Non-engaged studentsWhile just about every educator would agree that highly engaged students learn more than bored, distracted students, there’s been little effort to measure engagement. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has begun to change that with a $500K grant to Clemson University. The project will,

…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.

GSR is fairly basic as neuromarketing technology goes, but it’s a lot less intrusive than wiring up a classroom full of students with EEG caps.

Don’t Measure Me!

According to Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss, the Foundation changed the project description posted on its website (but not the actual project) in response to concerns that the technology would be used for teacher evaluation.

Presumably, the outcry came from teachers who feel it’s not part of their job to be engaging in the classroom. One hilarious blog post came from teacher Diana Ravitch, who points out,

At any given moment, students may be engaged or disengaged. They may be thinking about what happened at home that morning or a spat with their best friend. They may be worried about their mother’s illness or looking forward to going to the movies. They may be hungry and feeling anxious or they may be hungry and excited about having lunch.

Isn’t that exactly the point of the study? If a teacher can’t keep the students focused under these everyday conditions, that teacher isn’t performing. No teacher will maintain high levels of engagement for all students at all times, but I have no doubt some will do a far better job than others.

Beyond the Classroom

Since I do keynotes and similar speaking gigs, I’m expected to be engaging – even when the audience has reason to be distracted. Ask any professional speaker… Sometimes, you are the first session in the morning after a big party. Sometimes, you are the last thing standing between the audience and lunch or an open-bar reception. Individual distractions abound – people have phones and tablets at their fingertips, beckoning to them with the promise of new emails, texts, or tweets. Even under these conditions, you still have to keep the audience engaged. If you don’t, word will spread and your phone won’t ring.

I get feedback from conference organizers and audience surveys, of course. But, I’ve often thought it would be really useful to have some audience members wired up to produce “brain movies” like those used by Sands Research to analyze commercials (for example, see Darth Vader Wins Super Bowl).

How cool would it be to analyze a preso point by point, second by second, to identify what really lit up the brains of the audience and when their attention flagged? And wouldn’t conference organizers love a tool that provided automated, honest feedback about which speakers put their paying attendees into a coma?

Such automated conference feedback isn’t really practical yet. But, if something as simple as a GSR bracelet turns out to be useful in the classroom, small scale deployment in commercial settings might not be that far off. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for “on a scale of 1 to 10…” ratings and monitoring the body language of the people in front of me.

This project is certainly a baby step in improving classroom education, but it’s an interesting one. Student surveys can also indicate which teachers are more engaging, but may be biased by other factors such as likability, grading, etc. An unpopular, hard-grading teacher might actually hold the attention of students better than those who did well in student surveys. Biometric and other measurements should be able to bypass those factors and see if students are paying attention to what’s going on in the classroom.

I hope the Gates-funded Clemson study produces some interesting results that can be scaled to have a broader impact on the nation’s classrooms – objective metrics are sorely needed in this space.