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Why Chinese educators are using 'dystopian' brainwave-detecting headbands on students

China is testing electronic monitoring of students' attention levels.

Photo credit: WANG ZHAO / Contributor
  • Schools are experimenting with students wearing EEG headbands as a means to monitor how well they're paying attention.
  • The headbands are a product of a U.S company, BrainCo.
  • The hope is that such monitoring will help students learn and teachers teach more effectively.


It would be great if school were always fascinating and compelling, especially to young minds dutifully at their desks day after day, month after month. Alas, it's not so. What would childhood schools days have been without windows through which we could gaze at the sky, at cars, dog-walkers, and really anything at all other than the teacher and the blackboard, or today's equivalent, smartboards?

Educators in China are having none of that, apparently. They are experimenting, it's being reported by SupChina, with "dystopian" headbands that allow them to monitor how well each of their students is paying attention.

Testing, testing...

The headbands the Chinese are trying out actually come from America, from Boston startup BrainCo. The trackers are a product called the FocusEDU, and were developed in association with Harvard Center of Brain Science. It's based on an algorithm from NASA.

The Chinese are checking out the headbands in Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. Another school in Jinhua, in the same province, has previously given them a shot. BrainCo says that in January, it completed a 21-day trial involving 10,000 Chinese students. (The company is also working with schools in Mexico, Spain, and Brazil.) A distribution deal in China has already been arranged for 20,000 headsets.

The company says the January trials resulted in better grades, though there's no independent confirmation of that, and no scholarly studies have yet been done to confirm the claim. The neuroscience community would no doubt require such evidence before getting onboard with the headbands.

The company envisions sharing their database of brain activity with research entities down the road. The more customers they get for their product, the larger the database, of course.

How the headbands can help

In a headbanded classroom, a teacher can ostensibly track an individual student's attention level via an attention-level report that shows what's going on in their brain. This can identify students who need extra help remaining engaged. BrainCo envisions these reports also being used by the students themselves as a way of assessing their own attentiveness during lessons.

The system also provides metrics on the entire class' aggregated attention level to the instructor, who can then fine-tune the curriculum to more effectively resonate with learners.

Finally, school administrators can use "big-data analysis" to learn more about how and when their student populations learn best, and modify schedules accordingly. They can also derive teaching best practices from the data to strengthen the connection teachers make with their students.

What the headbands detect

As with the adult version of Focus depicted here, FocusEDU headbands use electroencephalography (EEG) technology to monitor each wearer's brain.

In terms of downside, some students reportedly find the headband uncomfortably restrictive, and the devices' presence adds an additional layer of competitiveness and pressure to the classroom experience — teachers in the tests announce the top three most attentive students at the end of each class.

The kids are too young to be concerned about personal privacy, but it seems likely their parents and privacy advocates would have some interesting thoughts.

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