DENVER (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 education reform.
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 styles.
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 Gates spokeswoman.
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.
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