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It's the time of year for predictions: what will the next twelve months hold for education technology.

I generally try to shy away from making predictions (okay, confession: I wrote one for Educating Modern Learners this week). I'm much better at analyzing what's happened and why than at forecasting what's going to happen. I remain interested – always – in the "why."

Why do certain technologies get hyped? Why do certain technologies get adopted? Is there a connection between consumer technology purchases around the holidays and what is then predicted (imagined) to be those technologies’ usage in the classroom? (I've noticed several recent blog posts from educators to that end.) More broadly, how do consumer tech trends influence ed-tech trends? What problems do these technologies really solve in education? And, of course, what new problems do they create in turn?

The Hype Cycle

The annual Consumer Electronics Show happens this week, and the tech industry bloggers are already predicting that “wearables” will be one of the hot trends to watch this year. That’s not surprising with the Apple iWatch supposedly “Coming Early 2015.” “Gartner Says in 2015, 50 Percent of People Considering Buying a Smart Wristband Will Choose a Smartwatch Instead.” Gartner says. Gartner says. Gartner says.

That’s how consumer tech trends work. Supposedly. Rather, it’s what the tech industry wants consumers to want, what it hopes they want.

Who says what’s going to be “hot” in education technology? Who and what and why? When we predict the future of ed-tech, what are we hoping for?

The annual Horizon Report has been predicting “wearables” and other “smart objects” will be an ed-tech thing for a while now. (Sidenote: I’ve started a new project – The Horizon Report Data Liberation Project.) “Smart objects” were on the horizon (for higher ed) in 2009; “wearable technology” was on the horizon in 2013. Related trends: “learning analytics” (on the horizon in 2011, 2012, 2012, 2014) and “the quantified self” (on the horizon in 2014).

It’s easy to be distracted by the shifting timelines in the Horizon Report – when particular technologies will (or won’t) see adoption by colleges and universities. That’s just one of the problems with predictions: when they fail.

It may be that all the focus on “emerging technologies” functions to obscure the overarching and longer-running “trend” at play here: data. Data collection and data analysis. There are policy demands for data; there are political narratives wrapped up in data; there are business interests tied up in data; and new technologies help fulfill those.

(You could maintain, I suppose, that “wearables” are an expression of the “mobile” trend too – small, personal computing devices in our hands, in our pockets, on our wrists, on our faces. But a lot of wearables, particularly the “tracking” kind, aren’t about fulfilling our “desktop” computing tasks while on-the-go; again, they’re about data collection and analysis.)

“Wearables” Already

“Wearables” are already in use in lots of schools – that is, if you count RFID-enabled student identification cards as such. They’re not as tech-forward/fashionable as the latest electronics on display at CES, sure. But they do underscore my point: that one of the major purposes of wearable technologies in schools is tracking, data, surveillance.

Since the early 2000s, many students’ school-issued ID cards have been equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips – the same thing used to track livestock, for what it’s worth. RFID badges have been used to automate attendance-taking, for example, and to track when and where students get on and off school buses.

In 2012, Northside Independent School District in San Antonio issued its students RFID student-ID cards to be worn at all times around their necks. “The ID badge has a bar code associated with a student’s Social Security number. The chip monitors pupils’ movements on campus, from when they arrive until when they leave,” WIRED reported. One student refused to wear the lanyard, calling it the “Mark of the Beast.” She was expelled, and her family unsuccessfully sued the district. The district later dropped the RFID program, opting to track students with surveillance cameras instead.

That is, the surveillance didn’t stop. Only the technology changed.

Changing technologies have meant, in part, there’s been some move to “upgrade” from RFID to GPS (global positioning system). Indeed, I was pitched by tech entrepreneurs repeatedly last year for crowdfunding campaigns for various GPS-tracking devices for children. “Unparalleled safety,” these devices promise. “Track your kids, your pets, the elderly, parcels and luggage.” Because all of those nouns are clearly equivalent.

Many schools now utilize GPS tracking to locate and recover “lost devices.” Some require students with a history of truancy to check in regularly with GPS devices or even wear GPS ankle bracelets. “Wearable technology.”

Through Glass

From the 2013 Horizon Report:

One of the most compelling potential outcomes of wearable technology in higher education is productivity. Wearable technologies that could automatically send information via text, email, and social networks on behalf of the user, based on voice commands, gestures, or other indicators, would help students and educators communicate with each other, keep track of updates, and better organize notifications. …

In Google’s “Project Glass,” augmented-reality-enabled glasses — slated for release in early 2013 — display relevant information for users as they go about their daily routines ( Users can access the Internet via voice command, communicate email replies, and more. The glasses will also have the ability to alert the user of pertinent information as it arises; if their regular train to campus is running late, for example, the goggles could let them know and propose an alternative route.

Despite initial hype by the tech elite about Google Glass, this wearable has seen a decline in interest – and two years after its debut, it still hasn’t been officially released. The $1500 price tag probably hasn’t helped. Nor has the label “Glasshole” to describe wearers, who look both pretentious and silly with an expensive computer on their face and who could be, some fear, surreptitiously recording video and/or taking photos.

The ability to record video is often what educators tout as one of the main benefits of Glass in the classroom. (Strange: aren’t there other, cheaper ways to do that, that don’t involve automatically uploading content and metadata to Google servers?) There’s seemingly been little inquiry by educators into what happens to the data collected or into the implications of the incessant notifications and nudges and the ubiquitous surveillance that these sorts of devices promote.

School Surveillance

AltSchool, a school/startup founded by former Google exec Max Ventilla, videotapes and audio records every minute of its classrooms.

The engineering team is working to build technology that will allow teachers to bookmark moments when the class gets particularly loud, for example, so they can go back to that moment and see if something needs to be modified in the instructional practice, or if there is a particular incident to observe later.

"That’s a moment when something happened that the teacher wanted to keep so she could go back and see what happened that allowed this breakthrough," Ventilla said. He also believes parents will be grateful for having a video recording of breakthrough academic moments in their children's lives, like when they first learn to read. The school's engineers are working to create sensors sophisticated enough to pick up on students’ facial expressions and then send a signal to the teacher's dashboard. He said the sensors would potentially help teachers know when a child is struggling, even if she's in another part of the room. It's meant to give the teacher another set of eyes.

Surveillance is about social control and coercion. It’s about silencing loud voices. It’s about stifling dissent. What role will education technologies play in this?

The Quantified Student

Students are watched. They are monitored. They are assessed. They are quantified.

Calls for a “quantified student” are connected in part to the “quantified self” movement, whose proponents use various technologies – apps, sensors, and wearables – to monitor aspects of their daily life (most commonly related to health and wellness, tracking things like caloric intake, sleep quality, and physical activity). The notion of the “quantified self” isn’t new – there are merely new devices for tracking, new ways to count “what counts.” “What counts” remains largely the same.

So even if a student gets to track for herself her own data there’s still, again, a very limited sense of “what counts,” based in part on the education system’s existing data demands and measurements. (This is one of the great ironies of disrupting “seat time”: we’re turning to other similarly flawed metrics.)

What would, for example, a “Fitbit for Education” track? As Doug Johnson recently asked,

“What other ways might students be able to monitor their own academic pursuits to improve their academic health? Numbers of …

Pages read

Math problems solved

Words written

Lines of code written

Graphics edited

Movies made

Hours of educational games played

Any higher order thinking activities done???”

I’m not sure any of those numbers would actually tell us that much about learning, although they might reinforce traditional notions of “academic health.” But dreams of a “Fitbit for Education” do reflect a larger narrative that more data and bigger numbers are somehow better. More data will somehow reveal more about ourselves.

And so education technology opts to track more data. Rarely do we stop to ask to whom all this is being revealed or to what end. If both education and education technology view students as objects – objects to be tracked and monitored and shaped and surveilled – what role can we expect wearables to play?

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Audrey Watters



Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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