Feb 23 2018

Biometric Tech Can Track How Well Students Are Paying Attention

AI software captures students’ physical and behavioral data and alerts them when they aren’t paying attention.

Ever feel like nodding off during a webinar? Well, there’s an app for that, and it’s gaining traction among educators.

Biometrics — technology that captures physical and behavioral data — is being used by several universities to collect data on students’ attention. For example, for its remote learning classes, the Paris School of Business is using software called Nestor to track students’ eye movement and facial expressions through their laptop webcams. Artificial intelligence software analyzes this data and alerts students when their interest starts to fade; it also creates custom quizzes based on students’ attentiveness.

Biometrics could also work in K–12 classrooms. It’s the natural next step in the move toward personalized learning, in which technology tailors information and lessons to fit students’ knowledge and abilities.

Ryan Baker, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Penn Center for Learning Analytics, has been studying the effects of machine-human interaction on education for years.

“Biometrics could be very useful to determine engagement and emotion,” says Baker. “It can help teachers tell when students are shifting from being confused to being frustrated, so they can change tactics. There are a lot of strategies that teachers can use if they know the emotions of students.

Privacy Concerns Create Barriers to K–12 Biometrics

Several issues may keep biometrics out of classrooms, at least in the near future.

For one, there’s controversy about whether gathering personal data on children is ethical or effective. In 2012, a Gates Foundation donation to study a biometric tool caused a backlash among educators, parents and political pundits who considered this type of data collection to be intrusive.

Linnette Attai, president of PlayWell, says that there’s a lot to consider with new technologies that collect data, especially on such a personal level. Her firm helps companies develop technology for young people that is compliant with safety and security concerns.

“If a school is collecting facial recognition data, you have to know how it’s being used by the school as well as by the technology’s provider,” Attai says. “A school might use data to optimize the best times for individual students to study. But it could also use that same data to hold students back who aren’t studying enough.”

Attai recommends that any technology that collects personal data on students should be implemented thoughtfully, and that administrators should establish policies that govern how the data will be used, protected and anonymized if necessary.

Despite this complexity, biometric technology may enter K–12 classrooms in the next five to 10 years. Various research studies have shown the benefits of analyzing the interaction between students and technology, particularly when the technology provides educators with information about students’ emotions.

Baker maintains that if schools can overcome the political and security challenges, students and teachers will benefit.

“The more information we get about students, the more we can support them,” he says.

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