introduced by professor of European culture and literature Pablo Valdivia, approximately a year ago. ‘Lecturers used to get frustrated because students had almost never done the reading. And most students didn’t really understand the concept of critical reading. Perusall is a great program. Students have read the work properly beforehand, and there is much more room to have a discussion in class.’


Valdivia laughs at the criticism. ‘It’s funny because they’re just so wrong.’

The system has several options, he says. And it provides information on the marks that students got for their notes. That’s nifty because then the teachers know which of their students need help.

The page view report tells them which parts of the text the students take too long to read. ‘But it’s completely anonymous.’

The ‘active reading time’ that is tracked for each student is only implemented in the beta version, which Valdivia says almost no one uses. ‘There’s nothing to be gotten from that, so we don’t use it.’ He also says that the assertion that students can’t print the texts is wrong.

The idea that it’s a totalitarian system is a strange one

He says the Big Brother stories are urban legends. ‘Every single student I’ve spoken to loved it from day one. One exchange student even said that she would recommend the program to her university back home. So the idea that it’s a totalitarian system used to control students is a strange one. It’s a tool that can help teachers and students improve their work. In one of my classes everyone received higher marks than the year before because they were better prepared for the classes and the exam.’

And some of the students are indeed enthusiastic. Dora Vrhoci, student of European culture and literature, for example: ‘It’s a great way to see other people’s perspective. I’ve also noticed that the discussions during seminars are much better, because everyone is involved. It really creates a kind of community.’

Does she think it’s a totalitarian system? ‘In this day and age, everything is digital.’


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