The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

Have you spotted a fitness tracker in PE or a VR headset in science class?
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Most of the Wareable team are old enough to remember being in school at a time when graphical calculators seemed like the height of tech. Since then things have, thankfully, moved on.

Fitness trackers, augmented reality and virtual reality are slowly creeping into the classroom. Few would argue these technologies don't have educational benefits, but fitting them into the always-squeezed budgets of the average school is not easy.

Just in time for back to school season, here are some of the top wearable tech projects that have already broken through.

Adidas trackers for PE class

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

In 2016, Adidas worked with Interactive Health Technologies to create the Zone, a tracker made for kids' PE lessons rather than people just trying to get healthier.

It monitors heart rate and basic activity, and the idea is that a school will buy a whole army of the things. They'll sit in a charge dock array until a PE lesson, when the kids will strap them on and get exercising.

It may be the hygiene equivalent of a bowling alley that doesn't spray down or clean their shoes, but the Adidas setup provides feedback we certainly didn't get back in the day. After a lesson, the Zone uses NFC to transfer session data to the IHS Spirit platform. You can think of this like any fitness tracker app, except that the data sync'd to a cloud interface both teachers and students can check out.

2016's aim was to get a million students using the platform: it's used in a lot of schools. One is Pleasant Valley Junior High in Iowa. It received 120 Zone trackers in early 2017, and uses them to try to keep the kids' heart rate in the right zone for at least 30 minutes during gym class. IHT told us there are currently "over 300" schools and other bodies currently using Spirit.

ClassVR: Virtual reality learning

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

Avantis has produced a VR headset alternative to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. The high-end options are perhaps not the most convenient ways to add a virtual reality element to the classroom. They're expensive, bulky and require external equipment.

ClassVR is a standalone Android-based VR headset with a built-in battery and processor, removing the need for any cabling or expensive PCs.

Despite this, ClassVR is actually lighter than Oculus Rift or HTC Vive at around 400g. Resolution is higher too, using a 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 display panel. The effect should be similar to a high-end Samsung phone used with a Gear VR headset.

Here's how it works. The teacher loads up the headset with a 'playlist' of experiences relevant to the lesson being taught, and the student can interact with them using kid-friendly gesture controls. There's an 8-megapixel camera on the front of ClassVR that lets them select items by holding a hand in front of the headset.

As they put the headset on, the child will see a "holodeck", which is where they access the various VR activities. There's also a mode that lets them see the classroom, so they don't end up running into a chair. However, ClassVR is sensibly designed for use in a chair, not with the child running around the classroom.

Cashless schools in Singapore

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

Give a child some money to take to school and what are they likely to spend it on? That's right, sweets. POSB's solution is the Smart Buddy. It's a band that is both an activity tracker and a contactless payments wearable that can be used to buy food and drink at school canteens. The kids can even use it to buy books.

The child gets an allowance each day, and can use the watch to see how much credit they have left. And, yes, the parent can monitor exactly what they're spending the cash on via an app.

POSB Smart Buddy only officially launched in August 2017, but this followed a year-long trial in Singapore. To date more than 6,000 Smart Buddy watches have been used by school children. The official launch sees the wearable spread to 19 primary schools in Singapore.

The aim is not just to keep kids fit and healthy, and not eating too much junk, either. The wearable "teaches students how to manage their expenses and save wisely, and provides small business owners in schools greater incentive to adopt digital payments," says managing director of Singapore's DBS Bank Jeremy Soo.

There are also plans for a second-generation version of the Smart Buddy that will let parents see where their children are in the school, right down to the exact room.

The alternative realities school in Kent

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

You might expect a fancy school in New York or California to be at the forefront of bringing VR and AR into the classroom. But a school in Sevenoaks, Kent? Not so much.

However, Sevenoaks School has been an unlikely pioneer of this tech for some time now, having invested in an Oculus Rift development kit several years ago. Since then the school has purchased Google Glass, Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vive headsets to introduce the students to AR and VR.

"We are moving away from simply 'learning' a subject or topic to 'feeling' the content," said Graeme Lawrie, the private school's director of Innovation and Outreach, in an editorial published by The Telegraph. "This is not simply an engagement tool or a gimmick, it allows a student to explore, to experience or to be involved in something, as if they are actually present in that environment or place."

While the school doesn't appear to use dozens of headsets or a curriculum-wide approach, it has experimented with 3D painting and using VR to explore the concept of reality in philosophy lessons. Deep stuff.

Mandatory Fitbits at university

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

It's easy to get on-board with schools using tech to help motivate kids to get fit. But what if it's mandatory?

In 2016 Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, a private Christian Evangelical college, required all freshman students to use Fitbit trackers to log their steps and heart rate. Their performance forms 20% of their grade for the mandatory physical education class, based on reaching 10,000 steps a day and 150 minutes of elevated heart rate a week.

The programme uses Fitbit Charge HR bands, which have an optical heart rate sensor and step-tracking, but no GPS, which makes the privacy element of this plan somewhat less alarming.

ORU predictably attracted criticism following this move, including a petition that gathered 1,669 supporters, citing its potential to incite or worsen eating disorders or compulsive behaviour patterns. Of course, there's an argument that regular exercise improves mood stability and can help with depression, so we'll walk away from this one, slowly.

The university stands by the scheme but it appears that students can choose how to monitor their steps and heart rate activity. ORU's director of communications Stephanie Hill told us, "we are still using Fitbits to track activity if the student chooses to use that method, and most do."

The bungee jump physics lesson

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

Nearpod is a company that uses VR to add context to lessons, with "virtual field" trips that are punctuated with quizzes, activities and slides showing information about the subject.

For example, in the "Bungee Jumping" module, the student gets a 360-degree view of the top of a bungee jump tower before being asked to draw a diagram detailing the effect of Newton's Law of Gravitation in this situation. And what would happen to the bungee jumper seen mid-air if an alien force suddenly removed all the effects of gravity.

You're meant to experience some of the panoramas just on a laptop screen, although Nearpod also makes a simple VR headset for a much more immersive experience. It's a Google Cardboard-style headset, though, one that uses a phone screen as a display rather than its own OLED panel.

It's a less dynamic solution than ClassVR, which is more like an educator's HTC Vive, but does add spice to all sorts of lessons. Nearpod offers dozens of these, ranging from ones for small children to others that could probably teach us a thing or two. Epidemics for grades 9-12, for example, delves into the spread of disease, and offers a 3D model of the influenza virus.

It's not just for the classroom either. These can be downloaded and bought by anyone, if you fancy giving your own child (or yourself) a fresh take on a traditional subject.

Google Expeditions for everyone

The wearable tech that's actually being used in real classrooms

Google's main contribution to the educational side of VR is Expeditions. This is a Cardboard app you can download from Google Play right now. It's free, and is one of the best educational VR resources available.

Several people using phones on the same Wi-Fi network can go on an 'expedition' together, one acting as a guide. Or you can simply have a go on your own. As this is a Cardboard app rather than a Daydream one, you end up looking around 3D scenes rather than exploring full environments, but the information Google has packed into them is impressive.

Expeditions comes across as a very tailored version of the VR Google Earth experience. You see a 360-degree scene, with info panels floating throughout. Select one and a voice over will read it out.

One of the series of scenes looks into NASA, beyond the fire and fanfare of rocket launches and into what people do behind the scenes. Other subjects include the environment, with subjects such as coral bleaching, and history. There's an interesting look at the LGBT history of New York, for example.

Over two million school kids have gone on VR trips so far but you don't have to go to school to appreciate what Google's doing here as Expeditions is now open to everyone. It's honestly like visiting a great museum. Some of the voice-overs could do with some work, though.

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Andrew does freelance writing and editing for some of the UK's top tech and lifestyle publications including TrustedReviews, Stuff, T3, TechRadar, Lifehacker, Wareable, The Ambient, and more.

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