Teaching Profession Opinion

Wiring our Students with Galvanic Response Bracelets?

By Anthony Cody — June 10, 2012 3 min read
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“We are technocrats,” Bill Gates recently stated. What do technocrats believe and do? They think that technology and science provide the answers for the problems we face. Our educational system is today being rewired by technocrats such as Gates, with the active cooperation of the Department of Education, which uses laws such as No Child Left Behind to coerce states, districts and schools to cooperate with their systems.

What might the future look like in this technologically driven education system?

Teachers and students may be fitted with Galvanic Response Bracelets, which are described this way:

The Affectiva Q Sensor is a wearable, wireless biosensor that measures emotional arousal via skin conductance, a form of electrodermal activity that grows higher during states such as excitement, attention or anxiety and lower during states such as boredom or relaxation.

As Diane Ravitch and Leonie Haimson reported, Researchers at Clemson University have received a grant from the Gates Foundation for the following:

Purpose: to work with members of the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team to measure engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers.
Amount: $498,055

Yet another, even larger grant, went to the National Center on Time and Learning,

to measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response to determine correlations between each measure and develop a scale that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement.

The Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching Project has been experimenting with placing video cameras in classrooms for purposes of teacher evaluation. Currently the cameras are there only four times a year, for specific lessons. But some people are suggesting cameras be present constantly, like the dashboard cameras on a highway patrol car. MET project leader Tom Kane said “That right now for us is a bridge too far.” But just as the creation of VAM systems for teacher evaluations led to those scores being published in newspapers, this is one cat that may be hard to keep in a bag. What do you teachers have to hide, anyway?

We also learned this week of a Texas school district’s plan to require middle and high school students to carry ID tags with trackable radio frequency chips in them. We must keep the children safe!

I do not share the faith Bill Gates and his foundation place in the capacity of technology to transform all aspects of education. There are, of course, marvelous ways technology can be used to allow students to communicate and create, and allow teachers to work with students in all sorts of new ways. But at the heart of learning is the connection and transmission of ideas, emotions, empathy and information between human beings. The wonderful thing about having human beings as teachers is that we are naturally empathetic. We do not need galvanic skin sensors to detect when our students are drowsy or disinterested -- we can look around the room in an instant and know! We need to honor and enhance this human capacity, rather than seek mechanical devices that clumsily attempt to replicate it.

Videotaping lessons is not without value - and can be a useful way to reflect on our practice. But the idea of using cameras to monitor instruction over the course of the year, especially when combined with an increasingly rigid and specific set of instructional and curricular guidelines, is frightening. If teacher evaluation is about us reflecting and learning about how we can better reach all our students, it is a wonderful thing. If it becomes an exercise in constantly monitoring instruction to ensure compliance with district mandates, it is a dagger in the heart of good teaching.

These systems have a way of growing on their own accord, especially when companies that produce them lobby heavily for their adoption. The Gates Foundation ought to consider the limitations and potential dangers of technology, as well as the potential benefits. As the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park remarks, "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

What do you think about the development of Galvanic Skin Response Bracelets, and other technologies being advanced by the Gates Foundation and others?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.