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All in the Wrist: Can a Bracelet Measure Student Engagement?

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has put $1.4 million into the development of an "engagement pedometer," a bracelet intended to measure students' emotional responses to instruction, according to Reuters. The devices, which have been tested to gauge consumers' reactions to advertising, could tell teachers in real-time "which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out." They could also help educators decide what style of instruction—online learning, games, lecture, etc.—best holds students' interest.

The bracelets work by sending a small electric current across the student's skin and measuring "subtle changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli." However, Reuters notes, the devices "do not distinguish between fear and interest, between boredom and relaxation." The Gates Foundation plans to videotape classes using them to determine what was happening at moments of heightened responses.

Skeptics claim teachers know when students are engaged, and that emotional responses do not necessarily correspond to learning. One English teacher and longtime Gates critic said, "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."

There is also some concern the Gates Foundation, which funds the $45 million Measures of Effective Teaching initiative as well, will eventually attempt to incorporate the devices into teacher evaluations. A Gates spokeswoman acknowledged this as a possibility. (The Gates Foundation also helps support coverage of business and innovation in Education Week.)

Some teachers have since joked, Reuters reports, that they would need to "start screaming at random intervals or showing the occasional soft porn film to keep arousal rates among their students sufficiently high."

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