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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Internet of Things Is Coming for Your Children

There's money in them there behaviors.

March 29, 2015

The “Internet of Things” is poised to enter the classroom.

If you are not familiar with the Internet of Things, think of it as your everyday objects networked and optimized. The popular NEST thermostat is a handy example. It logs behaviors, reports those behaviors to a larger infrastructure and receives instructions about heating or cooling the house to maximum efficiency in return, all without any direct human intervention.

This technology is rapidly rolling out in cars and household appliances – like the “smart” refrigerator that knows when you’re low on milk and either reminds you to pick some up while you’re close to a store, or simply orders more through your networked grocery delivery service.

How this will look in schools is found in a recent EdSurge article by Max Meyers, a Deloitte analyst and think tanker.

Meyers argues that something like 30% of the instructional period every day is lost to “interruptions,” or other non-instructional tasks like distributing materials, switching tasks, or taking attendance. Tapping into technology connected to the Internet of Things, he argues, has the potential to eliminate these inefficiencies and allow for more time spent on, “the hard work of teaching, such as differentiating instruction or developing students’ socio-emotional skills.”

Meyers paints a picture of the future:

“As students take their seats, for example, attendance could be logged automatically using a device such as the Nymi, a wearable “smartband” that uses ECG patterns to authenticate identity. A beacon might push a warm-up exercise directly to students’ smart surfaces. Teachers, freed from managing many classroom procedures, now focus more fully on students—and perhaps focus more incisively too. Neurosensors, akin to InteraXon’s Muse, could provide insight into students' cognitive activity using EEG technology that measures brain activity like one might measure a pulse. Identifying which students are expending a higher amount of cognitive energy on an exercise would allow teachers to dedicate attention to students who need it—not just those who ask for help the loudest.”

Some of this sounds like science fiction to me, but I want to examine the least fanciful idea, some kind of auto-attendance device that would eliminate any calling of the roll.

So what happens when we take attendance?

Because I don’t have an attendance policy that punishes absences, I only do it for the first five or six class periods of a given semester as I learn student names. The first class period I make a point of making sure I’m pronouncing everyone’s name correctly and recording any preferred names, i.e. “Rob” for “Robert.”

After that, it’s pretty standard. I say the name, the student says “here,” or “present,” or “yo,” and I briefly make eye contact and I move on to the next name. Once I call the roll and I am able to find the student in the rows before I even say the name, I stop doing it because it doesn’t seem necessary any longer.

But what if taking attendance isn’t just bureaucratic task work, but an act of teaching?

I’m thinking about that moment where the student hears their name, and they sound off, and our shared eye contact, where we acknowledge each other.

Isn’t there something valuable in that exchange, no matter how brief? At the opening of the class, I am connected to that student and they to me. For some of the shyer students, this may be the only time they’re heard all class period.

If anything, this makes me think I should take attendance every day, to make it a more robust practice, rather than treating it as something to get through before the important stuff begins.

The kind of technology Max Meyers envisions is meant to bring greater efficiency to the classroom, but as I have argued many times in this space, efficiency is not a value that should be applied to education absent other considerations like community, or quality, or in the present case, equality. On the surface, perhaps the techno-futurist vision of focused and engaged learners is attractive, but we shouldn’t be so quick to discard the parts of the classroom experience that seem like chaff.

The couple of minutes it takes to pass out that worksheet or transition to the next activity serves as a breather, a clearing of the senses and preparation for what’s next. The student staring into space whose EEG shows low cognitive energy may be daydreaming about what they might do ten years from that moment. That seems like a small price for a little inattention.

Who decided that paying attention is the most important thing a student should be doing, to the point it rules above all else?

And that child who is demanding attention may have a problem other than confusion about the lesson. They may need a different kind of care.

Make no mistake, this technology is not about fostering learning – something which requires an atmosphere of freedom and creativity and even joy – but is instead oriented around control.

Meyers makes this clear with another feature of the technology-optimized classroom: “When it comes to keeping students on task, teachers could send a “haptic” vibration—similar to silent notifications on mobile devices—to a student’s wearable or tablet, redirecting her attention or behavior in a way that limits public embarrassment and reduces direct confrontation.” 

At first, a non-contextual zap from a distance, but is it such a stretch to believe that eventually, when the algorithm senses non-attention, it delivers the correction unbidden? Wouldn’t that be more efficient?

How’s that work for developing students’ “socio-emotional skills?”

And let’s not be dense about which students would be subject to such atmospheres as guinea pigs for the “Ed Tech Internet of Things.” It’s not President Obama’s children at Sidwell Friends or Bill Gates’ at Lakeside School in Seattle who will continue to have teachers that have the time to acknowledge their existences.

Consider how this technology will be used as a rationale to increase class sizes, how money that could be put into people and communities will instead go to corporations selling Holy Grails that never seem to deliver as promised.

People are not products. We are not born so our everyday activities can become engines of profit for corporations[1].

Are we so far gone that we can’t recognize Max Meyers’ vision of the classroom of the future as not an instrument of salvation, but a dystopian nightmare?


[1] Evgeny Morozov calls this the “financialization of the everyday.”




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