What’s the story?
While we are still wrestling with how to bring sound educational technology teaching practices to scale, there is another technology movement waiting in the wings: wearable technologies. Wearables have the potential to change the way we learn, work, and live. The devices are lightweight and mobile and have already struck a chord with many early adopters and fitness enthusiasts. But what will this mean for education and teaching practice? I explore this looming technology’s past, present, and future as well as its implications for classrooms below.
It is important to acknowledge the difference between both wearable and mobile technologies. The Educause Learning Initiative (2013) makes the distinction clear: “an Internet-connected smart watch or pair of running shoes with sensors in them are ‘wearable technology,’ whereas a smartphone or a tablet is simply ‘mobile’” (para. 5). Despite the current excitement surrounding innovations in wearable technologies, a number of wearable electronic devices have been produced during the last three decades (albeit with limited applications). Expensive, bulky, and most often associated with experimental and research-based tasks, these devices lacked an aesthetic appeal and ubiquitous purpose for consumers (Sultan, 2015).
Today, as investments from government and venture capital steadily increase, industry experts believe wearable technology is indeed on the horizon of the classroom. Technology research firm, Gartner, has even predicted wearable technology will be a leading electronic device category in 2015 (Pulley, 2014). According to research firm, Futuresource Consulting (2015), the global market for wearable technology was worth over US $8.9 billion in 2014 (with 56 million devices shipped) and is expected to continue growing. Before we know it FitBits, Apple Watches, and other wearables will begin to pour into the classroom. Are we prepared for students to have this level of access to content and communication? Do we control it or embrace it? Regardless of how you answer either of those questions, our current teaching methods will once again need to shift to meet the needs of students.
How will wearable technologies impact the classroom?
For any technology implementation to have a high rate of success, the role of the teacher needs to be constantly considered. Notwithstanding the shiny allure of wearable technologies, the objectives for teachers remains maximizing the technology to accelerate/deepen the learning of their students. In order for this to occur, districts need to make an extensive investment into professional development for their teachers. While early adopters may be highly adept at integrating these devices into their instruction, a great deal of training will be needed for instructors who lack that same level of comfort.
As we have learned from advances in educational technology over the last few years, turning a blind eye to the way students are interacting and learning in the digital world only hinders instructional practice. Foote (2015) writes, “I realize many teachers infuse technology naturally into classroom practices, but instructional habits in classrooms can be slow to change. So wearables force the question: Can we keep teaching as though students do not have instantaneous access?” (p. 13).
Compared to some of the most recent innovations in technology in education (i.e. tablets, Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCS], etc.), wearable technologies have the potential to engage students in ways previously not possible. For example, wearable cameras like Google Glass (and other technologies) can enable students to not only create first-person videos but also engage in unique point-of-view experiences.
Why open up a textbook to learn a foreign language when you can harness the power of augmented reality to travel to the country and engage with local citizens? Wearable technologies like Oculus Rift (a virtual reality device) can quite easily allow students and classrooms to engage in experiential learning by being transported to virtual 3D worlds. While it is still unclear how these experiences can be brought to scale and consistently incorporated into curriculum and instruction, wearables also present practical advantages to learning as well.
According to the Educause Learning Initiative (2013), “these devices might offer powerful assistance to those with visual, auditory, or physical disabilities. Experts can monitor students with learning disabilities remotely and recommend interventions, and students struggling with language issues can access immediate translation” (para. 10). Students who struggled to become engaged with the educational content of their classroom can now receive highly personalized feedback to support their development.
When it comes to collaboration amongst students and teacher-student communications, wearable and mobile technologies are very powerful tools. Their applications to both traditional classroom environments and virtual/distance settings have been well documented. Foote (2015) states, “The positive potential of being able to connect with our students with positive messages or to build academic relationships with them is tremendous. What would it be like if we were on their wrists, helping them via FaceTime with a lesson or question?” (p. 13). The recent release of devices like the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear has certainly made this a real possibility.
Similar to mobile devices (i.e. smartphones, tablets, etc.), wearable technologies have the ability to be with the learner at all times. The biggest challenge for educators moving forward will be the concept of time. Early adopters face waiting for students, parents, or senior administration to bring the technology into classrooms (Hargis, 2014). However, this should not be used as an excuse to stop innovating. A myriad of collaborative practices can be implemented with the existing technology/software as stakeholders wait for the wearable movement to take greater shape.
With wearable technologies still being 3 to 5 years away from large-scale implementation (Futuresource Consulting, 2015), providers need to dedicate themselves to creating applications able to synthesize the vast amounts of data the devices are collecting. In order for teachers to utilize student information the point of access needs to be simple. While a great deal of emphasis is often placed on access to student (and school organization) data, the use of wearable devices also raises several questions about privacy and security. For example, who owns the data these devices collect and who in particular will have access to it? Will schools continue to collect data off of students’ wrists or glasses when they are outside of school?
As more wearables begin to enter the market, this issue will become highly problematic (Foote, 2015). Fredrick (2015) implores stakeholders to consider both the pros and cons of data use stemming from wearable technologies. She writes, “The ease of data use, however, needs to be balanced by a need for privacy and security of each individual. Just as current systems can be hacked, so too will wearables face challenges in security” (p. 26). District technology leaders need to be aware that investments in wearables (and the ability to provide data access to a number of stakeholders) will most likely require a substantial upgrade to schools’ IT security plans. A major policy update regarding acceptable use practices will also be required.
What’s the verdict?
Many of the innovations and advantages wearable devices can bring to the learning environment are only just beginning to be realized. As the technology becomes more commonplace and early adopters continue to establish and share their best practices with others, student learning in the classroom may become more engaging than it has ever been. However, the interaction between the devices, students, and teachers is only one part of the equation. Senior technology leaders, parents, and governments all need to embrace this vision and ensure it is less about “shiny” devices and more about exploring new channels of learning.