"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Gates Foundation A Little Red In The Face Over GSR Bracelet Study

Ok We Can, But Should We?

On Monday the mainstream press picked up a report put out by Valerie Strauss of The Answer Sheet. Strauss revealed what Susan Ohanian and  Diane Ravitch had learned about a study being funded by the Gates Foundation to measure student and teacher engagement through the use of Galvanic Skin Response bracelets.  Clemson University was awarded a research grant of almost a half million dollars to
work with members of the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team to measure engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers.
This is part of the Gates Foundation  Measuring Effective Teachers project, which is experimenting with teacher evaluation systems in seven school districts nationwide.

The Answer Sheet reported that "Millions of dollars have gone into these evaluation experiments, which, among other things, have involved the use of standardized test scores to assess teacher effectiveness (a bad idea), as well as the questionable videotaping of teachers. And now, bracelets." This is all part of the new craze of neuromarketing, which looks at physiologic responses to determine which stimuli are most effective. Companies can then target their marketing based on these responses. Since we are moving education into the "free" market, I suppose using marketing concepts in education is allowable.

Or maybe it isn't. Apparently people didn't like the idea of collecting subconscious physiologic information from kids. The Gates Foundation was quick to correct The Answer Sheet noting that the study description on their own website was wrong and supplying the corrected text.  The description, they said, should have been,
Purpose: to conduct a pilot study to measure student engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets, which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices more broadly to help students and teachers. 
Well, that is SO much better.  It was the part about using it regularly that was the big problem. This solves everything.

It is important to note that there was a separate study funded by Gates, to be carried out by the National Center for Time and Learning "to measure engagement physiologically with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Galvanic Skin Response to determine correlations between each measure and develop a scale that differentiates different degrees or levels of engagement."

These two studies are clearly linked, and part of a larger plan to use technology to solve problems (and make money).

The Plan

Step One: Using basic biologic science research funded by the government, identify science that could be developed into a commercial application. (check)

Step Two: Incentivize human pilot projects to collect data to support overall product package. Pay people if necessary to be monitored to supply data and tie it to a good sounding cause, like education.  (check)

Step Three: Quantify the results into what appears to be an objective measurement scale. (check)

Step Four: Using the cause as leverage, get the technology and measurement system implemented into policy.

Step Five: Monetize the system and begin collecting revenue.

All of this is readily possible and could move some balls down the field. People who have bought into the idea that our education system is complete junk will grasp at anything that promises to fix it, especially a product that seems based in science which looks like it can't be fooled. How do you control your galvanic skin responses to fool the test? Teaching styles will be tweaked to maximize the GSR which should yield improved learning.

But as Valerie Strauss pointed out, the study faces many design challenges, like determining exactly which stimuli produced the response. Maybe it was something out the window that the child liked, not the teacher's discussion of the Pythagorean theorem, that caused his skin to glow. With ready money from the Gates Foundation hanging out there for school districts who want to adopt this system on a "regular basis," will such niggling problems be overlooked in the pursuit of a quick and supposedly quantifiable solution?

The idea of stuyding human physiology in search of a market application has the potential to be huge for Gates. He just happens to be applying it to education in these two grants. But he is not stopping there.

GeekWire reported recently "on a newly-surfaced Microsoft patent application for 'Targeting Advertisements Based on Emotion', which describes how information gleaned from Kinects, webcams, online games, IMs, email, searches, webpage content, and browsers could be used to build an 'Emotional State Database' of individuals' emotions over time for advertisers to tap into. From the patent application: 'Weight-loss product advertisers may not want their advertisement to appear to users that are very happy. Because, a person that is really happy, is less likely to purchase a self-investment product that leverages on his or her shortcomings. But a really happy person may purchase electronic products or vacation packages. No club or party advertisers want to appear when the user is sad or crying. When the user is emotionally sad, advertisements about club parties would not be appropriate and may seem annoying or negative to the user. Online help or technical support advertisers want their advertisements to appear when the user is demonstrating a confused or frustrated emotional state.'"

Technology is advancing exponentially. We can already manipulate kids into doing all sorts of things, because they lack the life experience to know when they are being manipulated. But when we use what we know about the human body, its autonomic functions (stimulus/response), its physical limitations (neurotransmitting speed), to start manipulating adults into doing things, without being upfront about the fact that we are manipulating them, have we crossed a moral line? The temptation is great because such a scheme will be very efficient and effective. In some ways it will make things so much easier. However, before we reach that point, shouldn't we start asking if we SHOULD develop and use this technology? When we are reduced to an analysis of our various biologic systems which can then be manipulated at will to produce someone else's desired outcome, what becomes of our soul? 


  1. "Since we are moving education into the "free" market, I suppose using marketing concepts in education is allowable."

    If you are forced to attend, pay, purchase and comply with what you're told, there's no market involved - free or otherwise. And while there's a lesson to be learned from this scenario, it should be that Education and Freedom are the furthest things from their minds - and they are hoping them to be the furthest things from your mind as well.

    1. I wish there was a tongue in cheek font or emoticon I could have put on that sentence!

  2. Two things: Gates foundation doesn't operate on or use government funding for research. The Researchers are allowed to keep there IP rights if they were declared before the funding process. So, Microsoft may not benefit more than other companies from the technology.

  3. I didn't say Gates uses government funding, but that his projects use information from basic research (e.g. cellular physiology) that is typically funded by NIH because it doesn't have immediate commercial value. Because such research is publicly funded, the results are also publicly available for anyone to expound upon. There is nothing wrong or unusual about Gates doing this. In fact, most of those researchers hope that their research ultimately leads to something useful for mankind. My point was more to show that we are funding research that by itself is innocuous but which could be used and down the line turned into something that we find morally wrong. It is where Gates goes with that knowledge that is problematic.

  4. In fact, the point of the article is that everything Gates does it totally legal, and by most standards, common business practice. There is nothing in the basic capitalist model that asks businesses to question whether they Should do something just because they can. It is up to the consumers to ask the question, "Should I buy this product? What are the consequences of my having this?" Since here the consumer is the school, they are the ones who need to be asking this question.

  5. If Gates would like to fund some private schooling start up ventures, and trumpet as a Feature of them "Hey! We monitor the level of attentivness of your child in class, and adjust accordingly, ensuring the most bang for your buck! In fact, we can even help you monitor their time out of school!", I'd have no problem with that.

    I don't know that I'd send my child to one of those schools, but others would have the choice to.

    That doesn't exist with their involvemnet in public schools, and no, slapping "Charter!" on the name of the school, while it is still following guidlines, rules, procedures and receiving funding from the govt, doesn't make it private, or in any legitimate way, a part of the free market.

    "Should I buy this product?" is not a question that parents are able to ask. Short of pulling their kids out of school, they've no choice at all.

    Public schools, which are controlled by agencies far outside of and away from the public being served, are bad enough. Corporate involvement with those who are in power and who are mandating what will be taught and how, is Educational suicide.


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