The inaugural Social Media in Higher Education Conference 2015 proffered a sumptuous menu of delectable offerings … and I’m not referring to the conference dinner!
The appetisers were served on Thursday afternoon, opening with a hands-on session in which some recent technological innovations were available to try out … on? I give you ‘The Wearables!’ Having never seen Glass from Google, and especially now that it is discontinued, I was keen to try out this early iteration of consumer personal display technology might offer. Although a little less than stable, apparently poor connectivity and with some way to go as far as design is concerned, the optics and voice-activated menu system were nevertheless quite impressive. I don’t doubt that we’ll see a much more sophisticated version in the not too distant future. Being able to benefit from an augmented view of our surroundings, delivered through an unobtrusive package will offer interesting possibilities. The camera had some appeal too – “OK Google – Take photo” to quickly snap a book section I am reading would be a boon. Or imagine meeting your class and the facial recognition software being able to overlay each student’s name as you look at them. Or how might it support conducting ethnographies in public spaces? Though of course that immediately quite rightly triggers the ‘privacy’ and ethics alarm bells. When Glass’ successor looks like a conventional pair of specs, how will we as educational institutions deal with the issues it raises when students might be receiving data (or recording!) in lessons, or when they are taking formal assessments?
There’s a neat segue from close of the Glass section into the smartwatch on display; another technology I’d yet to handle. To be honest, for the most part I’d ignored smartwatches for the simply reason that I don’t wear a watch (except a Garmin whilst I’m running). I also have skinny wrists, on which the bulky models I’d seen so far would look comical … in fact much like my Garmin does! So when I saw and tried the sleek Samsung Gear S2, I have to confess to being more than a little impressed. It looked the part as a watch and all the functions and features seemed acceptable for such a small device But here was the problem; I just couldn’t see how it would fit either into my life, or for that matter into a learning environment. Just how important is it to be able to receive notifications that you can surreptitiously check? And at the cost of a good android tablet? No, not for me. Oh and if we’re talking exam security, wait and see what unfolds after this Xmas when far more of these watches are likely to be under the trees around the land.
The one device which truly captured my imagination though was the virtual reality headset. Both the sophisticated Samsung version and the Google Cardboard turn a smartphone plus app plus content into a startlingly immersive environment. Donald Clarke has been waxing lyrical about these for some time now, so do check out his posts for the multitude of ways in which he thinks they might be applied. I was distinctly impressed with how carefully matched the on-screen activity and motion of your head are; no noticeable lag whatsoever, though perhaps that depends on the capability of the smartphone being used? The next step is the educational context in which they’re deployed. I can certainly see immense value in being able to ‘transport’ pupils to parts of the world they’re unlikely to ever visit, either because they lack the financial resources to do so, or the environments are too inhospitable. Or to take them to places that humans can’t currently go – surface of Mars, inside a blood vessel, or to visit recreations of past times and places. The crucial part will be how we, as teachers, build opportunities that this technology allows into our curricula. It’s fine and dandy having a couple of minutes experiencing a place, but how might we incorporate that into the learning process? Doubtless we treat it as a resource where students observe, synthesise, interpret and analyse in the same way they might do from a text, performance or experiment.
What we need now is content, which will will doubtless trickle out as we move forward, like with Google Expeditions. But as always, how much more powerful when students create, as well as consume content? Again this is just emerging, but there are apps which allow them to do just that. All we have to do is ensure their explorations contribute to meaningful learning experiences.