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Can the Apple Watch Enhance Student Achievement?

A research team from Penn State University will try to find out how student learning can be enhanced by applying what's known about self-regulation and learning strategies.

We know wearable technology gets people moving by quantifying steps and calories burned. What's unknown, however, is whether -- or how -- wearable technology can influence other areas of behavior, like self-regulated learning. 

One Penn State University faculty member is teaming with technology staff to seek answers, and to pursue wearable technology as a learning tool. The university's research team will be applying what's known about self-regulation and learning strategies to test how student achievement can be enhanced with the Apple Watch and comparing its use across other technology formats.  

"The thing with wearables is that these are highly personal devices, even more personal than your smartphone," said Ben Brautigam, manager of advanced learning projects for Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) at Penn State University. "We can take this customized point of view to provide recommendations to students to enrich certain aspects of their learning."

The research is targeting self-regulated learning, or learning that students monitor and control through their knowledge, self-awareness skills, strategies and motivation. These are powerful tools that can change student academic achievement, according to Rayne Sperling, a self-regulation researcher and associate professor of educational psychology at Penn State. 

Sperling is heading up the research, and wants to help students not only track their learning progress and remind them to study, but also present course-tailored strategies and content via mini quizzes to elevate student learning.    

"I'm really excited about it because I think that there's some versatility here that we haven't seen before in this type of application," said Sperling, who is also director of undergraduate and graduate studies in educational psychology, counseling and special education.

Although there is uncharted territory, like the FitBit, the university's TLT unit plans to push data points together in interesting ways for dashboard visualizations that help students reflect on their learning progress, said Bart Pursel, who coordinates faculty programs within TLT, one of which is its fellows program. 

Sperling's research joined forces with TLT when this spring she was chosen as one of five TLT Fellows. The program brings together technology staff with faculty to pursue cutting-edge technology projects, and then bring successful tech efforts to the larger Penn State community. 

But even before the large-scale research begins, Sperling is planning how best to design and conduct the research, and is pinning down the right learning prompts to help students in regulating their learning. 

"One way that prompts can support students’ awareness of their own learning is through modeling the types of questions students should ask themselves," Sperling explained. "Further, our scaffolds can prompt awareness of whether [the student] understands content and will also provide strategy suggestions."  

The strategies Sperling will use are backed by research that prove they facilitate learning. One example is giving students in a calculus course who are studying related weight problems a specific prompt, such as a drawing strategy, and describing how it works and the best way to employ it, she said.

In addition to piloting these concepts, this summer Sperling is surveying students' existing self-regulation strategies and experimenting with the amount of learning support needed to enhance their learning.

The final scaffolds will be presented in a large-scale study to student volunteers in fall STEM courses so the team can look across technology formats and students to see what effects the formats have on self-regulated learning and student achievement, and when.

"My guess is that depending on the nature of the type of prompt or type of scaffold that we're providing for them, it's going to vary what sort of medium is going to best reach students," Sperling said.   

Another important foundational issue is conducting design experiments to gauge how best to present the learning supports and to receive student feedback. With the Apple Watch, Brautigam said, there is a lot of flexibility; for instance, students can respond to prompts simply with a "yes" or "no" button, using sliders or meters to gauge their responses, or by replying with a voice message. Even if students dismiss a prompt, this still gives the research team information, he said.  

"We're trying to find the simplest way possible to get a lot of information," said Brautigam. 

Ideally these prompts will be managed in one place, but delivered across various formats including the Apple Watch, smartphones and the university's Web-based learning management system, as well as other wearable devices in the future, he said. 

Meanwhile, Sperling's work is an extension of Brautigam's, who manages TLT's advanced learning projects group, which designs and develops new technologies and has experience building applications on Apple devices. 

The self-regulation research also builds upon earlier learning analytics research conducted by TLT with input by Sperling. During that study, students tracked their individual progress and compared it to classmates' progress and behaviors, and saw behaviors correlated to higher achievement, such as regularly signing onto the university's course management system. 

The new study will culminate in the ability to make predictions about which types of students are best able to use which types of technologies, and also how the tools are supporting their academic achievements, said Sperling. 

Up until now, much of the academic research has been limited to other technology devices, like phones, where students were asked for motivational feedback and didn't receive specific learning tips or scaffolds, like Sperling plans to use. 

In the end, the success of wearable-technology-mediated learning on a larger scale may depend on the adoption rate of the technology across the student body. But if it's anything like the iPhone, there may be something to it. 

"If it does become prevalent, I think we'll have a leg up here," Brautigam said, "because we've been sort of investing in this and exploring this since the inception."

For Sperling, it will be interesting to check back on her research a year from now, she said. "It's possible that some really little prompt could change the way that [students] engage with the academic content."