The Biometric “Boredom Bracelet”

September 17th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

The key to educational breakthroughs, or a sinister invasion of privacy?

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The Responsibility Project

This year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $1.1 million to study the effectiveness of a wristband that tracks a student’s level of engagement in the classroom. The bracelet uses the body’s natural electricity to measure levels of excitement; when students are bored or relaxed, their levels go down.

The Washington Post notes that the investment is part of the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching project, which is experimenting with teacher evaluation systems in seven school districts nationwide. The foundation’s investment is split into two grants: one to Clemson University to determine the feasibility of using Galvanic Skin Response bracelets in schools; and the other to the National Center on Time and Learning, to develop a scale that differentiates degrees of engagement, making it theoretically easier to tell if students are bored. 

The idea that biometric bracelets could be used to measure teachers’ effectiveness has raised a red flag for critics like Diane Ravitch, an education expert and Research Professor of Education at New York University. In a recent EdWeek article, Ravitch claims that the research is sinister – and reminiscent of Brave New World. “It suggests the development of a device to snoop into our being. It crosses a line that allows others—whether government officials, researchers, or teachers—to peer into how we feel.
According to Forbes, concerns that the bracelets would be used to measure effectiveness were actually misinformed, due to an error on the Gates’ foundation website. The biometric bracelets were not supposed to measure teachers’ performance, insists Deborah Veney Robinson, the foundation’s senior communications officer. She maintains that the grants are not related to the Measures of Effective Teaching research project, and “will not in any way be used to evaluate teacher performance.” Rather, the bracelets are intended “to help students and teachers gain a better understanding of how and when students are most engaged in the classroom.” 

Regardless of the intent of the wristbands, Louisa Kroll at Forbes points out that the investment is a drop in the bucket for the Gates Foundation, which spent $311 million on education alone in 2010. Gates, she notes, spent the lion’s share of that money on teacher support, so we should be happy that he is “at least trying, even if he makes some controversial decisions along the way.”   

What are your thoughts on biometric bracelets? Do they cross the line, or is controversial research better than none at all?