Nov 14 2023

How Can Biometrics Be Used in Higher Education Classrooms?

Biometrics can be used in the classroom, but schools must manage the data responsibly.

Biometrics are often associated with identity verification, but this rapidly advancing technology has now found its way into the higher ed classroom. There, it has the potential to bring about a more comprehensive learning experience and help institutions tackle test-taking challenges.

Biometrics as Tools to Enhance Learning Outcomes

Instructors can take advantage of cameras with motion detectors and face recognition to identify when students are not engaged or attentive, adjusting their coursework as necessary or identifying students who are struggling.

Students can also take matters into their own hands. By designing experiments and measuring their own biometric data, students can learn more about “aspects of their own mental and physical processes, such as how various stressors, like noise, affect their stress levels,” says Jo Ann Oravec, professor of IT and supply chain management at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Andrés Ayala Medina, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, explains that biometric technology has multiple uses across all academic departments.

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For example, psychology students learning about stress might gain a deeper understanding of its impact on the body by performing a simple experiment in which a participant is stressed and his or her heart rate, skin conductance and breathing frequency is observed, gathered and analyzed. Biomedical engineering students might develop a brain-computer interface that gathers brainwave data to generate movements in a prosthetic arm that reacts to certain patterns.

From a research perspective, face recognition software could be used in the classroom to identify the cognitive-affective states of students and analyze whether they are optimal for learning. And student-athletes can measure their biometric data to help reach peak performance.

Biometric Data Must Be Handled with Care

Cheating detection is another popular use of biometrics, but such software also collects and analyzes intimate types of student biodata, including retinal activity, facial expressions, keystroke patterns, sweat gland activity, eye movement and neuroelectric patterns. Cheating-detection data is often collected by third parties or “outsourcers.” So, the handling of that data might be out of the immediate control of the higher ed institutions involved, which means that contracts with outsourcers should be very specific about show this data is handled.

“The data collected here needs to be treated with care, so that the schools involved are legally compliant with state and federal laws, as well as ethically proper,” Oravec says.

Medina adds that “data anonymization processes and proper data storage become must-haves. In most cases, if there is adequate data anonymization, regular informed consent methods can be implemented to harness and analyze data.”

LEARN MORE: AI has arrived in higher education. Now what?

The Use of Biometric Data Raises Privacy and Ethics Concerns

Because many commonly available biometric devices are not yet controlled by the Food and Drug Administration or other medical regulators, “the field still has a dangerous, Wild West quality,” Oravec says. It is therefore critical that when there is a decision to invest in biometrics devices, faculty members are given proper instruction and guidance on data management and safe databases.

Medina says that teachers and students working with biometrics should use the technology only “for learning purposes in a proper way, with a clear academic objective regarding use. Researchers that aim to run experiments and publish their results in academic literature must obtain clearance from the ethics committee within their institution.”

The world is watching as those in in higher ed settings apply biometric technologies.

“What happens in higher education is very important,” Oravec says. “Universities and colleges help establish the social standards for the future as they provide examples to students of ethical functioning. If students feel helpless as their intimate biometrics are being captured by systems they do not understand, dystopian scenarios emerge that are closer to the nightmares of science fiction than to a properly functioning and humane institution.”

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