How Universities Are Using Wearable Technology Today for Instruction

EpsonNovember 20, 2017

When they hear the phrase “wearable device,” most people picture fitness wristbands, but the step-counting gadgets are just part of a larger universe of rapidly developing technology. Other wearables currently on the market include sensor-embedded clothing, smart watches, headsets and more. The public’s appetite for wearables is growing — one in six consumers already owns a device, according to a Nielsen report, and nearly half of them are young adults.

Because they’ve attracted a legion of university-age users, wearables are catching attention from a number of higher education institutions looking for ways to harness their data-collecting power and incorporate them into the classroom environment. Wearables automatically collect information about their users, motivating some researchers to look at how tracking students’ behavior, learning processes and even emotional states could improve the educational experience.

Wondering which wearables to keep an eye on? Here are the top five categories and what they could offer to students, faculty and administration in a higher education setting.

  1. VR headsets and smartglasses can provide students with in-depth sensory experiences inside (and outside) the classroom. Many institutions are experimenting with VR to create “hands-on” experiences for students in such disciplines as medicine, engineering, physics, geography, art and history. In a recent report, Gartner researchers Marty Resnick and Glenda Morgan recommend that colleges and universities pursue VR in the near future, saying that VR enhances learning, attracts and retains students and prepares them for their careers. “[We] estimate that by 2021, 60 percent of U.S.-based higher education institutions will intentionally use VR to create an enhanced simulation and learning environment,” Resnick writes. “Strategic investment in and a commitment to VR will increasingly become one of the ways that campuses will differentiate themselves in a competitive environment.”

Augmented reality (AR) smartglasses are also finding their way into university classrooms. AR blends virtual reality with the physical world, enabling a device-wearing user to look at a real object and see images and text overlaid on it. In medicine, AR has tremendous potential to assist surgeons (and their students) with locating specific anatomical areas in the operating room. In engineering, it’s being used to gamify complex concepts, making them more accessible to students.

  1. Brain-sensing headbands monitor the wearer’s brain activity, giving insights on attention span, anxiety levels and more. Researchers at the University of Victoria and New York University are exploring how the devices could be used to monitor students’ brain activity during classes, making educators more aware of what types of learning activities are holding students’ attention — and when their minds are wandering.
  2. Fitness wristbands can track students’ physical activity, movement around campus, vital signs and sleep habits, among other things. Researchers at the University of Texas’s LINK Research Lab are monitoring students’ heart rate variability and electrodermal activity (which indicates emotional responses) using smart wristbands. The goal? To study the effects of emotional responses on the body — and on the brain’s ability to learn. Other researchers are using fitness wristbands to look for links between good posture, sleep habits, and physical fitness and the ability to learn and retain information.
  3. Smartwatches have come under recent scrutiny in the higher education setting due to their potential to assist students with cheating during exams, but the devices hold a great deal of potential for learning enhancement. They could be linked directly to an institution’s student information system, allowing wearers to receive instant notifications, reminders and announcements, or they could be programmed to take a digital roll call, where students wearing them are automatically registered as “present” when they walk into their classroom or lecture hall. And some app developers are creating software that can turn smartwatches into contextual learning tools. Babbel, a popular app for language learning, can now detect the user’s location through the smartwatch’s GPS system and deliver words and phrases that match the context. For instance, if a student is studying abroad in Paris, her watch could automatically tell her how to order an espresso and a chocolate croissant when she walks into a café.
  4. Smart shirts and health sensors are extremely valuable tools for the medical field, enabling physicians and students to gather and analyze patient data in real time. Smart shirts record biometric data such as breathing, heart rates, movement types and UV levels. A host of other wireless health sensors are on the market or in development, creating the ability to remotely track everything from blood sugar to stress levels. Today’s medical students should become familiar with these emerging technologies because according to researchers, they aren’t going anywhere. Michael Snyder, professor in genetics at Stanford Medicine, envisions a world where people wear and regularly consult multiple health sensors, even when they’re not sick, enabling doctors to know their patients’ baseline biometric data and immediately recognize problems as they arise.

Only a few institutions, such as Oral Roberts University, have instated wearable usage for students across the board, but many others are investigating the potential of these emerging technologies. As part of the Internet of Things (IoT) revolution, wearables are expected to gain ground rapidly, with the market reaching 70 million device shipments through 2021. To keep pace with consumer interest and usage, it makes sense to investigate possibilities and begin to adopt this technology sooner rather than later.

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