This Company Wants to Measure Your Kid’s Brainwaves

New technology lets teachers 'see' in to kids' brains, and that concerns student privacy advocates.
As a teacher at a no-excuses charter school, I handed out demerits to students who appeared to be disengaged. Cues could’ve been bad posture, taking too long to start a worksheet or not making eye contact with me. I had to rely on what I could see to tell whether my students were engaged or not.

But a student’s posture didn’t necessarily tell me how critically he was thinking about the subject matter. Someone sitting upright and making eye contact could be thinking about the Knicks game later that night. Someone looking out the window could be analyzing the subject matter. So how can you really tell if someone is paying attention?

BrainCo, an education technology company based in Boston, says it has a solution: Focus EDU, a headband that allegedly measures brainwaves to gather data about student engagement. Students wear the devices, which send data to a teacher’s electronic dashboard, allowing for real-time feedback. According to a recent Ed Surge report, BrainCo just received $15 million in funding from Chinese investors and are in discussions with a Long Island school district about rolling out the program.

“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 Bicheng Han told EdSurge. “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.”

Focus EDU is just one part of BrainCo overall mission, according to Han.

"We develop artificial intelligence-enabled technology that allows your brain to communicate with electronic devices,” Han told Forbes back in May.

Ethical questions ahead

Technology that would allow the brain to send text to electronic devices is on its way. Facebook and other Silicon Valley actors are already developing this technology for use with apps and social media. But according to Jacob Fay, a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in education ethics, gathering brainwave data in classrooms raises serious ethical questions.

“It seems rather innocuous to measure your heart rate or the number of steps you’re taking, but it seems more intrusive to measure what’s going on in your brain,” said Fay. “That’s where we keep a sense of self and privacy.”

Additionally, Fay said that although we collect biometric data all the time, using devices such such as Fitbits and sensors, we do so by choice.

“If a school requires students to wear this, that gets into much more normatively gray territory,” said Fay.

Although BrainCo said students would have a choice as to whether or not they want to use the technology, and that it wouldn’t be used for disciplinary purposes, it’s unclear how BrainCo would enforce that once a school gains control of the equipment. Could a charter school like the one where I taught give demerits to students based on the data collected?

“Given that there is very little oversight, in charter schools in particular, there’s a good chance it could be used poorly in ways that rouse our ethical radar,” added Fay. 

So does it work?

The ethical debate assumes the devices actually work, and BrainCo has yet to provide conclusive evidence that the technology does what it claims. The headband itself uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure attention.

“EEG works by picking up on the electrical signals coming out of your brain,” a representative from BrainCo told me. “Our device measures the small signals that make their way to your forehead. Based on certain features of this signal like frequency and amplitude, we can detect different cognitive states.”

Although there are studies that show a relationship between EEG and attention, accuracy rates vary based on the inputs of the study. BrainCo acknowledged it is still testing the product and its use in the classroom.

“BrainCo is exploring different ways to improve working efficiency in the classroom and verifying our fundamental concepts,” said the representative. “We’re also working with schools to develop pilot studies.”

Bill Fitzgerald, who taught for 16 years and is now the director of the Privacy Evaluation Initiative at Common Sense Media, said BrainCo needs to make the case that this technology actually works.

“This should not come anywhere near a classroom until they have demonstrated that there’s a valid use of this,” he said.

Privacy matters

Fitzgerald also said BrainCo needs to prove that Focus Edu does not violate issues of privacy.

“This would need to be done through small scale trials with clearly defined opt-in consent. All their data use agreements and all of their informed consent agreements need to be publicly available. This should be paired with the right for any student to opt out of use and for students who have opted in to be able to opt out at any point and demand total deletion of any information that has been collected about them.”

BrainCo acknowledges the privacy concerns.

“Some of the people we have talked to have valid concerns and we’re working hard to make sure they understand what the system can and cannot do,” the BrainCo spokesperson told me. “EEG technology cannot be used to read people’s thoughts. Our product is focused on measuring attention, and we only provide users with information about that metric. Students can choose to use our device or not, to have their data for themselves or share it with their teachers, and they can choose if they want to share their data with us or not. The power is in their hands.”

But even if teachers and schools have good intentions, students who do opt in would be giving BrainCo access to their brainwave data, raising further questions of how the data would be used.     

<p dir="ltr">“A teacher’s best intentions won’t travel outside the classroom,” said Fitzgerald.Brain signals

Brainwave technology could theoretically help teachers determine if students are mastering content. Each student learns differently, and the ability to measure engagement, and eventually specific thoughts or words, could help teachers assess students who struggle with verbal or written communication. In a best case scenario, students might be able to demonstrate proficiency in a subject through their thoughts, and teachers could determine which students are on-task without judging based on physical gestures.

But BrainCo hasn’t specified these uses as goals. In a statement, a company spokesperson cited as inspiration a Bill Gates Ted talk about the importance of giving teachers feedback to help them improve. “The purpose of Focus EDU is to give teachers information on what's working in their classrooms and what they can improve. If you know what kind of teaching increases your students' attention, you can craft your lessons to better serve them. We're also working on ways to use this technology to help students increase their own awareness about their attention level, and improve their attention habits.”

Fay, the educational ethicist at Harvard, said questions of privacy and efficacy need to be answered before technology like Focus EDU is rushed into classrooms.

“Education, in general, thinks technology is the savior and rushes into things in ad hoc ways without considering the normative questions,” he said. “Reading body language is one thing; this is asking teachers to read a child’s brain.”

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