University research will evaluate physical data to gauge teacher effectiveness

GSR technology could give an advantage to 'tyrannical' teachers, Ravitch says.

A student’s physical reaction to a classroom lesson soon could be used to judge how successful—or unsuccessful—an educator is in keeping students engaged.

Researchers and Clemson University received a nearly $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in November to study Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets, which house sensors that measure a student’s physical reaction to learning—such as increased sweating—and uses the data as a way to grade an educator’s performance.

Wireless sensors produce readouts showing whether students are alert, anxious, bored, or excited in the classroom, and as Clemson researchers determine the reliability of this experimental technological gauge, many in education are skeptical of the GSR bracelets as a mainstream classroom tool.

The Clemson research will “determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers,” according to a Gates Foundation announcement.

The foundation in 2011 also awarded more than $620,000 to the National Center on Time and Learning for evaluation into how GSR bracelets can measure and develop student engagement.

The student reactions recorded on the bracelets’ sensors could be added to a host of more traditional teacher evaluation methods such as test grades, administrator observations, and student surveys, wrote Diane Ravitch, a research professor at New York University and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education.

Depending on the GSR readouts could mean that an educator who maintains a classroom full of excited and anxious students would be rewarded for keeping kids engaged. That, Ravitch wrote, would give a distinct edge to “tyrannical teachers” who “inspire anxiety by keeping students in constant fear.”

“The idea that this powerful foundation is setting in motion a means of measuring physiological responses to teachers is deeply disturbing,” Ravitch wrote in a blog post. “The act of teaching is complex. It involves art, science, and craft. Learning is far more than can be measured by a GRS bracelet.”

Education officials and privacy rights groups said any technology designed to measure and record students’ emotional and physical reactions would meet stiff opposition from parents and others wary of intrusiveness school technology.

“It’s unclear … just how you’re going to read the average teenager who is thinking of many different things, going through adolescence, worrying about a bad hair or skin day, and be able to say that the teacher is good or bad,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based digital rights organization. “I know I would absolutely object to anyone outfitting me with a device that purported to measure my emotional state, for both privacy and dignity reasons. After all, if it were valid, I’d be disclosing information about whether I’m anxious or depressed or whatever. Why would I do that?”

GSR is used in the burgeoning field of neuromarketing, which relies on biometric data to tell advertisers how consumers are reacting to internet ads, for instance. GSR bracelets would allow marketers to better understand shoppers’ emotional and physical reactions to advertisements, and how those ads can be altered to persuade people to click on a web ad.

Susan Ohanian, a longtime educator and a fellow at the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University, said school districts should think twice before adopting neuromarketing technology used by some of the country’s largest corporations, including Google and Frito-Lay.

Adoption of GSR bracelets in education, Ohanian said, is an invitation down the futuristic dystopian rabbit hole.

“Maybe the next step is for the bracelet to zap them with electric current when their attention wanders,” she wrote in a blog post.  “And then the next generation will be the Galvanic Skin Response bracelet on every teacher—to zap her when she veers from the Common Core curriculum.”

Objective measurements for teacher performance has become a centerpiece of school improvement, Ravitch wrote, but using funding from large nonprofits to develop GSR bracelet use in university labs won’t be greeted kindly by many in education.

“Yes, there is a line that separates educationally sound ideas from crackpot theories,” she wrote. “Yes, there is reason to be concerned about the degree of wisdom—or lack thereof—that informs the decisions of the world’s richest and most powerful foundations.

“And yes,” Ravitch continued, “we must worry about what part of our humanity is inviolable, what part of our humanity cannot be invaded by snoopers, what part of our humanity is off-limits to those who wish to quantify our experience and use it for their own purposes, be it marketing or teacher evaluation.”

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Denny Carter

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