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IDEA WATCH: Wear to Learn!?! Wearable Technology—Promises and Problems

By Carolyn Foote - Posted May 1, 2015
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FROM the Apple Watch to Fitbits to tech jewelry, the wearable technology market is beginning to take off. At January’s CES (International Consumer Electronics Show), new products such as Narrative Clip 2, which lets you record what you hear; LYTE, video-recording eyewear; Skechers Game Kicks, kids’ tennis shoes with a game built in; Zazzi’s social media jewelry from FashionTEQ; and Mota’s social networked rings were on display.

So other than geeking out at what will be possible with wearables like some futuristic fantasy out of a sci-fi movie, how does this apply to schools? With many schools still blocking social media on “regular” devices such as phones and laptops, we are facing a situation in which schools are likely to be woefully disconnected from the technology lives of our students.

In some classrooms across the country, teachers are telling students to put their cellphones and devices away in order to learn. But a year from now, since the Apple Watch has debuted and is joined by plethora of other smart watches, and with an industry exploding with possibilities, are we going to ask our students to take off their rings, watches, smart socks, or shirts when they enter our classrooms? Wearables may be the tipping point that cause us to think about the inevitability of technology in our students’ lives and to start thinking about ways we need to teach differently when facts are literally at their fingertips.

More Data … But Whose Data?

In a fascinating session at this spring’s SXSWEdu conference entitled “Wear to Learn,” Emory Craig (College of New Rochelle) and Maya Georgeiva (Center for Innovation in Technology and Learning, New York University) probed significant questions educators must begin contemplating regarding wearable technologies. They focused on several areas of concern: student privacy and data, school policies, instructional practices, and potential innovation in product development. A fourth concern I consider important is the digital divide that again may begin to widen for our students.

Who owns the data that such wearable devices collect? Whether in school or out, who will the data belong to, and who will have access to it? When we have only a couple of wearable devices, this isn’t as worrisome a question, but as devices proliferate, it will become more problematic.

At the December 2014 Big Ideas Fest, Jill Hagenkord commented on the knowledge to be gained by large datasets being gathered by services such as 23andMe, which interprets your DNA. (While this isn’t a wearable, the same sorts of questions about data apply.) These large sets of data can be a tremendous source of knowledge for doctors, scientists, etc. But who owns the data that consumers are giving up to these wearable services? Wearables pose similar data questions, and as more wearable school devices enter the market, questions abound.

Track Suits

Will students (or their parents) be willing to trade their privacy for information or data on their learning, Georgeiva wondered? And I wonder, will students/parents differ in their willingness to trade student privacy? Wearables have the potential to track attendance, location, etc. Having heard our own students express stress over the idea that their parents are tracking their cellphones, I wonder where the acceptable line of privacy is for teens. Our students also expressed distress because of the overeager parental attention, and one can only imagine that wearables would add to that ability of parents to hypertrack their/our students.

At SXSWEdu, Craig wondered if a negative use of wearables might be that they could even be used to screen out students because of some sort of data that was collected on them—be it health data, educational data, or something else. School policies and federal privacy laws are inadequate to address these sorts of concerns. Georgeiva emphasized the need to develop wearable tech policies, and encouraged participants to think about how we will be able to make policies flexible to keep pace with the rapidly changing nature of data collection.

We also have a responsibility to educate our students in the digital ramifications of wearable technologies—these questions about privacy and data are pertinent to the future they will be living in. Helping them think through choices about when to engage and when not to or to consider ramifications will help them to think more wisely as these technologies proliferate. And yet, discussing the possibilities for wearables opens up a whole new area of creativity and inventiveness for our students—what much needed wearable device might they be able to prototype in our classroom and library makerspaces? (And then print it out on our 3D printers.)

Wearable Technology and Classroom Instruction

Classroom instruction is another area where wearables will impact schools. Will the presence of wearables impact instructional practices that sometimes block out the increasing presence of technology? Obviously, we cannot ask students to disrobe upon entering our classrooms, but it seems increasingly fruitless for educators and administrators to try to keep technology out of classroom settings.

I realize many 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? Georgeiva also wondered what happens in the classroom if students can wear devices allowing them to record instruction, for example? Most significantly, Georgeiva posed these questions to SXSWEdu participants: “How will we engage students in a wearable world? And what great potential from wearables can we harvest to make our instruction more empowering and relevant?”

She pointed out the enormous positive potential of wearables to help us personalize learning engagements for our students, which opens up possibilities for teachers as coaches and facilitators of learning. And wearables can potentially create more engaging ways for students to interact with content—she shared the example of using augmented reality glasses for students to learn French through the immersive experience of a French café. What better way to learn a language than interacting with native speakers, which immersive gamelike interfaces could allow?

At the SXSWEdu Education Expo, students could learn how to solder by using a virtual reality device that mirrored actual soldering. Georgeiva encouraged designers present at SXSWEdu to create software not just for learning, but for creating an actual experience that takes students beyond what technology engagements can do now. Products designed for school settings will be at their best if they aren’t just about “shiny,” but rather about the increased learning and engagement they can provide our students.

The Connectedness Conundrum

It’s worth considering how wearable devices add to or detract from student “connectedness.” 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? Wearables have the potential to extend the value of small tablet devices by making learning ever more portable.

On the flipside, we need to help students with their connected lives if they are capable of being connected even more constantly than their smartphones currently allow. Will schools continue to block access to social media, or will it even be possible to block? If it is not possible, how will schools help students cope with potential bullying taking place via social media and landing directly on the students’ wrist or jewelry?

Of additional concern is what happens in those arenas where our social contexts collapse, as Carolyn Hack, assistant professor at University of Tennessee–Knoxville, pointed out in a session at SXSWEdu on social media. When technology is available—along with a direct pipeline to teachers—in so many ways to our students, how do we keep those lines of our social context straight? Consider the teacher vs. friend, personal vs. private, formal vs. informal social contexts. And how do we help students keep those contexts straight in their own digital environments?

Many of the ways we’ve found to talk to students about digital citizenship and online identity will certainly apply here, but are there differences when technology is wearable? Examples include divulging your health information from a wearable device to a friend and taking photos with digital sunglasses when others are unaware.

The likely ubiquity of wearable technologies holds potential for engaging students in positive ways, but what about the cost factor? While wearables will potentially be a less expensive entry point for schools than computers, again, most devices will not have been designed initially for school settings. So we may have similar struggles to those we’ve had adopting tablets. And on the personal side, the proliferation of wearable possibilities may continue to add to the digital divide as students in wealthier communities have more access than others. Is this an area of technology equity that needs to be addressed when schools are still struggling with 1:1 adoptions? How can technology startups keep struggling schools in mind when rolling out new products that have potential for school use?

Some schools will be facing these challenges sooner than others. But as always, technology will get cheaper, and many students will be early adopters, propelling all schools to start facing the potential and challenges of wearable technologies. As educators and librarians, we will need to move beyond the “gee whiz” stage of engaging with wearable technologies, and help lead our institutions forward with thinking through policies, instruction, and possibilities centered around best practices for our students.

Contact Carolyn at

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