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Microsoft Patents, Biosensor Bracelets and Teacher Effectiveness

by Susan Ohanian

Those Galvanic biosensor bracelets for students are just a small part in Microsoft's plan for tracking human behavior. See their November 2011 patent application below.

The goal for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose driving purpose is to position children as future workers in the Global Economy, seems to be a riff on that popular TV news announcement: It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?

It's 10 a.m. and we know the heart rate, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature movement, facial movements, facial expressions, blood pressure, mood, attention level of every child in America.

Can't you just see helicopter parents signing up to receive the minute-by-minute tracking?

And then the unions will agree that each teacher's biosensory class profile can be used along with standardized test scores to determine whether she's adequate.

And if 92.83% of students aren't registering "high attention" at any given moment, the U. S. Department of Education can send in a drone to take out the teacher who, according to Microsoft metrics, isn't stimulating enough. That will wake the students up for 3.14 minutes.

Of course the bracelets could come with shocks--give the student who registers inattention a little shock to stimulate attention.

Microsoft filed a patent application for this employee-monitoring system in November 2011: ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR MONITORING ANALYSIS AND INFLUENCE.


Approaches are provided for monitoring, analyzing, and influencing organizational behaviors through multi-modal communication systems. Desired and undesired behaviors and applicable organizational contexts are defined and action plans developed. The behaviors are then monitored through communication sessions between members and analyzed for comparison to the action plans such that feedback may be provided at individual and/or organizational levels to influence the behaviors.

I don't want to sound too paranoid here but please note that the patent application says Microsoft wants to influence behavior as well as monitor it.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is relentless in its determination to quantify public schooling. Clifford Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, observed: Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.

A classroom without distraction and daydreaming is a classroom without the possibility of the unexpected, the happy accident that takes learning to a new plane.

The British paper Daily Mail wrote about Microsoft's work on this as a monitoring device for their own employees back in 2008.

Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software capable of monitoring workers' competence and productivity

Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software capable of remotely monitoring a worker's productivity, competence and physical wellbeing, it was revealed today.

A patent application has been filed by the company for a computer system that links workers to their computers via wireless sensors that measure their metabolism.

The system would allow managers to monitor their employees' performance by measuring their body temperature, heart rate, movement, facial expression and blood pressure.

But unions are concerned that employees could be sacked on the basis of the computer's assessment of their physiological state.

It is understood that this is the first time that a company has proposed to develop this big-brother-style software for mainstream workplaces.

Similar monitoring technology has previously been limited to pilots, firefighters and Nasa astronauts.

Microsoft has submitted a patent application in the US for a "unique monitoring system" that could link workers to their computers.

The application states that wireless sensors could read heart rate, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature movement, facial movements, facial expressions and blood pressure.

The system could also "automatically detect frustration or stress in the user" and "offer and provide assistance accordingly."

Physical changes to an employee would be matched to an individual psychological profile based on a worker's weight, age and health.

If the system picked up that the worker had an increased heart rate, or showed facial expressions suggestive of stress or frustration, it would tell management that he needed help.

Civil liberties groups, privacy lawyers and the Information Commissioner have all strongly criticised the potential of the system for "taking the idea of monitoring people at work to a new level."

Hugh Tomlinson QC, an expert on data protection law at Matrix Chambers told The Times: "This system involves intrusion into every single aspect of the lives of the employees. It raises very serious privacy issues."

And Peter Skyte, a national officer for the union Unite, said: "This system takes the idea of monitoring people at work to a new level with a new level of invasiveness but in a very old-fashioned way because it monitors what is going in rather than the results."

The Information Commissioner's Office said: "Imposing this level of intrusion on employees could only be justified in exceptional circumstances."

The US Patent Office has confirmed that the application was published last month - 18 months after being filed. And patent lawyers said that it could be granted within a year.

Microsoft refused to comment on the application, but said: "We have over 7,000 patents worldwide and we are proud of the quality of these patents and the innovations they represent.

"As a general practice, we do not typically comment on pending patent applications because claims made in the application may be modified through the approval process.">

With regards the Reuters article below, it seems pertinent and useful to note that before becoming vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, Sandi Jacobs, who speaks in favor of the biosensor bracelets in the article below, formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Education as a Senior Education Program Specialist for the Reading First and Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration programs. Before that, she was a charter corps member of Teach For America.

Stephen Krashen Comment on article below:
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE: "Ravitch blogged about the biosensor bracelets a few days ago after a critic of the Gates Foundation flagged the grants on Twitter."

The "critic" who broke the story about the biosensor bracelets to the education community is not just a critic of the Gates Foundation. She is Susan Ohanian, and her post appeared on her website, http://www.susanohanian.org. Ohanian has been the voice of teachers in the US for decades, with penetrating discussion of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core, Accelerated Reader and a number of other issues. Her website won the NCTE Orwell award for Distinguished Contribution to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. Her books include Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools (with K. Emery) and What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?

Referring to Ohanian merely as a nameless Gates critic is like referring to Tiger Woods as a professional golfer without mentioning his name.

Biosensors to monitor students' attentiveness

by Stephanie Simon, Reuters

DENVER (Reuters) -- The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured more than $4 billion into efforts to transform public education in the U.S., is pushing to develop an "engagement pedometer." Biometric devices wrapped around the wrists of students would identify which classroom moments excite and interest them -- and which fall flat.

The foundation has given $1.4 million in grants to several university researchers to begin testing the devices in middle-school classrooms this fall.

The biometric bracelets, produced by a Massachusetts startup company, Affectiva Inc, send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. The wireless devices have been used in pilot tests to gauge consumers' emotional response to advertising.

Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out. [emphasis added]

Existing measures of student engagement, such as videotaping classes for expert review or simply asking kids what they liked in a lesson, "only get us so far," said Debbie Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation. To truly improve teaching and learning, she said, "we need universal, valid, reliable and practical instruments" such as the biosensors.


Skeptics aren't so sure. They call the technology creepy and say good teachers already know when their students are engaged. Plus, they say it's absurd to think spikes in teenagers' emotional arousal necessarily correspond to learning.

"In high school biology I didn't learn a thing all year, but boy was I stimulated. The girl who sat next to me was gorgeous. Just gorgeous," said Arthur Goldstein, a veteran English teacher in New York City who has long been critical of Gates-funded education reform.

The engagement pedometer project fits neatly with the Gates Foundation's emphasis on mining daily classroom interactions for data. One of the world's richest philanthropies, the foundation reflects Microsoft founder Bill Gates' interest in developing data collection and analysis techniques that can predict which teachers and teaching styles will be most effective.

The Gates Foundation has spent two years videotaping 20,000 classroom lessons and breaking them down, minute by minute, to analyze how each teacher presents material and how those techniques affect student test scores.

The foundation has also asked 100,000 kids around the country detailed questions about their teachers: Does she give students time to explain their ideas? Does he summarize the lesson at the end of class? That data, again, will be correlated with test scores to try to identify the most effective teaching styles.

The foundation has spent $45 million on such research, under the umbrella name Measures of Effective Teaching.


The engagement pedometer is not formally part of that program; the biosensors are intended to give teachers feedback rather than evaluate their effectiveness, said Robinson, the Gates spokeswoman.

Still, if the technology proves reliable, it may in the future be used to assess teachers, Robinson acknowledged. "It's hard for one to say what people may, at some point, decide to do with this," she said.

That alarms some educators who have long been critical of the Gates Foundation's efforts to boil down effective teaching to an algorithm.

"They should devote more time to improving the substance of what is being taught ... and give up all this measurement mania," said Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University.

Ravitch blogged about the biosensor bracelets a few days ago after a critic of the Gates Foundation flagged the grants on Twitter. Her posts generated a small storm of angry commentary online, with some teachers joking that they would have to start screaming at random intervals or showing the occasional soft porn film to keep arousal rates among their students sufficiently high.

In fact the sensors do not distinguish between fear and interest, between boredom and relaxation, so researchers plan to videotape each class that uses the biosensors. That way they can see what was happening in the classroom at moments of peak engagement.

"It could be that the bell rang or that someone sneaked up behind you," said Shaundra Daily, an assistant professor in the School of Computing at Clemson University, in South Carolina, who is setting up the middle-school research.

Clemson received about $500,000 in Gates funding. Another $620,000 will support an MIT scientist, John Gabrieli, who aims to develop a scale to measure degrees of student engagement by comparing biosensor data to functional MRI brain scans (using college students as subjects). A third grant, for nearly $280,000, supports research by Ryan Baker, a Columbia University professor who specializes in mining data about educational practices.


Daily and others working on the project say it's still far too early to tell if biosensor bracelets will be effective. But they can envision many ways to use the technology, which is sometimes referred to as "galvanic skin response measurement."

Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.

Educators could also deploy the sensors to test different approaches: Are ninth-grade algebra students more engaged by an online lesson, by math-related video games, or by a traditional teacher lecture at the blackboard?

To Sandi Jacobs, the promise of such technology outweighs the vague fear that it might be used in the future to punish teachers who fail to engage their students' Q Sensors.

Any device that helps a teacher identify and meet student needs "is a good thing," said Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that receives funding from the Gates Foundation. "We have to be really open to what technology can bring."

— Susan Ohanian
Microsoft Patent Application




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