The Future Is Now

Biometrics Help Teachers Track Students' Every Move

Sheila Dharmarajan
The Future Is Now
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Biometrics Help Teachers Track Students' Every Move

Students listen up! If you are used to passing notes, tapping out texts or even sneaking in quick conversations when you’re supposed to be working on fractions…beware! Those kinds of activities could be a thing of the past - or at the very least, closely monitored - in the biometric classroom of the future.

On a quiet block in Queens, New York, a young team of engineers is working on a brave new technology for teachers. A biometric classroom that will track students’ eye movements, monitor their conversations or even measure their smiles. SensorStar Labs co-founder and engineer, Sean Montgomery, believes gleaning information like this - or bio-sensing as he refers to it - from students and giving it to teachers will improve classroom learning. The technology is called EngageSense and uses off-the-shelf webcams to gather the biometric inputs. Then, algorithms repackage the raw data into usable information for teachers, thus giving them additional tools to tailor lesson plans and improve student engagement.

“When the student is looking up at the teacher, the teacher score goes up. If she looks down at the computer, the computer score goes up. So we’re tracking facial expressions. If she makes a smile, it might be indicative that is enthusiastic about the topic.”

A former teacher, Montgomery was inspired to create the technology from his own experience of standing in front of a classroom facing a room of students.

“Even a small classroom, like 10 or 15 students, you’re in the fog of war. But if I had a tool that I could look at and [it says], ‘..Maybe you should break to an example,’ experienced teachers can look at that information and understand how they can better reach more students more effectively."

Bio..huh?

Biometrics, is the science of analyzing data from the human body - phenomena like heartbeats, sweat responses, and even brain waves. One of the most well-known applications of biometrics is polygraphs, popularly referred to as lie detector tests. During a polygraph, biometrics such as blood pressure, pulse, and even sweat responses are measured while the subject is asked and answers a series of questions. The theory behind the polygraph is that a falsehood will produce physiological response that differs from the truth.

[Related: The biometrics boom]

Beyond detecting lies, researchers are now looking at a range of applications when it comes to biometrics. For example, by measuring how someone physiologically responds to various advertisements, companies can potentially fine-tune their message to have maximum impact.

Meanwhile Just Down The Street…

Queens Paideia School, just down the street from SensorStar Labs, believes technology can help manage its classrooms. Teachers, or learning managers as they are called, wield tablet computers and oversee the individualized learning plan of each student.

[Related: Does More Tech in the Classroom Help Kids Learn?]

The school was founded by Dr. Francis Mechner, a research psychologist who first embraced educational technology in the 1960s. When it comes to the use biometrics in the classroom, Dr. Mechner is cautiously optimistic. “That could be of interest to a classroom teacher I imagine if.. if there were an instrument can deliver such information, and the information is valid and reliable, yes. In our situation, it wouldn’t be applicable because we don’t have teachers lecturing to classrooms of students.”

But Really…In Today’s Age of Privacy Concerns?

Even if educators find the information useful, with today’s heightened scrutiny of privacy boundaries, will parents embrace their children being monitored? “I think privacy is a very serious issue that we need to consider carefully going forward and in the future,” Montgomery said. “But the idea here is that the information is being digested and present[ed]..in a useful way so the teacher can react and respond appropriately.”

Undeterred by the scrutiny that EngageSense is likely to garner from critics, Montgomery believes the use of biometrics in the classroom will be ubiquitous. The technology will debut at the Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science. If it finds acceptance, it could gain striking new perspectives to teachers of the future.

“I think in five years, this is going to be in classrooms.”

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