Wearable Technology (ethics first)

First, a story from my college years.

In a psych class in about 1978, the professor was pushing  a student really hard about her assumptions. She became more and more agitated, and blurted out a line of religious reasoning that she thought would settle the question. The professor wasn’t going to let her off that easy; he wanted her to justify her own opinion. In his slow, deliberate voice, he said;

“Who cares what you think?”

The room fell silent as the woman choked. She couldn’t answer. After a moment, she burst into tears, and ran out of the room.

Google Glass
Google glass quite a bit LESS immersive than some of the other technologies we looked at.

Today I’m at Educause 2015 in Indianapolis, attending a session on “wearable technology”. There are already a lot more platforms than I’d realized, but the gist is that where our current students are “Digital Natives”, we will soon have the opportunity to teach students who are “Virtual Natives”.  What will this mean for pedagogy? For the boundaries of the institution? For the organizational boundaries of the class? How can we promote visual literacy? How can we harness the technology to promote learning?

Toward the end, we were given topics to discuss at our tables. The people at my table chose an alignment of two topics: 1) Who will decide on the use of platforms that rest on data-harvesting and analysis schemes profitable to corporations? And 2) What will ubiquitous miniature recording devices mean for the classroom? Will classrooms become public spaces, open to comment and criticism from people beyond the school?

We have to get out ahead of both of these issues. Colleges are already using platforms with a lot of fine print in the EULA. One person at the table related a story of an online design platform for students… that made everything the student created, the intellectual property of the company. Once the class ended, students actually had to pay if they wanted to access the system and see their own work. The university’s legal department is still chewing on that one.

Cash-strapped universities will be offered premium platform channels that protect student information and creations, alongside free channels that do not.

At our university, we’re grading student essays using an artificial intelligence platform that applies various rules to the assignment. As each semester goes on, the system learns. Hmm…

There are systems that track student movements (based on Disney magic bands), handling everything from stairway and elevator traffic and class attendance,  to lunchtime discount deals. Ten million of the bands have been distributed already.

Now on to wearable video technology.

Just this week, we have seen a classroom video of a school resource officer assaulting a teenage girl because she wouldn’t cooperate. I’d have to say that’s all to the good; let the brute explain why a girl frozen in some kind of emotional lock-down deserved to be thrown to the floor and pinned there with his massive knee.

But think back to that story from my college years. Imagine a similar scene today. With real-time, miniature wearable technology, there’s a possibility that the student’s meltdown would be on YouTube before she got to her car. It could be a meme by lunchtime.  But she didn’t do anything wrong, and really, neither did our professor. If you’re thinking “Well that’s already the case with phones”, you are right… except that with wearable technology, the trend is toward miniaturization. There may be no way to know who is capturing video. A classroom isn’t a private space (like your bedroom), but it isn’t exactly public either.

Everyone is an experimental subject.  Even students are now, and will be increasingly, packing data-gathering systems that will allow them to do things no university RBI would allow a professor to do. Hmm…

There are huge learning possibilities, but wearable technology also allows a kind of observation, data collection, analysis and sharing that places others inside the blast zone of our new-found abilities. And the rapid expansion of those abilities will always stay ahead of any system of rules and punishments we might fancy as containment of them.

Ethics might be a humanities subject, but even in virtual space, it is as important as ever. It can’t simply be taught as another subject; we are going to have to figure out how to weave it into every page of the whole curriculum. It needs to become an adaptive, internalized part of what we call education. How?


  • Holy cow – New York Times partners with Google for VR story delivery. They actually included a Cardboard with the Sunday supplement.
  • When I see a bit of Education Technology, the dinosaur part of my brain wants to know: “How will this fit into the lecture?” And in some ways, it can. But in some ways, it doesn’t even need thousands of tonnes of brick and steel wrapped around it to be a learning space.
  • VR technologies using smart phones are amazingly effective, and disarmingly simple to use. Google makes one that incorporates apps with a viewer made of cardboard. More sophisticated ones, still on the user’s own phone, will actually have a lot of uses.
  • The session did not touch on how a virtual-reality augmented curriculum might impact a visually-handicapped person.
  • I have some thoughts about the digital savvy of the so-called digital natives, but that is a topic for another time.