Even before the Apple Watch was released, professors and pundits began speculating on whether it and other wearable devices might play a role in college classrooms. On Monday researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s main campus announced that they would be among the first to test the device’s usefulness in the classroom.
The experiment will begin this summer, with eight Apple Watches the university purchased for the project. Penn State plans to expand the research to more students in the fall. We caught up with Kyle Bowen, director of education-technology services at Penn State, to hear more about the project, and his thoughts on the possible role of wearables in teaching and learning. Following is an edited version of the conversation.
Q. I understand a professor there will be experimenting with Apple Watch to measure student learning this fall. Can you briefly describe that project?
A. What we’re looking at in this particular research is how can we use wearable technologies like the Apple Watch to help students think about and reflect about how they learn. We know what the hallmarks are of engaged students: There are years of research that help us understand what an engaged student is and what they look like. But one of the challenges you have is how do you capture those types of activities in a Fitbit-like way — something that is very simple and easy to interact with, to think about reflectively how it is that you’re learning. We’re looking at the Apple Watch as a reflective tool to capture how the students are reacting with their classmates, how they’ve been interactive with their material, how they’re learning and using that to self-inform the student in a number of different ways.
Q. Can you paint a picture of what that will look like for one of the students in this experiment?
A. How it works is, the student will wear the watch and on kind of a random interval the student will get sampled from a series of questions, and will receive a question like, “Have you studied with a classmate recently?” Or, “How much have you spent studying recently?” Or, “Have you applied something recently from another course to your current class?” So that will be the first step … capturing that piece of information. And we’d have a series of questions like that throughout the day, and when the student would get that question, they could kind of respond to it, or dismiss it and answer it another time. Additionally, the student could … provide a voice feedback, so they could talk to us into the watch about how they’ve been studying. And we can convert that and actually do some textual analysis after the fact.
Q. Why not just use a smartphone? What additional benefit do you get out of the watch?
A. The way I like to explain it is, the watch can exist with the student at the moment of learning, but do it in a way that it’s not between them and whatever’s being taught. So it sits on their wrist and it’s with you, but it’s not in your hand. It’s not something you necessarily have to think about and pull out of your pocket and do. That’s the idea … that it becomes virtually transparent as part of that process. So the question is, Would you receive more interaction as a result of that on a regular basis, and does that lead to better reflection on how you’ve been learning?
Q. In the past Apple has encouraged pilot projects in education for their new devices. Is Apple supporting this project in any way?
A. We’ve been discussing this off and on with Apple. We’ve had some of our developers out to a developers’ event centered on the watch earlier this week. And that’s sort of the level of engagement at this point.
Q. People often seem interested in how new Apple products might be used in the classroom. It happened with iPads and iPhones before that. What is your prediction. Do you see Apple Watches as becoming a classroom device in some way?
A. In the classroom the early opportunity is going to be as a teaching device. It provides a lot of the same types of functionality that we saw with smartphones and tablets. However, the advantage now is that for the faculty member they can truly be hands-free. So they can do things like control their presentation, but they no longer have to stand at a lectern to do it or even have a clicker anymore [to advance the slides]. They could just use the watch to interact with their presentation material. A lot of these small little apps that we’ve seen to, say, identify a random student — these types of small tools to automate the classroom experience can be put onto a watch, and no longer do I have to think about having to stand at the lectern because I want to use my hands or carry around a tablet. Now I just have a device on my wrist, and I can interact with it.
Q. When the Apple Watch was first announced, a professor put out a parody of how this kind of wearable could be overkill in the academic context, including noting that one feature could be to send an electric shock to the user’s wrist if an academic paper gets rejected to remind you to work harder next time. What do you say to professors who feel that this is too much bells and whistles for the classroom?
A. It very well may be. It’s just like everything else. It’s the point at which it becomes useful. Wearables like the Apple Watch have yet to find their killer app, the thing that everybody can all get excited about to say, This is why you would have it as part of the learning experience. So this is to understand it. We can begin to see what the opportunities are.
Q. What about access? To use the Apple Watch requires owning an iPhone and this expensive new device. Could this further a divide between tech haves and have-nots in higher education?
A. It’s certainly something to keep in mind, so that’s why we should keep in mind what are the value points? That’s why we’re starting this exploration at a small level, and comparing this with other devices that are more common. To find out: These are the kinds of advantages that make it more worthwhile or less worthwhile. To enter in with a large amount of skepticism but thinking, What are the opportunities?
Q. So are you wearing an Apple Watch now?
A. Yeah. I did not call you on it, though. I just got it this morning, and I’ve just been playing around with it. It’s really neat. If you’ve ever watched Knight Rider as a kid, I can’t help but feel like that. You can text through it; you can call through it, which was kind of unexpected. The way they engineered the interaction on the device is really elegant. It’s surprisingly easy to interact with. For first-generation technology I’m impressed by it. But it doesn’t have its killer app yet.