Psychological surveillance and psycho-informatics in the classroom

Ben Williamson


Psychology has long played a role in education by providing the expert knowledge and survey instruments required to monitor students’ attitudes, dispositions and habits of mind. Today, though, psychology is coming to play an increasingly prevalent role in schools through intertwined developments in digital technology and education policy. New technologies of psychological surveillance, affective computing, and big data-driven psycho-informatics are being developed to conduct new forms of mood-monitoring and psychological experimentation within the classroom, supported by policy agendas that emphasize the emotional aspects of schooling.

A significant emerging area of education policy development focuses on the measurement and management of students’ ‘social-emotional learning.’ A number of related terms and psychological concepts have been used to describe social-emotional learning, such as non-cognitive learning, non-academic learning, character development, personal qualities, self-control, resilience, growth mindsets, mindfulness and grit. In the US an influential report entitled ‘Promoting Grit, Tenacity and Perseverance’ was published in 2013 by the Department of Education, followed in 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law requiring all states to collect information on at least one ‘non-cognitive’ or ‘non-academic’ aspect of learning.

Major international organizations have begun to promote the development and measurement of social and emotional skills, particularly through technological means. The World Economic Forum published its report ‘New Vision for Education: Fostering Social and Emotional Learning through Technology’ in 2016. Likewise, the international organization the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has established its Education and Social Progress project to develop specific measurement instruments for social and emotional skills and ‘better understand how school-aged children’s skills progressively develop overtime through investments from families, schools and communities.’ The project is intended to generate evidence about children’s emotional lives ‘for policy-makers, school administrators, practitioners and parents to help children achieve their full potential, improve their life prospects and contribute to societal progress.’

As a result of such developments, it has been suggested (controversially) that instruments to measure social-emotional learning, including national standardized tests, could even become new accountability mechanisms, used to judge schools’ performance in how effectively they have developed students’ non-academic personal qualities.

In a new article just published in Learning, Media and Technology, I have argued that the emerging social-emotional policy agenda is being introduced into schools indirectly through popular classroom apps such as ClassDojo. ClassDojo is a free mobile app that allows teachers to award ‘positive points’ for individual children’s behaviour and participation in the classroom. According to its website, by 2016 it was being used by over 3 million teachers and 35 million children in 180 countries, primarily in elementary and primary schools, with the stated aim to create happier students and develop qualities such as character, perseverance and grit.

In that respect, ClassDojo reinforces emerging governmental ambitions around the measurement and modification of children’s social and emotional learning in schools. It enacts these ambitions by facilitating psychological surveillance, that is, by requiring teachers to monitor and collect student data that relate to new measurable psychological concepts such as character development, growth mindsets and  other personal qualities.

The developers of ClassDojo claim they have been inspired by prominent psychologists such as Angela Duckworth, director of The Character Lab which aims to ‘advance the science and practice of character development’; James Heckman, the behavioural economist best known for his work on the economic benefits of ‘investing in the early and equal development of human potential’; and Carol Dweck, the psychologist responsible for the theory of growth mindsets. ClassDojo has even entered into partnership with Carol Dweck, and was strongly supported in the US ‘grit’ report.

ClassDojo therefore demonstrates how emerging policies about promoting and measuring social-emotional learning are being indirectly ushered into schools via new technologies designed to capture information about the non-academic aspects of learning, as defined by contemporary psychological expertise. It represents the introduction of ‘psycho-policies’ into schools. In a study of  governmental adoptions of psychology and behavioural economics in other aspects of public policy, Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn have documented the emergence of state strategies of ‘psycho-compulsion, defined as the imposition of psychological explanations … together with mandatory activities intended to modify beliefs, attitude, disposition or personality.’

In this sense, ClassDojo exemplifies the rise of behavioural psycho-policies in schools that focus on both the surveillance of psychological characteristics and on the design of psycho-compulsion interventions intended to modify behaviours and emotions to meet specific measurable goals, particularly through the imposition of positive emotions and behavioural qualities.

Affective computing
But ClassDojo is just one early sign of much more intensive psychological surveillance in schools that will be enabled by the development of ‘mood-monitoring’ apps and even sophisticated forms of ‘affective computing.’

The World Economic Forum report on using technologies to foster social-emotional skills is indicative of future directions. One of the devices it promotes is the ‘Empathy watch,’ a wearable ‘engagement pedometer’ that can be used to measure students’ affective responses to learning situations. ‘The Embrace watch,’ the report claims, ‘is a wearable device that tracks physiological stress and activity. It can be programmed to vibrate when stress reaches a specific level, giving someone time to switch to a more positive response before stress gets out of control.  Combining the functionality of the Embrace watch with coaching from parents and teachers may further enhance opportunities to build a child’s social and emotional intelligence.’

The WEF report also advocates the use of wearable biometric sensor devices to track physical responses to learning situations, such as fluctuations in stress and emotion, and to ‘provide a minute-by-minute record  of someone’s emotional state, potentially helping to build self-awareness and even empathy, both of which are critical components of social and emotional skills.’

Even more recently, the educational technology site EdSurge has published a piece on ‘emotive computing’ in the classroom. The claims made in the piece are that emotive computing involves teaching computer-based robots ‘to recognize human emotions, based on signals, and then react appropriately based on an evaluation of how the person is feeling. Robots may actually be more useful than humans in this role, as they are not clouded by emotion, instead using intelligent technology to detect hidden responses.’

Some of the technologies profiled include facial recognition systems that use cameras to capture student responses, algorithms to identify their attention levels, and by measuring smiles, frowns and audio to classify student engagement. The article describes new psychological studies that have identified more than 5,000 facial movements to help identify human emotions. These findings are now powering a range of new technical innovations, ‘each using a combination of psychology and data-mining to detect micro expressions and classify human reactions.’

In addition, the EdSurge article profiles a number of innovations in ‘affective computing’ that are being applied to education. These include:

  • Transdermal Optical Imaging, with a camera that is able to measure facial blood flow information and determine student emotions where visual cues are not obvious
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) electrical brain activity tests to measure students’ emotional arousal, task performance and provide computer mediation to individuals
  • Wearable affective technology such as a social-emotional intelligence prosthetic to detect human affects in children in real-time, which uses a small camera and analyzes facial expressions and head movements to infer the cognitive-affective state of the child
  • A glove-like device that maps students’ physiological arousal and measures the wearer’s skin conductivity, to deduce how excited a person it
  • Emotionally intelligent computing systems that can analyze sentiment and respond with appropriate expressions, enabling educators to deliver highly-personalized content that motivates children

As noted in the article, many of these innovations in emotive or affective computing originate in academic R&D settings, though commercial companies are taking them increasingly seriously and seeking to develop new tools to promote in the education technology market.

Real-time emotional feedback
All of these developments are part of ongoing attempts to make ‘real-time mood-monitoring’ and ‘real-time emotional feedback’ devices into key technologies for knowing, measuring, representing and governing human emotions in contemporary societies, as the sociologist William Davies has argued in a brilliant new article. Davies argues that positive emotions have attained a particularly privileged position in recent years, making the science of happiness, well-being indicators and ‘mood-tracking’ critical to contemporary forms of management and public policy.

‘The spread of “smart,” mobile, wearable technologies,’ Davies argues, ‘potentially allows humans to dwell in a purely “real-time” cognitive state (feeling, experiencing, responding and liking) and allowing machines to perform acts of judgment, evaluation and decision-making, at least as an ideal.’ Such forms of ‘affective capture,’ he suggests, represent new ways of ‘valuing’ the emotions, where the emotions become the object of assessment and judgment, and from there the targeted object of modification. Real-time mood-tracking devices are intended ‘to achieve a form of emotional augmentation,’ to ‘transform it’ and ‘render that emotion preferable in some way (be it more positive, more acceptable, simpler etc.), turning it into a different emotion.’

As Davies notes, psychological scales and categories pertaining to the measurement of emotions, such as the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), are integral to how many mood-monitoring devices operate. When wearable mood-monitoring devices are used for political purposes, such as in education and other areas of public policy, psychological scales can be used to define politically preferable forms of emotional conduct, and to impose interventions if individuals’ emotions are deemed to be at a negative deficit. In the process, students’ emotions would be changed to become more preferable, positive and acceptable.

Psycho-informatics in school
The forms of affective capture, mood-tracking and emotional augmentation and modification via psychological categories documented by Davies are indicative of future directions in the digitization and datafication of social-emotional learning. As both the WEF and EdSurge documents show, the alleged potential of new forms of affective computing in education is to data mine students according to psychological signals detected from the skin, face and brain. The capture and assessment of affective data can then be used to inform interventions that are ideally intended to impose socially desirable forms of positive affect on students, as defined by psychological expertise and legitimized by policy documents from both national governments and international policy influencers such as the OECD and WEF. In this way, affective computing does not just data-mine the emotions from body signals via psychological categories, but ideally attaches new emotional ways of being and conducting oneself to the body of the student.

The combination of real-time data mining with psychological experimentation is now even inspiring a new psychological subdiscipline of ‘psycho-informatics,’ which has been presented as an epochal shift in the science of psychological measurement. Psycho-informatics, it has been claimed, is ‘about to induce the single biggest methodological shift since the beginning of psychology or psychiatry. … Indeed, transferring techniques from computer science to psychiatry and psychology is about to establish Psycho-Informatics, an entire research direction of its own.’ Based on ‘the vision of a transparent human,’  psychological experimentation in psycho-informatics makes use of wearable sensors that can track movements and smartphones to trace online activities, and then deploys data mining and machine learning in order to detect, characterize and classify behavioural patterns and trends as they change over time.

The term psycho-informatics accurately captures current ambitions to apply psychology, data-mining and affective computing to the measurement and assessment of students’ social-emotional learning. It could become a key technique of government, allowing students’ emotions to be data-mined and assessed in real-time for the purposes of continuous, automated school performance measurement.

ClassDojo is prototypical of how wearable mood monitoring devices and psychological surveillance apps inspired by psycho-informatics might roll out to schools. New psycho-informatic techniques are being designed to enact and enforce new social-emotional learning policies and practices of affective measurement that value certain politically preferred forms of emotional conduct in classrooms. Psycho-informatics could become a key technique of psycho-compulsion by which schools can promote the student behaviours according to which they may in future be measured and governed. Even more technically advanced forms of psycho-informatic mood-tracking and affective computing devices driven by psychological insights into the emotional aspects of learning—and how to detect affect from the body—could become increasingly in-demand as social-emotional learning policy makes positive affect and psychological compulsion into key policy priorities, and even potentially into accountability mechanisms by which schools may be measured, assessed and judged.

Image credit: Scott Brown
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1 Response to Psychological surveillance and psycho-informatics in the classroom

  1. codeinfig says:

    Well if you can put these yokes on the kids, it should be no trouble to get them on workers in developing/other nations/Amazon warehouses.

    Ever see the Yes Men stunt that convinced a room full of CEOs to strap similar monitoring equipment to all their workers, and then let the operator “feel” what the workers were experiencing in their bodies? Creepiest article Ive ever read on WordPress– Thanks for the warning!

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