Wearables and Learning

Wearables and Learning

Analysts Disagree On How Quickly Organizations Can Adapt Learning To Wearable Technology.

By Jerry Roche

About 13 million wearable tech devices were shipped in 2013. That number is expected to increase to 170 million by 2018.

Certainly, wearable technology like Google Glass and smartwatches from various manufacturers have the potential to at least support — if not indirectly administer — learning. Specifically, these types of products could provide feedback that tells learners how well they are doing and focuses their attention on key information that they might normally miss.

Though the U.S. market is on the leading edge of wearable adoption, more research into wearables in the workplace has taken place in Europe.

In the United Kingdom, I.T. bosses see 69 percent of staff bring wearables into their organizations, according to a survey by Trend Micro. Research by that I.T. security firm also showed 91 percent of organizations expect the number of employees bringing their own wearable devices to work to increase in the next year. Although there is a lack of concern over wearables entering the workplace, 85 percent of respondents said they are aware of the security risks wearables may bring.

The biggest concern for I.T. professionals bringing wearables into the workplace is identity theft, which was cited by 47 percent of participants in the Trend Micro survey. The second is that employees were unaware of the policies or issues surrounding wearable devices in the workplace.

Additionally, a third of European businesses will introduce wearable technology to the workplace in 2015, according to the systems monitoring and I.T. automation company Ipswitch. The problem is that only 13 percent of companies have a policy in place to deal with it.

The tech industry itself looks at wearables as a potential prime repository of massive amounts of imbedded sensors, especially when they’re imbedded into gadgets that can coordinate and communicate with one another.

At the International CES (Computer Electronics Show) earlier this year, Intel Corp. CEO Brian Krzanich led his company’s keynote address by saying that 2015 will mark the next technology consumer wave. “We’re moving from a two- dimensional world to a three-dimensional world,” he said. “This additional dimension will change how we experience computing.” In citing the evolution of wearables as one force that will shape this next wave, Krzanich touted Intel innovations such as Real Sense, which can interpret depth; True Key, with recognition capability that eliminates need for passwords; and the Curie wearable, which can identify different sporting activities.

Those and similar devices, mostly popular among tech-savvy consumers, have yet to be tied into any learning initiatives. But in a larger sense, they are indicative of a massive coming change in our everyday lives wherein technology actually lives with and on our bodies. The potential trend might be similar to how smartphones have not only entered into but dominated the corporate learning conversation. (Who would have predicted 15 years ago that we would be taking our training through telephones?)

“It isn’t really a stretch of imagination to consider how this technology can be put for learning assistance or performance — just like designers subsumed personal computers, and now tablets and smartphones,” notes Upside Learning’s Abhijit Kadle.

He further believes that real sharing will play a key role: “We’ve realized that learning can be better in a culture driven by sharing. As wearable computing allows us to actually stream data about every little activity we engage in, this will generate large volumes of data [that] can be considered as learning content, quite unlike conventional ideas of what content should look like. Video, audio, images, text and now V.R. [virtual reality] and A.R. [augmented reality], coupled with an understanding of context, can potentially transform learning and performance support at a very fundamental level.”

Virtual, Augmented Reality

When it comes to learning applications for wearables, the most obvious is in the realm of virtual and augmented reality, which includes serious games.

Indeed, when a wearable computer was first introduced to the U.S. Army way back in 1989, it was meant to assist soldiers in battle. Since then, a host of serious games have been introduced to help soldiers learn how to cope with certain combat scenarios.

Wearables can take the learning possibilities presented by A.R. one step further. A new product called “Sixth Sense,” which was developed at the MIT Media Lab, can digitally augment the five natural senses. Worn around the neck like a very large pendant, the device includes a tiny projector and mirror that can shine an image onto just about any surface. It’s not difficult to see that such a feature could be used to project training videos to employees, anywhere, anytime.

Memory Storage

One of the key functions of wearable computers is augmenting the user’s memory. Rather than storing knowledge into memory, employees can use performance tools to complete the tasks at hand. When they need to perform that task again, they just reuse the tools they need.

This benefit makes wearables ideal for presenting technical documentation to certain audiences like maintenance engineers. Engineers traditionally refer to paper-based manuals, but they are in- creasingly being replaced with electronic formats called Interactive Electronic Technical Manuals (IETMs).

Wearable IETM systems may be effective on-the-job training tools as new engineers are guided through unfamiliar tasks without having to refer back to manuals on the workbench. Preliminary testing has shown that wearable computer-based IETMs can be highly beneficial despite numerous usability issues with the equipment.

Initial participants in a research project by David Liu of the University of Queensland in Australia noted that looking up technical manuals on a wearable is far less tedious than having to constantly refer back to a desktop computer. Inexperienced users found the step-by-step guiding very helpful as training aids, especially photographic illustrations for each step.

An ‘eye’ To The Future

As much as we hear and read about current technological advancements like the “Internet of Things,” Samsung’s and Apple’s smartwatches and Google Glass, they are in their infancy. And there exists a disagreement among tech analysts about how quickly wearable devices will be accepted.

One camp believes that they will not make any widespread impacts in the way we work over the next decade.

“It’s probably going to take several more years for us to work through a lot of the technological issues, a lot of the issues in the ecosystem, a lot of the issues around the data science, and helping [people] understand the category and the benefits,” Dan Ledger of Endeavour Partners has said.

Another camp believes the wearable revolution could take shape much faster than the recent mobile revolution, which started in the early 1990s.

Bill Wasik on wired.com notes: “Sensors and chip sets are cheaper now than ever, making it easier for small companies to incorporate sophisticated hardware into wearable devices. And while smartphone manufacturers had to master the tricky art of providing dependable mobile Internet service, wearable manufacturers can piggyback on those innovations using simple Bluetooth or other protocols to communicate with a smartphone and thus with the outside world. With all that prebaked hardware and wireless connectivity — and huge preorders from crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter — it has become possible for tiny companies to dream up, build and sell wearable devices in competition with big companies, a feat that was never possible with smartphones.”

Google and others are finding that drawbacks to wearables include users feeling a sense of isolation and non-users feeling disenfranchised. The company has stopped selling its much-hyped Google Glass; tech analysts are predicting that it will be “reinvented” as a different product, perhaps a watch-like solution.

Marcel Bullinga, futurist and author, thinks wearables will result in actual diminished work skills. “A major global megatrend is ‘de-skilling.’ Our children will learn less and achieve more. Of course, they will also suffer from major social media stress traumas.”


Wearable technology is in its infancy. Many of its most obvious uses are consumer- rather than business-oriented. To date, few learning/training applications exist. But as the trend catches on, it’s believed that developers eventually will come up with corporate and educational learning-related applications and the software.

“It will be a world more integrated than ever before,” notes Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. “We will see more work teams, study groups and collaborations.”

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