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Published October 5, 2014 | Multidisciplinary

Wearable Smarts

Wearable devices have been on people’s minds for a while. From Dick Tracy’s 2-way wrist radio to Geordi La Forge’s VISOR, gadgets have frequently found their way to fictional characters’ bodies.

Recently, the world of consumer technology is abuzz with “smartglasses” made by Google along with “smartwatches” made by Samsung or Apple.

For years, device makers have targeted the human wrist. From activity trackers and heart rate monitors to GPS and sports watches, all sorts of gadgets can now be worn under one’s sleeve.

Many of these devices (like fitbit’s Zip™ wireless activity tracker) are available for sale at prices ranging from $60 to $250. You may think of them as glorified pedometers, allowing for data about physical activity to be transmitted to computers and mobile devices. Some of these devices can also track sleep cycles, even allowing for smart alarms to wake wearers at the most appropriate point during those cycles.

Such developments may appear distant from educational contexts. What if we could appropriate these tools for learning purposes? As strange as it may sound, fitness trackers and other gadgets could be a gateway into innovative approaches to pedagogy.

Self-Driven

The increasing popularity of wearable devices relates to the now common practice of tracking information for health and fitness purposes. Nowadays, people accumulate all sorts of information about themselves such as weight, blood pressure, mood, calories consumed and burnt. Though people can collect a lot of data without the use of dedicated tools, technology has developed in parallel with people’s data collection habits.

Despite risks associated with self-diagnosis (and, worse yet, self-medication), healthcare providers now put lay people in charge of many dimensions of their health. Such changes have deep social implications. Among others, sociologist George Ritzer describes a “prosuming” society, in which passive consumers start taking more active roles in accomplishing tasks typically done by specialists.

What if we could put learners in charge of tracking their own progress?

The Split Self

Apart from pedagogical techniques related to experiential learning or programs to promote students’ health, most work done at our institutions focuses on training minds, not bodies. How about a sound mind in a sound body? We understand new neural connections as an embodiment of learning yet we rarely think about students’ brains as parts of physical bodies. We may talk of training “thinking muscles”, but few of us really think of parallels between gyms and schools.

Beyond their practical use in helping people do more physical exercise, devices used to track health data enable a deep form of self-learning. Monitoring your weight and tracking how many hours you slept may not sound like much. Coupled with metacognitive processes, however, these habits can help learners make sense of their development. Getting students to keep a learning journal could unlock a lot of potential for reflexivity if we frame the process appropriately. Adding data on lifestyle habits to journaling brings new meaning to those activities.

Disruptive Technology?

Many issues surround wearable gadgets, from practical concerns over their cost and reliability to the dangers of letting technology drive pedagogy. Prior experience with technology may give you pause. Gadgets often cause distraction, shifting attention away from the material. When even a technophile like Clay Shirky decides to ban some devices from the classroom, caution sounds like a reasonable option.

Most wearable devices collect data passively. As such, they are less likely to disrupt focus than smartphones, tablets, or laptops. Unlike those other tools, wearable devices have very limited screens, if they have screens at all. Many of these devices rely on smartphones to display information. In this sense, some wearable devices could lead to less distraction than a regular watch.

As these devices are meant to be worn everywhere, their presence in people’s lives can help connect activities. For instance, students could track teamwork along with physical activities, plan coursework as well as meals, and even discover the benefits of sustained attention during study sessions.

If we think of learning in broad contexts, what learning potential can we find for these tools?

6 comment(s)

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    Louise Paul wrote October 7, 2014 at 3:28 PM

    I think these devices can make students more involved with their learning, whether through virtual field trips or transforming an e-book into a 3-D learning experience.

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    Alex Enkerli wrote October 14, 2014 at 9:27 AM

    One would hope. For this to happen, teachers need to appropriate such tools.

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    Murray Bronet wrote October 8, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    What do you think about this? http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/25/why-a-leading-professor-of-new-media-just-banned-technology-use-in-class/ So interesting....and here I thought I was being progressive by allowing personal tech into my classroom but it's a "war on distraction", my students (& I) might not "win". Also disturbing is the research presented on "second-hand" effect...hmmm. And now with the advent of "wearable" devices, is there no stopping this "distraction"?

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    Alex Enkerli wrote October 14, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    Discussed Shirky’s piece (linked in the “Disruptive Technology” section) with students in Cyberspace sociology. They’re well aware of discourse on distraction and are finding ways to stay focused. But it’s clearly something going beyond technology. Last year, in that same course, we discussed the piece on “secondhand effects” which eventually got Shirky to change his mind. The advantage of discussing it with students is that you readily notice issues they might have with other students. A disadvantage is that it can create a weird dynamic between them. Personally, what I’ve found the most disruptive is when students sleep in class. It happened when I was Associate Instructor in a large lecture class with required attendance. Up to a third of students were sleeping. The rest of the group was clearly not paying much attention. Some of Shirky’s piece implies that much of his class time is devoted to instruction, instead of active participation. Nothing wrong with that, but then it’s a version of the old “instructors are competing with videos for students’ attention”, with the related “if I can get the version of this lecture from a well-known prof, why am I in class?” musing. Shirky specifically mentioned in his outline that he would allow those devices for activities involving them, and there’s a lot of room for that. In my experience, though, it’s tricky to simply assume that everyone has access to those tools in the classroom. Had an idea for a “laptop orchestra” in my ethnomusicology classroom, but students would have had to be told that they had to bring their laptops. Many students have smartphones, but coordinating those for an activity can be a bit of a challenge, especially if you want to ensure that nobody is left out. Years ago, Don Hinkleman was giving his Japanese students some quizzes that they could answer via SMS. If nobody is left out, that can work as well as a “clicker”. Remarkably (to me), even when I don’t discourage their use, laptops aren’t that common in my classes. In large classes, some people occasionally use them to do other things. But the overall learning environment is usually powerful enough to get these students to come back to the class activities. Much of this reminds me of a Chronicle piece about which I blogged, a few years ago. http://blog.enkerli.com/2009/08/19/actively-reading-teach-naked-sans-powerpoint/ The gist of the original piece is that José Bowen, Dean of a School of Arts, prevents his faculty members from using PowerPoint. Yet the most important notion, there, is that there should be value in the classroom experience because of this competition for attention. I do think that screenless devices might have an advantage, there. But the main issue may not be disruption from devices.

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    Alex Enkerli wrote February 15, 2015 at 7:11 PM

    Almost a follow-up: (US) colleges banning smartwatches. http://www.slashgear.com/colleges-banning-smartwatches-ahead-of-apple-watch-release-fear-rampant-cheating-07368017/ There are many ways to cheat. The “cat and mouse game” is far from over. It might be an argument for low-stakes assignments, though.

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    Alex Enkerli wrote July 6, 2015 at 11:32 AM

    After US colleges, universities in Australia and elsewhere are reported as banning devices, as Rafael posted on Dawsonite, recently: http://dawsonite.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/2015/06/tech-savvy-cheats-beware-universities-are-banning-smartwatches/ http://mashable.com/2015/06/16/universities-banning-smart-watches/ Appropriating such devices is, in part, about making them appropriate in a given context. It sounds likely that they may be less appropriate in traditional exam situations. But it’s also possible that traditional exam situations afford some rethinking.

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