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Finding a fit for wearable tech in education

New devices provide data on students’ activity levels, health and moods
A middle school student at Tustin USD in California uses an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The devices have been used in a pilot project at an elementary school and tested at a high school.
A middle school student at Tustin USD in California uses an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The devices have been used in a pilot project at an elementary school and tested at a high school.

As smartwatches, wristbands, headsets and other wearable products become more sophisticated, expect to see classroom networks of these “ultramobile” devices interacting with each other and enabling students and teachers to share digital information as never before.

Teachers, for one, will receive immediate feedback on how students react to particular lessons.

“Imagine a campus where the data from wearables allows administrators and teachers to see the overall mood and adjust activities to the students,” says Robert Craven, senior director of technology at Tustin USD in California.

By “mood,” Craven means engagement, attitude, understanding of content, attention and feelings. “I think the idea of measuring mood would be something used when introducing new material or content to gauge times for assessment and while working on projects,” he says.

Wearables, as well as a related virtual reality technology, could potentially support any type of learning application, Craven says.

Learning apps installed on wearable devices could combine data on student content strengths and learning styles to match them with other students who would potentially motivate them to finish a project well and more quickly, Craven says. Another app could create a “Pokemon-like activity to get students up and moving around the campus,” he says.

Virtual reality gives students the ability to take a field trip to ancient ruins or “to hold an element from the periodic table in their hands,” adds Samantha Adams Becker, senior director of publications and communications at The New Media Consortium, an international community edtech expert.

Wearable technology is already making an impact, according to research firm Research and Markets in an April 2016 report, “Classroom Wearables Technology Market in the U.S. 2016-2020."

The report forecasts that the classroom wearable technology market in the nation will grow at an annual rate of 46 percent from 2016 to 2020.

Activity trackers such as Fitbits and other products can help students gain more insight into their health and fitness, Becker says. And DeepHand, developed by researchers at Purdue University, allows users to explore the human hand’s nerves, muscles, joints and bones. DeepHand uses a “conventional neural network” that mimics the human brain and can teach students about the hand’s complexity, researchers say.

It figures out where a user’s fingers are and all the motions of the hand and fingers in real time. Researchers say it is needed for future systems that allow people to interact with virtual reality environments.

The main drawbacks to virtual reality are cost (which means hundreds of dollars per device), the small amount of K12 content now available, and the hardware required to run the software, Craven says.

Wearables at Tustin USD

Tustin USD began investigating the impact of wearables about a year ago. Google virtual reality devices have been used in a few middle school classes in social sciences, language arts and science—helping students “see” the Great Wall of China and the human heart in 3D, Craven adds.

This past spring, the technology department at Tustin bought a camera to create virtual reality videos and stills, which students and teachers can see on iPads. Teachers this past summer also integrated the camera and iPads into language arts classes, he says. “Through the Socratic seminar, students are sitting in two concentric circles discussing various points of view around a topic,” Craven says.

Google Cardboard, a virtual reality platform that’s used with a head mount for a smartphone, could quickly make inroads to the classroom, Craven says.

The district will begin rolling out Cardboard viewing devices within a year.

Fitness in a bit

Many students and staff in Tustin USD use smartwatches or fitness trackers to count steps and calories burned, Craven says. But little has been done to develop curriculum around the products so far. For now, students individually track data to improve athletic performance, and daily activity, Craven says.

As the technology improves over time, students will be able to use the data to understand the connections between their physical state, engagement and performance in the classroom, and on athletics fields, he says.

The Polar GoFit Ecosystem includes a wristband or chest-based heart rate monitor and fitness assessment software, says George Centeio, the company’s manager of training and education. Teachers in classes such as physical education create courses and grading rubrics and then view student data in real time on an iPad using GoFit, Centeio says. Then the teacher can project the app on a TV or large screen so students can monitor their intensity and effort during phys ed class.

Another product is a smart fabric sensor from BeBop Sensors. It can be placed on any type of clothing and comprehend motion or force, such as how much force a user is exerting and twisting and rotating.

The technology senses and displays 3D maps of pressure, bend, location, rotation, angle and torsion. It also encourages proper form and technique in athletic movements through smart insoles, grip sensors or helmets, says Keith McMillen, founder and CEO of BeBop. It could be used in physics, electronics and robotics portions of curricula, McMillen says.

Managing security

The deployment of wearables will clearly have management implications for IT. For example, smartwatches might be included in district BYOD programs, meaning IT will need to be aware of the security and application management issues of these devices as well as smartphones and tablets.

Products would need to be managed by IT just as the computer and technology programs are managed now—with wireless security being of utmost importance, McMillen says.

Districts should create a pilot program to determine which devices work best for what they are trying to achieve with wearables, Becker says. And leaders can recommend how processes can be adjusted for deeper student impact.

“It is not sufficient to simply mandate that a technology be used,” Becker concludes. “There needs to be time for teachers to understand how it fits in with their pedagogies and curriculum so the best possible learning experiences can be designed.”

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Bob Violino is a freelance writer on Long Island, New York.

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