By Stephanie Simon
DENVER, June 12 (Reuters) - The Bill & Melinda Gates
Foundation, which has poured more than $4 billion into efforts
to transform public education in the U.S., is pushing to develop
an "engagement pedometer." Biometric devices wrapped around the
wrists of students would identify which classroom moments excite
and interest them -- and which fall flat.
The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several
university researchers to begin testing the devices in
middle-school classrooms this fall.
The biometric bracelets, produced by a Massachusetts startup
company, Affectiva Inc, send a small current across the skin and
then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the
sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. The wireless
devices have been used in pilot tests to gauge consumers'
emotional response to advertising.
Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can
become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in
real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out.
Existing measures of student engagement, such as videotaping
classes for expert review or simply asking kids what they liked
in a lesson, "only get us so far," said Debbie Robinson, a
spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation. To truly improve teaching
and learning, she said, "we need universal, valid, reliable and
practical instruments" such as the biosensors.
IS AROUSAL A SIGN OF LEARNING?
Skeptics aren't so sure. They call the technology creepy and
say good teachers already know when their students are engaged.
Plus, they say it's absurd to think spikes in teenagers'
emotional arousal necessarily correspond to learning.
"In high school biology I didn't learn a thing all year, but
boy was I stimulated. The girl who sat next to me was gorgeous.
Just gorgeous," said Arthur Goldstein, a veteran English teacher
in New York City who has long been critical of Gates-funded
The engagement pedometer project fits neatly with the Gates
Foundation's emphasis on mining daily classroom interactions for
data. One of the world's richest philanthropies, the foundation
reflects Microsoft founder Bill Gates' interest in developing
data collection and analysis techniques that can predict which
teachers and teaching styles will be most effective.
The Gates Foundation has spent two years videotaping 20,000
classroom lessons and breaking them down, minute by minute, to
analyze how each teacher presents material and how those
techniques affect student test scores.
The foundation has also asked 100,000 kids around the
country detailed questions about their teachers: Does she give
students time to explain their ideas? Does he summarize the
lesson at the end of class? That data, again, will be correlated
with test scores to try to identify the most effective teaching
The foundation has spent $45 million on such research, under
the umbrella name Measures of Effective Teaching.
The engagement pedometer is not formally part of that
program; the biosensors are intended to give teachers feedback
rather than evaluate their effectiveness, said Robinson, the
Still, if the technology proves reliable, it may in the
future be used to assess teachers, Robinson acknowledged. "It's
hard for one to say what people may, at some point, decide to do
with this," she said.
That alarms some educators who have long been critical of
the Gates Foundation's efforts to boil down effective teaching
to an algorithm.
"They should devote more time to improving the substance of
what is being taught ... and give up all this measurement
mania," said Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York
Ravitch blogged about the biosensor bracelets a few days ago
after a critic of the Gates Foundation flagged the grants on
Twitter. Her posts generated a small storm of angry commentary
online, with some teachers joking that they would have to start
screaming at random intervals or showing the occasional soft
porn film to keep arousal rates among their students
In fact the sensors do not distinguish between fear and
interest, between boredom and relaxation, so researchers plan to
videotape each class that uses the biosensors. That way they can
see what was happening in the classroom at moments of peak
"It could be that the bell rang or that someone sneaked up
behind you," said Shaundra Daily, an assistant professor in the
School of Computing at Clemson University, in South Carolina,
who is setting up the middle-school research.
Clemson received about $500,000 in Gates funding. Another
$620,000 will support an MIT scientist, John Gabrieli, who aims
to develop a scale to measure degrees of student engagement by
comparing biosensor data to functional MRI brain scans (using
college students as subjects). A third grant, for nearly
$280,000, supports research by Ryan Baker, a Columbia University
professor who specializes in mining data about educational
POTENTIAL FOR MISSION CREEP
Daily and others working on the project say it's still far
too early to tell if biosensor bracelets will be effective. But
they can envision many ways to use the technology, which is
sometimes referred to as "galvanic skin response measurement."
Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor
student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to
spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging
points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a
co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.
Educators could also deploy the sensors to test different
approaches: Are ninth-grade algebra students more engaged by an
online lesson, by math-related video games, or by a traditional
teacher lecture at the blackboard?
To Sandi Jacobs, the promise of such technology outweighs
the vague fear that it might be used in the future to punish
teachers who fail to engage their students' Q Sensors.
Any device that helps a teacher identify and meet student
needs "is a good thing," said Jacobs, vice president of the
National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that
receives funding from the Gates Foundation. "We have to be
really open to what technology can bring."
(Editing by Jonathan Weber and Prudence Crowther)
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