An enlightening article by Stephanie Simon of Reuters was just posted. Simon interviewed Gates’ officials and others, and her article fills in the Gates’ rationale that has until now been missing. The article says:

The biometric bracelets, produced by a Massachusetts startup company, Affectiva Inc, send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the sympathetic nervous system responds to stimuli. The wireless devices have been used in pilot tests to gauge consumers’ emotional response to advertising.

Gates officials hope the devices, known as Q Sensors, can become a common classroom tool, enabling teachers to see, in real time, which kids are tuned in and which are zoned out.

Existing measures of student engagement, such as videotaping classes for expert review or simply asking kids what they liked in a lesson, “only get us so far,” said Debbie Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation. To truly improve teaching and learning, she said, “we need universal, valid, reliable and practical instruments” such as the biosensors.

Robinson assures the reporter that the “engagement pedometers” (odd to have a pedometer worn as a bracelet) are not intended to measure teacher effectiveness, at least not now.

The engagement pedometer is not formally part of that program; the biosensors are intended to give teachers feedback rather than evaluate their effectiveness, said Robinson, the Gates spokeswoman.

Still, if the technology proves reliable, it may in the future be used to assess teachers, Robinson acknowledged. “It’s hard for one to say what people may, at some point, decide to do with this,” she said.

Some teachers expressed disdain for the device, but the reporter managed to find someone from a Gates-funded organization to praise it:

To Sandi Jacobs, the promise of such technology outweighs the vague fear that it might be used in the future to punish teachers who fail to engage their students’ Q Sensors.

Any device that helps a teacher identify and meet student needs “is a good thing,” said Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group that receives funding from the Gates Foundation. “We have to be really open to what technology can bring.”

NCTQ, readers may recall, was the subject of an earlier blog here.

ADDENDUM: There must be yet another Gates grant for the “galvanic skin response” research. Until now, I had learned of only two: the Clemson research for nearly half a million; the National Commission on Time and Learning for some $600,000. The Reuters article noted above refers to $1.4 million in grants for this research, which means that some other group of researchers is working on developing the technology to measure student responses to instruction via physiological reactions.