[This is part 4 of a series on education, student privacy, and technology in the classroom. You can read Part 1 HERE, Part 2 HERE, and Part 3 HERE. Each article builds on the previous ones.]
“Turning massive amounts of personal data about public school students to a private corporation without any public input is profoundly disturbing and irresponsible.”
~Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director
Data-mining is the new gold rush, with student data (which is sometimes referred to as human capital) forming the new mountain for conquest. Classrooms are the new West and grant money is the new pickaxe. Big Money, Big Tech, Big Philanthropies and start-up companies, along with the Big State comprise the ranks of the 21st Century’s “forty-niners.” Regardless of who is doing the mining and the collecting of our human capital – the Big State and its Big Beaurocracy, educational venture capitalists/companies like Knewton and DreamBox, Big Tech companies like Amazon and Google, or “venture philanthropists” like Zuckerberg and Gates with their infamous “schoolhouse commercialization” – this get-rich-quick scheme will inevitably have big consequences for student privacy and for the civilian-to-government, government-to-civilian relationship going forward.
A CASE STUDY: BRAINCO, INC.
The technology: One company among modernity’s forty-niners is BrainCo, Inc. which has created a headband to measure and collect students’ brain waves, or EEG’s. Data collected will then be sent to a teacher dashboard as part of the company’s FocusEDU program. The company purports the technology measures students’ level of attention, and claims that the EEG data collected will help teachers and administrators determine when each student is paying attention during a lesson and/or activity.
China, where the communist regime is always in search of new ways to spy on and, thus, manipulate its citizenry into submission, has ordered 20,000 of these devices. “Our goal with the first 20,000 devices, each of which will be used by multiple students in schools, is to capture data from 1.2 million people,” stated the CEO of BrainCo. “This will enable us to use artificial intelligence on what will be the world’s largest database to improve our algorithms for things like attention and emotion detection.” A school in Long Island is set to roll-out a trial of the headbands this year.
Flaw #1 – science disagrees: As Sandra Loo, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, has stated, there is no evidence supporting the idea of using EEG’s to determine attention level, as EEG data is not sophisticated enough to account for numerous variables, such as neurodiversity, which can result in “misleading assumptions about how an individual student is or what he or she needs” (Edsurge, 2017). Loo, who also directs Pediatric Neuropsychology at UCLA, explained, “Even in resting EEG, there are different subgroups [of brain activity]. It’s not just ADHD; there is variability in normal kids.”
Theodore Zanto, who directs OCSF’s neuroscience program, shares Loo’s concerns regarding the inaccuracy of BrainCo’s claim of using headbands to measure attention. “I haven’t seen any data indicating you can dissociate [in an EEG scan] if someone is paying attention to the teacher or their phone or just their own internal thoughts and daydreaming.” The students wearing the headbands “might be incredibly focused, but focused on the wrong thing, and you could get the same EEG measures.” It is also not uncommon, according to Johns Hopkins, for normal children between the ages of 4 to 14 to experience “absence seizures.” This could result in a faulty indication of inattention by BrainCo’s headband-generated data.
BrainCo, Inc. has been designated by the FDA as an Institutional Review Board (IRB) organization, giving the company permission, according to FDA rules, “to review and monitor biomedical research involving human subjects.” However, an FDA legal “assurance,” which requires the research subject’s consent, is only required for products currently regulated by the FDA and funded, in full or in part, by the Department of Health and Human Services. To date, no medical trial on BrainCo’s headbands has been conducted.
Flaw #2 – student privacy: BrainCo’s headbands are merely a single example of how the line between educational, bio-medical, and psycho-medical information is being increasingly blurred. How much of your medical information should be shared with your teacher or your school? When I taught, I certainly would not have considered accessing or viewing a student’s brain waves to be an appropriate or ethical activity. Nor would I have been comfortable strapping EEG recording headbands onto my Kindergarteners. Whereas a student’s food allergies are important to know, accessing his/her brain waves appears, for me, to cross the line of student privacy. While unethical, teachers who object to such unethical breaches of student privacy may possibly find themselves punished, according to a recent article at Missouri Education Watchdog.
There are presently no privacy policies listed on the company’s website. In addition, BrainCo, Inc. will not rule out the use of student EEG data for other purposes and, according to research scientist Max Newlon, the company intends to “use [headset] data for a number of different things.” “The hope is when we have this really big database, we will do some analysis that others haven’t been able to do yet,” Newlon added. Emily Tabatabai, a privacy lawyer, explained that, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), “a provider needs to have procedures in place to address the collection of data, the deletion of data, how it will be used and shared.” Newlon has indicated that the company’s privacy policies are still being “ironed out.” Unfortunately, the matter of student privacy was muddied significantly after the Obama Department of Education gutted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in 2011. In addition, there is still no word on whether, or not, BrainCo, Inc. will need to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws due to the medical nature of the data collected.
Flaw # 3 – time and training: Teachers and administrators are not medical practitioners and, thus, are unable to read or interpret EEG’s. In addition, there is frankly little, if any, time available to be devoted to analyzing brain waves for the said purpose of ascertaining each student’s attention level, which would then need to be retroactively synchronized with the teacher’s lesson to determine precise point at which the student’s attention decreased. As Max Newlon, a research scientist at BrainCo. has already acknowledged, “Teachers have an innate ability to know when their students are engaged…” This begs the question of what, then, would be the benefit of using BrainCo’s headbands?
The true agenda: As reported by Forbes, BrainCo, Inc.’s CEO stated that the company’s goal is to develop a “brain typing” tool, translating thoughts into text. The headbands, then, serve as EEG data collectors, sending large amounts of data to what the CEO hopes will be “the world’s largest brain wave database,” explaining that, “this will enable us [BrainCo, Inc.] to use artificial intelligence on what will be the world’s largest database to improve our algorithms for things like attention and emotion detection.” Thus, just as with far too many of the money-making “education” schemes, all supposedly designed to “assist teachers” and “improve learning,” the main agenda is quite different than what is marketed to the schools.
“I believe that data is the new oil.”
~Ajay Banga, president and CEO of MasterCard
(speaking Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh)
OTHER EXAMPLES OF BIG DATA TECHNOLOGY IN SCHOOLS:
Project EMAR, your “friendly” classroom robot: A $1 million grant was recently awarded to the University of Washington to develop and then deploy a robot named “EMAR” (Ecological Momentary Assessment Robot) which will collect data on high schoolers’ “mental health data in a public high school setting” including students’ “real-time stress and mood data,” according to the official document. In addition, EMAR is intended to contribute to the future development of omnipresent “social robots” serving as data-collectors. “The results of this project will be disseminated widely,” [emphasis mine].
“Smart” tutoring programs employing biomedical sensors: Computer science and psychology professor Sidney D’Mello enthusiastically stated, “Now, you can get a reasonable proxy of a student’s heart rate from a webcam.” Welcome to the world of biometrics, which Edutopia defines as the use of technology to “recognize humans based on specific physical or behavioral traits.” Students’ biomedical data collected via biometric technology may include “physical traits such as facial expression, heart rate, skin moisture and even odor” which “can be used to create detailed reports of student understanding and performance.” Biomedical information also includes, for example, “behavioral signs such as typing rhythm, gait and voice.”
Enter “Intelligent Tutoring Systems,” where private thoughts, emotions, and even how much a student perspires is prime gold to be mined. An article in Education Week illustrates the Big Data dreamers’ determination to violate long-established educational ethics and student privacy. The article shines a light on the ways in which technology is facilitating “new efforts to dramatically expand the types of data collected in the classroom and to focus more attention on responding to individual students’ ‘mindsets,’ non-cognitive skills, and emotional states.” Operating under the guise of “personalized learning experiences,” new forms of technology in the classroom are actively involved in the collection of data on students’ “individual emotions, cognitive processes, ‘mindsets,’ and character and personality traits.”
A 2013, Education Department report, entitled Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century describes “four parallel streams of affective sensors” already in use in government-funded tutoring programs. The devices include a facial recognition camera which is synced to software that “extracts geometric properties on faces,” and is used to “detect emotion and capture facial expressions.” There is also a “posture analysis seat” and “pressure mouse.” Finally, the report describes a “wireless skin conductance sensor” strapped to students’ wrists. According to the report, the sensors collect “physiological response data from biofeedback apparatus that measures blood volume, pulse, and galvanic skin response to examine student frustration” (Blumenfeld & Newman, p. 216, 2014). Just imagine the possibilities, had this technology been available to the Cheka!
A few more examples of biometric technology:
- “It simply takes a picture of the iris, which is unique to every individual,” wrote the Polk County, Florida 2013 school board’s “senior director of support services” in a letter to parents. “With this program, we will be able to identify when and where a student gets on the bus, when they arrive at their school location, when and what bus the student boards and disembarks in the afternoon. This is an effort to further enhance the safety of our students. The EyeSwipe-Nano is an ideal replacement for the card based system since your child will not have to be responsible for carrying an identification card.” (The New American)
- Since 2007, under the guise of improving school lunchtime procedures, more and more states are implementing in-school fingerprinting.
- Radio-frequency identification devices (RFID’s) for “student tagging” have become more common. These devices especially allow schools to track students on and off school grounds. A San Antonio student was suspended from school in 2013, for refusing to carry the school-issued RFID card. Later that year, she lost her lawsuit against the school for the suspension.
WHAT DATA IS BEING COLLECTED?
“Just think George Orwell, and take it to the nth degree. We’re in an environment of surveillance, essentially. It will be an extraordinarily rich data set of your life.” Those were the words of Joel Reidenberg, director of the Center on Law & Information Policy at Fordham Law School, responding to Rep. Glenn Grothman’s (of Wisconsin) request to “provide a summary of all the information collected by the time a student reaches graduate school,” in 2015. He wasn’t kidding! As an article in the New York Times put it, “The collection of student data is out of control.”
Obama administration Department of Education’s bureaucratic gutting of FERPA, which took effect in 2012, made it legal for information about you and your children to be shared with “stakeholders” without your consent. The Department of Education’s National Education Technology Plan defines stakeholders, by stating “stakeholders include leaders; teachers, faculty, and other educators; researchers; policymakers; funders; technology developers; community members and organizations; and learners and their families.” Tragically, most parents are unaware of how widely their children’s personally identifiable information (PII) is share, nor just how immense the scope of data is that is constantly being collected. While the federal government is currently banned from creating a database for the compilation of student data, there is no such prohibition on states or private entities.
Below is a list of data often collected (and permanently stored) at the state and private level:
- Medical information and juvenile court records (which, when shared directly by the school, does not have to meet HIPAA regulations or legal requirements for juvenile protections typically ensured by the courts), and other juvenile, adult, and family information (data) which is collected via various state agencies/departments, such as child services, the health department, and the department of corrections (Washington Post)
- Demographics, disability status and diagnosis, housing status, as well as “student detentions, letters of apology, demerits, warnings, counseling, suspension and expulsion records, whether the student was involved in an incident that involved weapons, whether he or she was arrested, whether there was a court hearing and what the judicial outcome and punishment was, including incarceration” (Washington Post)
- Affective data (non-cognitive), defined as “a state linked to ‘neurobiology, psychophysiology, and consciousness,’” including response to stimuli, habits, actions, response time, “smiles or frowns, changes in pupil dilation, eye-movement tracking, heart rate” and emotions (in order to learn how to regulate and alter a student’s affect) (The New American); motivation and mindset (2017 National Education Technology Plan)
- “political affiliations or beliefs of the student or parent; mental and psychological problems of the student or the student’s family, sex behavior or attitudes; illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior; critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships; legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers; religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent; or income,” in addition to Social Security Number, date of birth, parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, and place of birth (The New American)
- Teacher observation on said student, teacher feedback for said student, student equity, scores, summative assessments, and data collected electronically through technological learning tools (2017 National Education Technology Plan)
SO WHAT? WHO CARES? WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL?
The collection of immeasurable amounts of data on individuals is a very big deal, and it creates a variety of risks for both individual citizens, as well as for groups of citizens. A discussion of these risks is warranted. However, for the sake of brevity, I will discuss the topic of risks at length in a following article. For now, I encourage you to learn which data points your state collects, as well as the data-sharing policy(ies) in place. I also encourage you to submit a request to view your own data and that of your child (without charge), which is highly recommended since erroneous information has been attached to individual citizens in the past (see the example of father John Eppolito). Also, keep in mind the 5 principles of student privacy when investigating and evaluating your state’s policies: transparency, no commercial uses, security protections, parental/student rights, and enforcement. Lastly, talk with your child’s school about any possible pilot programs that will be taking place in your child’s classroom, such as BrainCo’s “headbands”, as well as whether or not your may opt your child out of that pilot.