Brain-wave sensors: The answer to student engagement?

New technology could help educators monitor student engagement in real time, allowing them to adjust their teaching accordingly

The headsets read the user’s brain-wave signals and run them through an algorithm to measure the student’s attentiveness.

A Florida-based start-up firm called Nervanix is working on an idea that, if successful, could help educators find the “sweet spot” to effective teaching: maintaining active student engagement.

What if you could tell whether students really were engaged in a lesson or activity, rather than just pretending to be interested or going through the motions?

Furthermore, what if you had a tool that could measure a student’s brain-wave activity in order to develop a profile for the type of content that most engages that student? And what if this tool then could suggest specific content to match the student’s engagement profile?

This might sound like science fiction, but it’s entirely possible, Nervanix says—and the company is about to launch a suite of products that will put this concept to the test for K-12 education.

Nervanix was founded by Adam Hall, an entrepreneur who’s no stranger to education. A former investment banker, Hall was the co-founder and CEO of Impact Education for 10 years prior to its acquisition by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2010. Hall then ran HMH’s SkillsTutor division as its president for the next two years, before leaving to pursue his current interest.

He calls the concept behind Nervanix “attention adaptivity,” or the ability to optimize learning by monitoring students’ attention levels—and then interceding or adapting one’s methods when their engagement lags.

This is done with the help of headsets that can measure brain-wave activity.

(Next page: How the technology works)

Nervanix has partnered with a biosensor company called NeuroSky to develop such a headset for the education market. It has the same form factor as any standard headset used for language or reading instruction in schools, except for a single sensor that makes contact with the wearer’s frontal lobe.

The device picks up the user’s brain-wave signals and runs them through an algorithm to measure the student’s attentiveness.

“There’s a signature for brain wave patterns based on what a person is thinking,” Hall explained, “and this signature is unique to each individual.” The software that runs the system thus has to “learn” each user’s signature for engagement—but once this is accomplished, it can reveal how attentive the user is at any given time.

What’s more, just as Lexile scores can measure a student’s reading level, Nervanix’s software can measure the attributes that best lead to engagement for a particular student and can match these attributes to certain learning objects, Hall says—suggesting or prescribing these learning objects as a way to better engage the learner.

Nervanix was the runner-up for most innovative ed-tech product at the Software and Information Industry Association’s Ed-Tech Industry Summit in New York last month. If its technology works as promised, it could help revolutionize instruction.

But first, Nervanix will have to overcome parents’ and educators’ concerns about a technology that monitors students’ brain-wave activity in class.

Hall acknowledged that he has gotten some “pushback” about selling the headsets to schools. A more likely first revenue model, he said, might involve working with publishers to meta-tag their learning objects based on what Hall called the “intelligence behind engagement”—that is, what the software can tell us about the kinds of content that best engage certain types of learners.

Still, by the end of March, Nervanix plans to release an app that—when used in conjunction with the headsets—can help teachers monitor the engagement level of their students in real time.

The app will be able show teachers which of their students are least attentive, so they can provide individual help to the students who need it most.

Around the same time, Nervanix plans to release an application programming interface (API) for makers of educational software, so they can take advantage of the company’s attention data within their products.

If a student’s attention level were to fall below a certain threshold, for instance, a third-party educational software program could adapt automatically—such as by trying a different lesson, or introducing a video or avatar to engage the student’s attention. Or, the software could tap into a database of meta-tagged content to call up a learning object that matches the student’s engagement profile.

This spring, Nervanix will be working with Louisiana’s Calcasieu Parish Schools on a pilot project involving its technology. The ed-tech research firm Interactive Educational Systems Design will conduct a study of the project’s effectiveness.

Sheryl Abshire, chief technology officer for Calcasieu Parish Schools, said that when she heard about Nervanix’s technology, “it immediately piqued my interest.”

Teachers often have to use “a lot of hunches” about what types of content or pedagogies will work best with students, Abshire said. She sees the Nervanix technology as “a way to quantify what engages them.”

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Dennis Pierce

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