Laudator: Rena Tangens

The BigBrotherAward 2020 in the “Education” category is shared by the BrainCo company and the Science Campus (Wissenschaftscampus) Tübingen.

Do you remember what it was like to be in school? What you learned? Calculations using the rule of proportion or percentages, Latin grammar, the countries of the Earth, photosynthesis …

Were you always alert and attentive? Well?

Didn’t you also learn some rather different lessons, such as spontaneous improvisation when you hadn’t done your homework, composing a poem instead of recapitulating French vocabulary, feigning interest while your thoughts were far away …

Thoughts are free, who can guess them? They fly by like nocturnal shadows. No person can know them, no hunter can shoot them with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! (Original: Die Gedanken sind frei, a well-known German song, lyrics from ca. 1780 or earlier)

Those times are over now! Finally we have means to instantly check whether students in the classroom are paying attention: The FocusEdu headband! It measures students’ brainwaves via EEG, in real time. Finally we can see whether students are concentrating or not, it is literally written on their foreheads. An LED on the headband lights up and shows: blue means relaxed (therefore not attentive), yellow is attentive, red is highly focused. At the same time, attention data is radioed to the teacher’s computer. So even after the class has finished, the teacher can check who was attentive or otherwise. Of course the school management and the parents can take a peek too. Everything is recorded.

That is not science fiction. It is not a joke.
That is our awardee in the “Education” category for the BigBrotherAwards 2020!

It is: the BrainCo company.

BrainCo is a tech startup from the orbit of Harvard University and the MIT1 in the United States. BrainCo makes EEG headbands and the related software and promotes the use of these headbands in the classroom. In their own words:

BrainCo's FocusEDU provides the world's first technology that can quantify real-time student engagement in the classroom.

EEG – electroencephalography – is a technology to register brainwaves. The standard process involves “wet” electrodes that are slapped on one’s scalp using a contact gel. These days there are “dry” measurement methods using polymer electrodes. These won’t mess up the hair and they can easily be integrated into a slick headband. And thus the market has opened.

In Germany so far, BrainCo’s headbands are mostly promoted as a tool for self-optimisation via bio-feedback. But the mass market that is created by the digitalisation of education is what this is really about.2 The claim is that brain analysis can show how attentive someone is. The plan is to introduce this technology to the classroom to drive students towards higher learning performance.

You might be thinking now: Okay, but if a student is not solving a maths problem but working hard on a new rhyme for their hip-hop track, they are fully focused all the same – only on something else. Think again. Because BrainCo does not only register the attention level of an individual, this level is also compared to find whether it rises and falls in sync with everyone else in the class. If not, we will know: This person is thinking about something else. And soon the teacher will appear next to that student – “to help them”.

No escape for young songwriters.
No more chance for thought criminals.

Dear George Orwell, an update for “Thought Crime” is available. Would you like to install it?

How reliably attention measurement using EEG works is actually questionable. It is known from medical uses of EEG that even small movements of facial muscles or eyes can cause artifacts that might distort the results. What will surely work, though, is the conditioning of the students: “I must concentrate really hard, or else I will be caught because everything is recorded.”

This is not learning – that is dressage.
We say that it is digital violence.

Sadly, this surveillance technology is not just a curiosity in the BrainCo research lab, it is being tested in US classrooms already – in a field trial, so to speak. The same thing is happening in China. BrainCo founder Bicheng Han has excellent relations to the People’s Republic. The largest BrainCo investor is China Electronics Corporation, the largest state-owned IT company,3 with branches in Beijing, Shenzhen and Hangzhou. Photos and videos4 from schools in the US and China where the headbands are in use are more than disturbing.

All this would seem just monstrous to us – but far away as well. This could never happen in Germany.

Wrong!

A group of scientists at the University of Tübingen, a traditional university town in South-West Germany, is actively researching this very technology.

And that is our second BigBrotherAwards winner in the “Education” category: The “Leibniz” Science Campus at the University of Tübingen.

Their research project is called “A Cognitive Interface for Educational Improvement: Assessing Students’ Attentional Focus in the Classroom” and it, too, uses EEG.5 Again, the researchers are confident that they will be able to measure attention via EEG.

The Tübingen group takes this one step further: In another project they analyse students for typical patterns of brain activity, which are then fed back to a computer-based learning program. The system recognises overload from tiny changes in brain activity and in the pupils. If a student is overstressed, the program automatically switches back to an easier level.6

For optimal learning, tasks should be demanding, but neither overtaxing nor undertaxing”, [research team leader Peter] Gerjets explains. Our idea is to present learning tasks in such a way that difficulty always stays at an intermediate level.”7

Great. So the dim students can share a room with the mediocre ones and the high-flyers – but no longer interact in a way where they can learn from each other, as everyone is in solitary confinement in front of their computers.

Next to EEG, the researchers in Tübingen utilise another technology: eye tracking, following the eyes’ movements with an infrared camera. This way they can determine what a student has read and what they have overlooked. As the students turn to the next page of the lesson material, they might receive a message: “Hold on – you haven’t read the text in this grey box yet.”

Dear researchers of the Leibniz Science Campus Tübingen: Do you seriously believe that you can raise students to become free and responsible in this way?

This is harrassment. Patronising. It is confining people in mediocrity.

Yes, playing around with technology is fun. Great if you can even secure research grants for it. But it is your duty to consider the wider implications to society.

Why all this focus on focus, anyway? Because it can, at least seemingly, be measured, verified, and controlled. Because you can build rankings from it. Perhaps because conglomerates like Bertelsmann regard learning platforms as the next cash cow with huge potentials for growth.8

Are we about to sacrifice the most important goals of education – learning to learn and growing one’s personality – to an automatically verifiable notion of “performance”?

Thinking back to my school days, I ask myself: What was really important? The answer is: Not the actual subject matter – even though that did give me a good start – it was the personality of those teachers that had passion, courage, and engagement:

Our class teacher, Mr Dedering, who decided on his own that one of his five weekly German lessons would be turned over to Politics. Because he was convinced that young citizens should know how democracy, legislation and the rule of law work. And that opinions must be substantiated and political debate practised. Mr Halle, whose social activism was belittled by us adolescents and earned him the nickname “Cake Dieter” due to the many bazars he organised for schools in Africa. And still he gave many of us the impulse to work for a better world. A big “thank you” for that to my former school, where there was room for personalities – there were the weird and mean, against which we had to learn to assert ourselves, and there were role models for life.

Education is that which remains after one has forgotten everything.

Finally, there is a trend that should make us all think:

Of all people, it is the managers and developers in Silicon Valley companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook et al. who are now sending their children to Montessori and Waldorf schools9 without computers, tablets or smartphones10. In their job, these people work to make people spend as much of their lifetime as possible in front of the computer. For their own children they would prefer for that not to happen.

No, this award speech is not a plea to ban all computers from schools. That is not what we as Digitalcourage want – we love technology! But this speech is a stand against digitalisation as an educational imperative and a panacea. A plea against datafication and permanent surveillance of students, against a dressage using learning software and learning analytics, against degrading the value of the teacher as a human counterpart and against commercialised education.

Will students of the future still come up with something as revolutionary as the theory of relativity, or write powerfully eloquent literature, if they can’t even look out of the window and let their minds wander? Humans need dreamful, creative and erratic thinking in order to come up with something new. We need the independent, the resistant mind, and we need to learn solidarity. We need this as individuals – and our society needs it as well.

Once again, for those taking notes: Habituation of constant surveillance must not become the secret curriculum in schools and universities. The use of EEG and eye tracking in schools is a violation of human dignity.

Don’t do that.

Dear awardees – I hope you were listening attentively, and we say

congratulations on the BigBrotherAward, BrainCo company and Leibniz Science Campus Tübingen!

1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA

2 A former BrainCo employee admits that the EEG measurement are “extremely noisy”, describes the algorithm team as “a mess” and says that BrainCo is “not a tech company” whose only goal is “earning money from Chinese parents”. Source: https://www.indeed.com/cmp/Brainco/reviews/not-a-tech-company-only-care-about-earning-money-from-chinese-parents?id=dec10429e7f1a63f

3 About BrainCo’s finances: https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-10-26-this-company-wants-to-gather-student-brainwave-data-to-measure-engagement

4 Photos in the South China Morning Post: Brainwave-tracking start-up BrainCo in controversy over tests on Chinese schoolchildren, 10 April 2019 https://www.scmp.com/tech/start-ups/article/3005448/brainwave-tracking-start-china-schoolchildren-controversy-working, more photos: https://nextshark.com/brain-reading-headbands-china/ this is the original BrainCo Focus EDU video: https://youtube.com/watch?v=fQ3eW3qQ2pk

5 A Cognitive Interface for Educational Improvement: Assessing Students’ Attentional Focus in the Classroom https://www.wissenschaftscampus-tuebingen.de/www/en/forschung/forschungsbereiche/projekt06/index.html

6 Leibniz-Wissenschaftscampus Tübingen, magazine “Wissensdurst” (“thirst for knowledge”), pages 5 and 13: https://www.wissenschaftscampus-tuebingen.de/@@/downloads/Magazin_Wissensdurst.pdf

7 Magazine “Wissensdurst”, Wissenschaftscampus Tübingen. https://www.wissenschaftscampus-tuebingen.de/@@/downloads/Magazin_Wissensdurst.pdf

8 Bertelsmann: growth area education https://www.bertelsmann.de/unternehmen/strategie/wachstumsplattformen/
(translated quote:) digitalsation facilitates the delivery of high-quality education. The education segment is particularly important within the Bertelsmann growth strategy. Next to the traditional segments of media and services, this will become a third pillar of an international corporate portfolio for strong growth.

9 Tagblatt.ch, 2 April 2019, Adrian Lobe. Bildschirmfrei ist das neue Bio: Warum die Programmierer im Silicon Valley ihre Kinder computerfrei erziehen (translated title: screenless is the new organic: how developers in Silicon Valley raise their children) https://www.tagblatt.ch/leben/bildschirmfrei-ist-das-neue-bio-warum-die-programmierer-im-silicon-valley-ihre-kinder-computerfrei-erziehen-ld.1107643

10 New York Times, 23 October 2011: Grading the Digital School – A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute
https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html

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