What Wearable Tech Could Mean for the Classroom

Not too long ago, tablets and smartphones were largely viewed as educational scourges — mere distractions responsible for dulling minds and derailing productivity. Now, instead of being shunned completely, these devices are embraced as invaluable tools for meeting the complex, often hard to define needs of digital natives. Undoubtedly, wearable technology is destined to follow suit.

The 2015 Horizon Report agrees, predicting the widespread use of wearables throughout the entire spectrum of modern education. Still, considering our senses are already overloaded with 1s and 0s, reluctance to embrace yet another digital medium is understandable. However, as this piece will explain, the potential benefits are simply too tremendous to ignore.

What Is Wearable Tech?

Despite all the press attention, a degree of confusion remains about just what exactly the term “wearable tech” entails. Indeed, there are those who would characterize the entire genre as consisting solely of frivolous gadgets designed for spoiled techies and hipsters.

Project Glass and the zealous marketing of Apple’s smartwatch have only served to add fuel to this fire. That said, the label “wearable tech” isn’t reserved for a few big name products. In truth, its definition is as simple as the name implies; if it’s electronic and wearable, you’re talking about wearable tech. From life saving medical devices to smart clothing, it’s an industry teeming with hungry young start-ups dedicated to innovating the way we interact with the world around us.

For decades, PowerPoint has assisted educators of every stripe in providing visual learning aids — an element essential to grabbing attention and illustrating valuable points. Although it has served its role well, the next generation of students are likely to enjoy a level of class immersion extending far beyond basic slideshows. Truth be told, with augmented reality headed towards the mainstream, the days of student apathy may indeed be numbered. Imagine, for example, that as the battle of Gettysburg is being discussed, wearable headsets (equipped with motion sensors and stereoscopic 3D technology) are used to provide a realistic, 100-degree view of a Civil War re-enactment. Instructors would, in essence, be giving a guided tour through history.

Sure, the above scenario might sound beyond the means of most school districts, but intense efforts are being made to remedy that fact. Comprising of top universities and cutting edge tech companies, the Immersive Education Initiative is a 7,000 member strong organization dedicated to fostering the growth of virtual reality-based learning. Its director, Aaron Walsh, points to devices like Oculus Rift as a huge step forward in making the typical school day interactive and exciting. Spawning from a Kickstarter campaign and eventually being purchased by Facebook for $2 billion, the aforementioned product has blossomed into a revolutionary headset capable of directly placing users into a life-like digital environment.

Despite a 2016 release date, plans are already underway for Oculus Rift’s educational introduction. Google and Mozilla, for instance, are funding a project that will combine the device with Minecraft in order to help students envision creative ways to improve their community. As prices drop and the technology is incorporated into other wearables, augmented reality may very well become a staple of 21st Century learning.

Teaching with Touch

Touch: the most intimate of all the senses. From caressing the cheeks of a newborn to fist bumping co-workers, small amounts of physical contact can convey more than even the most eloquently written speech. In this regard, wearable technology possesses the opportunity to distinguish itself by transcending the impersonal nature of traditional devices. This, in large part, is due to huge breakthroughs in the field of haptics. Instead of vibrating without any rhyme or reason, ultra-thin, nearly undetectable actuators and sensors are being developed that will grant wearables the unprecedented ability to mimic human touch — bringing them closer to the point of becoming responsive extensions of the mortal coil.

As you can imagine, the educational impact of this should be nothing short of game-changing. For example, soft tactile nudges could be given to convey dissatisfaction with unproductive student behavior. Furthermore, wearables could be programmed to remind students with attention disorders to stay on task. Already, haptic technology is beginning to prove useful in enhancing the learning experience of those with disabilities. Take, for instance, the brilliant work being done by Jenna Gorlewicz. As a grad student at Vanderbilt University’s prestigious Medical and Electromechanical Design laboratory, she spent years working to improve implant surgery. However, being a people person, she felt compelled to focus on something that would allow direct interaction with the people she’s helping.

Resulting from a strong passion for teaching and mathematics, the idea to utilize haptic feedback to assist visually impaired students was born. By taking advantage of the built-in haptics of tablets, a specialized app was created that uses distinct vibrations to help students navigate graphs. Thus far, in-class trials have been met with remarkable success and the app is being prepared for a consumer debut. In my opinion, if wearable designers can find clever ways to capitalize on this exciting innovation (e.g. a smartwatch that serves as a touch-based graphing calculator), it might result in the steady removal of educational barriers that once seemed insurmountable. Hopefully, major players like Apple will take notice.

Science, technology, engineering and math — areas regarded as the lifeblood of progress. Less flattering, however, is the fact that many STEM related fields are overwhelmingly dominated by men. In fact, it is widely estimated that less than 24% of computer science jobs are held by females. While some would dismiss talks of this gender gap as being over-hyped, simply writing the disheartening data off to chance and circumstance is extremely short-sighted. Both industry leaders and the federal government agree, and have accordingly implemented numerous nationwide campaigns to increase the cross-demographic appeal of STEM-based learning.

Robots and drones possess an undeniable cool factor, but the same can certainly be said for art and fashion. In light of this, E-textiles have been proposed as a method of engaging middle schoolers — especially those outside of the usual tech-loving demographic — in hands-on computer science. From the creation of lively stuffed animals to smart t-shirts, students are able to absorb fundamental electrical engineering principles as they sew together circuits with conductive thread. Fortunately, getting started is relatively inexpensive and painless. Lilypad Arduino, a kit designed specifically for soft circuit projects, is readily available online for roughly $40 (with many retailers offering schools discounts on bulk purchases).

These days, it seems like our obesity rates accelerate almost as fast as technological innovation. Some, of course, would argue that the two are irreversibly linked. In an age where hunting and gathering has been replaced by aimlessly grazing the aisles of Walmart, it’s hard to fault this assumption. Frankly, it seems to be a sharp double-edged sword — as our capabilities extend beyond the confines of biology, the softer and less active we become. Yet, it’s inaccurate to assert that all hope is lost. After all, by creating a symbiotic relationship between flesh and machine, we are granted all the tools necessary to achieve a state of sustainable homeostasis.

Monitoring physical activity, sleep patterns, nutrition and other vital stats, the Fitbit wristband sends this data to your key devices and then proceeds to gamify healthy living. By using achievement points, encouragement and even playful teasing, users are held accountable in a manner that’s both enjoyable and addictive. Moreover, quite a few alternatives have popped up that offer these same features at a more affordable price tag. Zamzee, in particular, costs only $30 and is specifically designed to meet the needs of a younger demographic. In one 6-month study, children who used the device were 59% more likely to engage in physical activity. With results like these, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the technology is already being implemented in gym classes the world over.

Above, you’ll find Walter Cronkite imagining life in the 21st Century. Filmed in 1967, the video was made at a time when computers were the size of behemoths. Factoring this in, the statement “no home will be complete without a computerized communication console” becomes all the more impressive. Of course, the gift of hindsight makes quite a few of these predictions seem absurd (paper furniture, a different monitor for every computer function, etc). Likewise, classrooms of the future will differ from even the most well-informed guesses of today.

Nonetheless, recent history indicates that as a new technology reaches a certain level of mass consumption, it inevitably spills over into every crevice of society — including education. With a market projected to be worth over $12 billion by 2018, there is little doubt that wearables will follow a similar path. The real question, it seems, is whether or not the broadband infrastructure of public schools will be capable of accommodating this surge of connectivity.