Power dressing: wearable tech & HE

Is wearable technology the next education silver bullet?

A recent report highlights the possibility of educational applications for wearable tech in HE and how such technology might enhance student engagement. Whilst there are many examples of research in universities on the potential applications of wearable technology at the moment there are currently very few cases of real world deployment and they are far from compelling.

One example quoted is at Oral Roberts University in the USA (slogans include ‘Make no little plans here’ and ‘To the uttermost bounds of the earth’). ORU was founded:

to educate the whole person – spirit, mind and body – Oral Roberts University promises a thorough education in the context of a vibrant Christ-centered community.logo

ORU is a place for advancing knowledge, pursuing intellectual discovery and building life-long friendships in a vibrant campus community. ORU students are empowered on the quest for wholeness; having the time of their lives, while preparing for their life’s mission.

The approach at Oral Roberts though is really about fitness trackers, essentially requiring students to wear a device in order to gather fitness data on them:

Oral Roberts University is an early adopter of Fitbit devices, turning to the wearable technology as an upgrade to the requirements it’s always had for students to manually log fitness activities as part of its Whole Person Education program. In 2015, the school began requiring incoming students to use the wearables to do the job, feeding aerobics tracking information into its D2L Brightspace online learning platform gradebook. In a statement about the program, ORU provost Kathaleen Reid-Martinez said that the university “is dedicated to creating innovative academic solutions for our global student population. We are excited to offer this cutting-edge technology that will enhance our on-campus student’s experience and increase the convenience of our fitness programs.”

The program hasn’t been without controversy, though. An online petition against it complains that the constant tracking of daily aerobic activity and grading based on that data can be stressful and unhealthy for students. Indeed, a lack of data privacy and security are cited in the Technavio research as a challenge that could restrict market growth for classroom wearable technology.

Although Oral Roberts University’s work with fitness-tracking wrist wearables is more the exception than the rule at this point, most higher-ed students who own a wearable device own a health or fitness monitor, according to a recent survey, and they find them useful for physical fitness information gathering and utility purposes. The survey assessment notes that “these purposes can be extended into the classroom setting as students see the value of technology in their learning” — but also that this potential for innovation in the classroom is as yet untapped.

A commendable approach to supporting student health or a gross invasion of privacy?

And is this really the best example which can be found of the educational application of wearable technology? There are many possibilities of course and beyond fitness trackers there is the potential offered by Google glass/Snapchat spectacles, VR headsets, trackers in clothes, tech tattoos as well as the learner analytics derived from these. But we still seem to be some way from identifying genuine educational benefits. Nevertheless, some are optimistic:

Although it’s still early in the game, higher-ed leaders have faith that the connections between devices like fitness-tracking wearables, teaching and learning will become more apparent as the technology continues to develop and reaches academic use in larger numbers. Some say that the ability to capture personal information about sleeping or heart rates, for instance, can be relevant to the health and sports science education fields. Others have talked about how students could connect their wearable devices to sensors deployed throughout campus buildings to exchange personal data and open up new areas of communication with the institution.

There could also be future uses for aggregated, anonymized information about sleep patterns, diets and even campus routes traveled to be shared with descriptive and predictive analytics technologies. The data could help colleges gain insights that can affect everything from class scheduling times and locations to daily menu offerings.

Pennsylvania State University is notable for having planned a project to help students evaluate their learning experiences during the 2015-2016 academic year using activity-tracking wrist wearables. The project was designed to use wearables to collect data around student learning and visually feed that information back to them so they can see their learning progress on an app, similar to how they can view their health data progress, with the goal of students using that data to improve their self-regulated learning strategies and drive academic success and increase student engagement.

Perhaps we will see some significant developments in this area in the near future therefore. This report on the ‘Wearable Technology Show 2016’ does suggest that some innovations may well soon be on the way. But it does seem that there is a way to go before we are able to identify genuine educational applications of wearable tech.

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