Future of Learning

Mind blown: Is a brain-wave reading, Gucci-designed headband coming to a classroom near you?

A device in use during the ordinary school day can “read” each student’s brain waves in real-time.

No more guesswork about whether a student’s droopy eyes are a result of boredom. Teachers can use science to determine the individual needs of each student – and adapt lessons accordingly – by way of a device lodged in a headband worn by students. It monitors activity in the brain, to measure whether a student is engaged during a lesson. Supporters of this type of technology say the information would allow a teacher to make real-time adjustments in the classroom. Teachers might find students are more receptive – and attentive – when the information is presented with another method of instruction.

It might sound like sci-fi movie, or an innovation still 10 years away from reality, but it’s real and it’s right now.

Nish Sonwalkar, chair of the professional development at the MIT Club of Boston and CEO of a company called intellADAPT, created a working model, and he predicts that it’s two or three years away from use in classrooms. The cost of this brain-wave-reading headband is about a few hundred dollars, which puts it in the price range of a cheap laptop. And, for students who want a bit of pizazz on their brain-reading headband, Sonwalkar described plans for a Gucci-designed headband, which presumably would have a price tag in line with a luxury item.

High-tech headgear was the most mind-boggling classroom technology mentioned last week at the first-ever adaptive learning summit hosted by the National Education Initiative. When Sonwalkar described the headbands during a panel discussion, it brought a few chuckles, and gasps, from the crowd. Suffice it to say, most of the day’s conversation focused on topics that are far less controversial than devices to provide teachers with real-time monitoring of students’ brains.

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In fact, one of the most frequent points raised in the debate at the summit was rudimentary: This room full of leaders in adaptive learning couldn’t agree on how to define adaptive learning.

Generally speaking, adaptive learning means using technology that provides a mechanism for adapting lessons to fit the individual needs of each student in a classroom. Seems simple enough, but it gets blurrier upon closer inspection. Some say that true adaptive learning must adjust in real time to the needs of the students. Others say it’s a way for students to speed through courses at their own pace. And on and on. People quibble about the details.

Some of the more interesting, and illuminating, remarks came from panelists who were able to speak about their programs without relying on sentences studded by zingy buzzwords.

Douglas Walcerz, vice president of planning, research and assessment at Essex County College in New Jersey, described a program to help students with low math skills. The goal: prepare students to pass algebra, a common stumbling block for many at community colleges like his. He shared how the school uses a computer program that adjusts to the level and pace. Students can pass more than one level of math, and if they aren’t done by the end of the semester, they can continue where they left off. In other words, they don’t have to start again from square one and repeat material they’ve already mastered. Another part of the program isn’t high-tech. It’s a seminar that teaches students skills they need to be successful in school, such as how much to study for an exam and how to ask for help when they are falling behind.

Solving those problems is the ultimate goal, advocates of this technology say. And some supporters can explain the promise of adaptive learning in language that even the late education philosopher John Dewey would recognize.

“We need to teach children to think for themselves,” said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the CEO of DreamBox Learning.

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This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about blended learning.


Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo is the senior engagement editor and a writer. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic's online edition, Mind/Shift,… See Archive

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