Apple Watch: Coming to a Classroom Near You?

applewatchWearable technology has entered the mainstream. The Apple Watch, announced on Tuesday, ushers in the possibility that, one day soon, campuses across the country will contend with students who are literally attached to their gadgets.

“These wearable technologies will become like appendages,” said B.J. Fogg, a consulting professor at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab. “To remove those capabilities will be like tying one hand behind your back.”

While the prospect of the new device may thrill technophiles, it may also make professors and administrators uneasy. After all, a classroom of students with miniature computers strapped to their wrists could seem like an instructor’s nightmare.

But Teresa Fishman, director of the International Institute for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, believes wearable technology is no cause for alarm. Rather, she said, it should prompt universities to encourage innovative teaching that reflects modern realities.

“I hope that what is going to happen in response to something like this is not more emphasis on surveillance, but instead something related to changing what’s going on in the classroom,” Ms. Fishman said.

Before the Internet, she said, colleges had monopolies on knowledge and offered students exclusive access to information. With the availability of online resources, she added, higher education has to change.

“The reason you come to college [now] is to learn how to navigate between the appropriate information and the inappropriate information,” she said. “I hope this will take us a little further to more-complex evaluation.”

A Cheating Tool?

Before laptops and cellphones, cheating on a test meant copying off a neighboring classmate. But in the near future, students may be able to peer at web pages on their smart watches or use them to text friends who aren’t in the classroom.

“If you were going to have a confederate with whom you would be cheating, it had to be the person right next to you,” Ms. Fishman said. “That’s expanded to people all the way on the other side of the world.”

She proposed a two-pronged approach to accommodating wearables in the classroom: adapt assignments and emphasize ethics.

“Give assignments that assume students are going to reach out on the Internet and talk to their friends,” she said. “This has them taking advantage of all the available information and collaborations they’ve established.”

Trying to outmaneuver students using technology is ineffective at preventing cheating, Ms. Fishman believes. And she said it doesn’t deal with the root of the problem.

“If we keep students from cheating through technological means, we haven’t done anything to decrease the likelihood of them cheating in the future,” she reasoned. “From an educational perspective, we want to develop ethical decision-making habits in the same way we develop other reasoning skills.”

And when it’s essential to assess what students can do on their own, Ms. Fishman recommends a method that’s practically medieval.

“Rather than getting higher tech, the solution is often the lowest-tech one of all: an oral exam with a student in which you can talk through a problem,” she said. “It’s time-consuming, and time-consuming means expensive, but there’s almost nothing that beats a conversation.”

Distraction Factor

Even if wearables lead to novel teaching techniques, there’s no denying their potential as classroom distractions. A Facebook notification vibrating at a student’s wrist can divert her attention from even the most interesting seminar.

“The challenge we face with all of these technologies is, when are they supporting legitimate learning and when are they detracting from it?” said David M. Levy, a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. “When you look at the wearable stuff, what I notice is further integration of the technology into our lives, increasing accessibility, and then, this trend toward invisibility.”

Mr. Levy, who teaches a class called “Information and Contemplation,” believes that it would help students to think critically about the effects of technology on their learning. Both he and Stanford’s Mr. Fogg are upfront with students about the possible pitfalls of bringing gadgets into the classroom.

“In my class, if I see it gets to be a problem, it’s not impossible to say, ‘Take off your wearable,’” Mr. Fogg said. “I tell them, ‘You are taking the seat some other student could have been in …. You’ve made an investment, and I need to help you optimize it.’”

Mr. Fogg, who studies how technology can trigger changes in human behavior, cited research by a Florida State University psychology professor, Roy F. Baumeister, to explain how wearables could negatively affect even those students who deny the urge to check their smart watches.

“If students are wearing a mobile device and it’s telling them, ‘You have a new picture,’ and they’re sitting in class resisting, it’s wearing away their willpower,” Mr. Fogg said. “What we’re doing is giving people an appendage that saps their willpower, meaning they don’t have it available for other things.”

But the outlook may not be entirely bleak. In Mr. Fogg’s 2002 book, Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, he theorized about an app he called Study Buddy, which could prompt students to study, show them how many of their friends were studying at any given time, and congratulate them for meeting goals.

“It’s first going to be a distraction and detriment, and it’s going to be a learning curve for how to make this a clear benefit for learning and social skills,” Mr. Fogg said.

Health Helper

The potential benefits of wearables on student health outside the classroom are more readily apparent. It can be hard to maintain healthy habits at college, where alcohol is abundant, sleep comes at a premium, and all-you-can-eat dining-hall pizza is a tempting salve for the stress of exams. Apple Watch joins a crowded field of fitness trackers promising to promote wellness—and could be a tool to help students avoid the freshman 15.

“I don’t think most freshmen realize how many calories are in six beers,” said Jennifer M. Sacheck, an associate professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “Diet is one thing that changes pretty dramatically when it comes to college because you have that autonomy …. I think some of these apps could help them keep a balanced diet.”

In addition to facilitating personal fitness, wearable technology can benefit health research. Ms. Sacheck uses fitness trackers purchased through a Tufts Innovation Grant to teach the basics of exercise physiology in a graduate-level class about physical activity and nutrition.

“We can teach these fundamentals,” she said, “with these gadgets.”

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