Wearable Technology, in eLearning?

Google Glass has been a less than clear-cut success, and the Apple Watch has yet to be really seen. Still, there’s no denying it; wearable technology has come to stay. And with it come new opportunities, and potential applications in the field of learning.

Augmented Reality

Wearable tech is a 24/7 option, which can be with (i.e., on) the wearer in any location. Typically, you don’t need your hands to use a wearable device; it performs its functions, automatically. So, in a learning context, a user can do whatever tasks their job or training exercise requires, while relying on the device to provide information and support.

And the information provided by a wearable device can be specifically targeted to a given discipline. Using biometric data and feedback from the user’s physical state at a given time, it can also be tailored to the specific individual.

Advances in 3D projection and surround sound techniques make possible learning experiences that combine existing “real-world” elements, and virtual ones. For example, a training exercise in a factory production area might have notes and annotations hovering over a learner’s view of specific components, as he/she looks at them, through a holographic visor.

The emerging Internet of Things (IoT) – that expanding web of everyday goods fitted with sensors that connect to the Internet – extends this potential, even further. Learning can definitely move beyond the formal lecture hall and laboratory.

Some Well-Worn Paths

Though it’s still early days, there are already several approaches employing wearable devices and related technologies.

Smart eyewear like Google Glass incorporates still and video camera technology, so experiences can be visually recorded, as they happen. Using GPS and satellite navigation systems, the devices can map the user’s location and provide information about nearby places, with the option to conduct wider searches on the Web. Dedicated apps (there are several for Google Glass, already) extend their functionality.

Users can walk around in virtual worlds, while wearing headsets like the Oculus Rift. Paths can be laid out in the real world, or in a contained environment, and it’s possible to create 3D landscapes far removed from either. Incorporating the technology and software of games (either specifically encoded, or third-party) pushes the boundaries even further.

Devices like the LeapMotion detector can be affixed to 3D goggles, enabling sensors to document a user’s hand and arm motions. So learners can touch and pick up objects in their 3D workspace, and manipulate them, directly.

So-called “gesture cameras”, like the XBox Kinect are designed to track the movement of a user’s body. Feedback is relayed in real-time, so the images can be used to teach students the correct postures and stances for a range of activities. Some units can interpret changes in facial expression and skin tone as indicators of the wearer’s emotional state, and advise accordingly.

Panoramic view video cameras like the Ladybug can also immerse learners in virtual worlds. By attaching a camera to a drone, for example, and flying the drone through a sensitive site (like an archaeological dig, or a crash site), a video feed can be streamed back to the learners, who can study the site as if they were actually there.

Brainwave entrainment – the broadcasting of tones to generate Alpha, Beta, and Theta waves etc. – is the province of headsets like the MindWave. These states can be induced in the wearer to promote relaxation, attentiveness, and so on. Feedback of EEG signals is interpreted by the headset, and can be transmitted to software or other devices. Eventually, the technology could be used to let wearers control programs with their minds – in theory, at least.

Data from wearables can also be relayed to modelling software, and on to 3D printers, making it possible to fabricate products based on a user’s observations in the field.

The Challenges

Despite its applications in the health, manufacturing, entertainment, and armed forces sectors, the adoption of wearable technology in education has some way to go. Part of the problem is cultural; institutions are often slow to adapt to change, and new technologies may be as frightening to some as they are promising, to others.

Cost is also a factor. Initially, institutions of Higher and Further education may find themselves better positioned to bear the cost of hardware acquisition. Corporate bodies are even more likely to be able to afford the expense, particularly if they have a BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices) policy in place.

For equipment manufacturers and software designers, the challenge will be to create applications and interfaces that will enable content to be shared across a wide range of mobile and wearable devices. This will mean adapting user interfaces for smaller and smaller screens, the use of tactile responses to activate program functions (swiping, shaking, etc.), and related issues.

Designs for Learning

Decide how wearables are to be included in your training scheme. Make a use case for the technology, and keep an open mind. If a course option can be better served with a more traditional approach, don’t use tech, for tech’s sake.

Understand the technology, and use its strengths. Wearables are all about real-time information gathering and recording. Exploit this aspect, to deliver instructions at the location where the user is currently working.

Understand the limitations, and allow for them. With small or no-screen interfaces in many instances, users should be given options to interact with the software in a way that’s comfortable to them. Consider using wearables in conjunction with mobile devices like phones and tablets.

Remember that learning can be a two-way process. Instructors and managers may learn as much as their students in the field, from the data recorded, and their reactions to it.