SmartWatch via Wikimedia Commons
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.
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.
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?