Home > Uncategorized > We DO Want and Value Student Engagement… But Do We REALLY Want High-Tech Headbands

We DO Want and Value Student Engagement… But Do We REALLY Want High-Tech Headbands

November 14, 2017

On the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words, I encourage you to look at the picture that tops this post from EDSurge before reading my reaction. The picture of children in white uniforms wearing electronic headbands with beaming smiles looks like something illustrating a Kurt Vonnegut short story about Diana Moon Glompers, the Handicapper General… and the explanation of the apparatus these “happy children” are wearing is even more chilling. Here are the opening paragraphs from Sydney Johnson’s post:

If Blade Runner had a classroom scene, it might look something like the promotional video by BrainCo, Inc. Students sit at desks wearing electronic headbands that report EEG data back to a teacher’s dashboard, and that information purports to measure students’ attention levels. The video’snarrator explains: “School administrators can use big data analysis to determine when students are better able to concentrate.”

BrainCo just scored $15 million in venture funding from Chinese investors, and has welcomed a prominent Harvard education dean, who will serve as an adviser. The company says it has a working prototype and is in conversations with a Long Island school to pilot the headset.

The headband raises questions from neuroscientists and psychologists, who say little evidence exists to support what the device-and-dashboard combination aims to do. It also raises legal questions, like what BrainCo will do with students’ biometric data.

BrainCo has some big ideas. The company’s CEO has said that BrainCo aims to develop a tool that can translate thoughts directly into text, or “brain typing.” To support that work, the company plans to use data collected from students using its headsets to compile “the world’s largest brainwave database.”

Theodore Zanto, a professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco, had two words when he first read through the company’s website: “Holy shit.”

Holy shit indeed! As one who can type fairly fast but can think even faster, I confess I am intrigued by the idea of “brain typing”… but as one who worked in public education for decades I also confess to having deep misgivings over the notion that children in a Long Island school district are serving as guinea pigs for an experiment for a company called “BrainCo”… a company that we learn later in the article is funded by Chinese investors!

But BrainCo has bigger ideas than “brain typing”. Read on:

“Our goal with the first 20,000 devices, each of which will be used by multiple students in schools, is to capture data from 1.2 million people,” (BrainCo CEO) Han said in the interview. “This will enable us to use artificial intelligence on what will be the world’s largest database to improve our algorithms for things like attention and emotion detection.”

In the closing paragraphs of the post, titled “Blurry Vision”, Ms. Johnson summarizes about one major issue BrainCo needs to address– privacy:

(James) Ryan, the company’s adviser and Harvard’s dean of education, is aware that BrainCo wants to pilot Focus EDU on students. But as for any data and privacy protections underway at the company, he says “I don’t know, I haven’t had a conversation with Max [Newlon] about it.”

Meanwhile, BrainCo’s CEO did not respond when asked in an email about the lack of privacy regulations in place. And when EdSurge asked to try out one of the Focus EDU headsets, BrainCo also declined.

The wild ambition of selling brain-reading headbands to schools—which are charged with protecting students—seems to raise a range of concerns, including deeply philosophical ones. How far should schools go to “train” students?

We’re about to enter an era of driverless cars and robots are already assuming more and more jobs and responsibilities that were formerly restricted to live human beings. How far DO we want to travel down the road of brain mapping? And if we DO travel down the road, will we all be wearing white uniforms and wearing headbands?

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