Education SXSW

The Implications of Wearable Technology in the Classroom

In a session entitled, “Wear to Learn: The Body As an Interface,” Emory Craig – the director of eLearning at the College of New Rochelle – and Maya Georgieva – Associate Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at New York University – addressed some of the implications of wearable technology in the classroom.1 Craig and Georgieva began with a broad overview of the topic, but then posed several questions to the audience, prompting a lively discussion. Craig and Georgieva both did an excellent job presenting the topic, as well as guiding the group discussion. Much more than a talk about wearable devices, however, the discussion provided a glimpse into how educators – the audience by and large – view and think about the potential benefits and consequences of such products in the classroom.

edu-session The Implications of Wearable Technology in the Classroom

Maya Georgieva and Emory Craig

The prompt questions covered four complex issues surrounding the use of wearables in an educational setting. For the most part, there seemed to be a general consensus that wearables have the potential to completely revolutionize the learning experience. At the same time, however, this technology presents several ethical conundrums. Here are the questions:

Prompt-Questions The Implications of Wearable Technology in the Classroom

Question number one prompted, by far, the deepest discussion, and thus deserves the most amount of attention. Essentially, the whole issues boils down to how the data is used and who is able to access this data. As teachers and educators begin to collect more and more data, ranging from academic achievement – test scores, reading level, and so forth – to less academic things such as mood and happiness levels, the line of appropriate action, or reaction, begins to blur.

One member of the audience raised an important point. Although a bit macabre, the audience member pointed out the fact that over the last year, a total of six MIT students have committed suicide.2 Hypothetically, if schools and educators had been collecting student data from various wearable technology, the attendee noted, it would be easy to determine how students respond to stress, and even possibly predict such an action. Herein lies the real issue, what is to stop the MIT administrators and admissions department from including things like stress reactions and happiness levels into their decisions on applications.

What’s more, who ultimately interprets such data? Again, playing with hypotheticals, imagine that this data is interpreted in the wrong way, a student’s or applicant’s future could be harmed by something that ends up being as arbitrary a characteristic as, say, hair color.

Ethical and moral questions aside, widespread adoption of wearable technology in the classroom presents a more practical problem, especially with the public school system. As has been noted in countless sources, individual schools and school districts are often strapped for resources. It is safe to assume, then, that these financially hamstrung institutions would be diligent and thorough in searching out the best possible deal on devices. Thus, the rise of wearables could launch a sort-of race to the bottom in which manufacturers sacrifice the quality of their products in favor of cost savings, ultimately building products that provide shoddy data.

Although we are far from any sort of consensus on the utility of wearables within education, it is clear that there are some very serious issues that need to be considered. The benefits of such technology must be weighed against the possibility of unjust harm to students, coincidental or otherwise.

  1. The term wearable technology was pretty general in this session, encompassing everything from heart-rate monitors to full-on virtual reality. The discussion was driven more by the top-level implications for the use of this technology in the classroom.  
  2. Karen Hao, The Tech, “Opinion: GUEST COLUMN: Transforming MIT culture,” 12 March 2015