Learning Adventures in the Red Rock Canyon Park: Michael Searson on Wearable and Mobile Technologies

Wearable technology refers to devices that can be worn by users, taking the form of an accessory such as jewelry, sunglasses, a backpack, or even actual items of clothing such as shoes or a jacket.” Horizon Report Wiki 2015

Wearable technologies are seamlessly integrated with a user’s everyday life and movements. They enable users to see information about their surroundings, allow them to engage with social media, email and web services, and can be used to track and monitor an individual’s physical functions such as sleep, movement, blood pressure etc. Together with the already ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, wearable technologies are likely to shape our personal learning ecosystem.

How can we leverage these exciting new technologies for formal and informal learning? It was my pleasure to talk to Mike Searson, immediate Past President of SITE—Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education, Executive Director of the School for Global Education & Innovation at Kean University and on the Education Advisory Board for the US National Parks Service.

Explore Red Rock Canyon State Park during SITE 2015 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Explore Red Rock Canyon State Park during SITE 2015 (Image Source: Wikipedia)

During SITE 2015, Mike Searson offers conference participants a unique experience: Exploring the Red Rock Canyon Park and delving into the possibilities of mobile and wearable technologies at the same time. As the US National Parks approaches its Centennial in 2016, Searson and SITE are excited about the opportunity to weave together rich, place-based education experiences with emerging technologies.

Q: What wearable and mobile technologies make up your personal learning environment?

Of course, the answer to that question depends on how one defines “wearable” and “mobile” technologies. In some cases, that’s pretty easy: my Fitbit is a wearable, my Android phone is a mobile. My MacBook Air is neither (although some may feel an “ultra” laptop is a “mobile,” I don’t). And, I’d classify my iPad as a mobile. Currently, the mobile/wearable landscape is changing very rapidly, and will continue to do so for some time. For example, some items at the SITE conference may disappear, while others may emerge just around the corner. For example, Google recently announced that it was “shelving” its Glass. And Apple is about to release its Watch. And, Google Cardboard offers some very interesting possibilities, especially for educators exploring place-based learning opportunities. We’re hopeful to have a good array of mobiles and wearables with us at the SITE conference.

However we define “mobile” and “wearable” devices, we should explore the possibility of BYOD tools to their fullest educational potential. In other words, we should leverage the devices people carry around with them everyday, as powerful tools for learning.

Q: What National Parks are you planning on visiting this year?

Well, for the SITE conference, we’ll be spending time at the Red Rock Canyon, which is under the US Bureau of Land Management. It’s wonderful and beautiful park, just outside of Las Vegas. Perhaps I should mention that I sit on the US National Parks Service Advisory Board for Education, which allows me unique opportunities to “explore” parks. However, as I live in the Northeast US, I devote considerable time to “urban” parks. Over the next few months, along with various colleagues, I will be exploring the Federal Hall National Monument in NYC and the Independence National Park in Philadelphia. Also, I spend a lot of time biking at the Sandy Hook Gateway in NJ, along the Atlantic Ocean that has great views of the NYC skyline. As an educator, I am intrigued by the educational possibilities that Parks offer to urban youth and their teachers. I should mention that the year 2016 is the Centennial of the US National Parks Service, and many people are exploring the rich opportunities that parks—from national, to state, to local levels—offer the public, including place-based education experiences.

Q: What specific potential do you see for mobile devices and wearable technologies to enhance place-based education?

Before answering that question, I’d like to acknowledge a remarkable phenomenon that has occurred over the past few years. When smart phones were first introduced, they had to be regularly tethered to computers; that is, if you wished to add new apps to your phone or update its operating system, you had to connect it to a computer. Over time, smartphones worked as truly independent devices. You could enjoy their full potential without ever connecting to a computer. Access to the “cloud” was the only requirement to optimize their value. Now smartphones have become the hub for wearable devices, i.e., with very few exceptions, your wearable device is not fully optimized unless it is either directly connected to or within a short distance of its smartphone hub. Yet, this coupling does allow for true 24-7 experiences. For example, I wear my fitness band all day; thus, certain fitness data are constantly monitored. And, when in range of my smartphone, these data are shared and uploaded to the cloud. Although, I was provided a dongle to “connect” my Fitbit to my computer, I never use it. I really like the mobility and ease with which I can carry/wear the smartphone/wearable combo all day long. So, within a few years, the smartphone went from a device that had to be tethered to a computer to one that is now a hub for other devices.

As education leaders, I believe it is our responsibility to explore the potential of such devices, especially when used in tandem, as rich learning technologies. And, due to their mobility, they are perfect tools to explore place-based education opportunities. While I could take my laptop and use its camera to take pictures of flora and fauna in National Parks, I’d never consider doing so. I would do what I do in other interesting daily experiences, take out my phone and take the desired picture. I could then use Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat to share with my community. And, at the same time, my wearable device may be collecting spatial and temporal data—I could easily find out the distance and elevation of the trail that I just walked.

In the end, it may be best to say that we really don’t know the answer to your question. We are in the early stages of exploring how mobiles and wearables can “enhance place-based education.”

Q: What distinguishes wearable technologies from other mobile learning devices, such as smart phones?

First, I need to repeat what I said above, for the most part, wearables function best when they utilize a smartphone as a hub. Currently, there are very few exceptions to this. But, again, the landscaping is changing quite rapidly—there are wearables embedded in clothing, wearables “connected” to medical devices, wearables that transmit (and receive) data directly to (and from) your car. With that in mind, here are some of the notable distinctions: wearable are true 24-7 devices. My laptop is with me much of the day, but only when I am indoors. My smartphone is with me most of the day, but usually not around when I sleep nor (hopefully 😉 when I drive. Yet, the only technology that is with me 24-7—indoors or outdoors; asleep or awake; driving, watching TV or hiking—is my fitness band. Currently I find the notification systems on my wearables to be more functional and less intrusive. Frankly, many of the notifications on my smartphone are little more than annoyances—often some type of marketing message. Yet, on my fitness device, the subtle buzz when I’ve reached ten thousand steps or a flashing light that I need to recharge my battery seem just right. Again, as we gain more experience with wearables, this may change, but at the moment, for me, it seems that their notification ecosystem is just right. Finally, and this feature could cause alarm—many of the features in some wearables are tacit. In other words, without being consciously aware of it, I transmit and receive data to and from my fitness band 24-7.

However, all of this should raise some concerns for educators. As described above, since most of these data reside in the cloud, it is possible that they could be hacked. So, if they wished to do so, a law enforcement agency or a good ole hacker could tell precisely when (and even roughly where) I went to sleep. Should we begin to more formally incorporate mobile and wearable devices into classroom experiences we need to be concerned about who might be accessing the data students produce, and for what reasons.

Q: For many people, me included, National Parks are a place for disconnecting from devices and re-connecting with silence. Are we old-fashioned curmudgeons missing out on crucial learning opportunities?

Actually, many of us on the Parks advisory board would agree with you. On the one hand, we recognize the need to make our parks as connected as possible; on the other hand, we should be concerned about the distraction issue. Ideally, connectivity in the parks, and other placed-based education spaces, would only enhance the overall experience, and not distract from it. For example, remarkable “apps,” available on both iOS and Android platforms, developed by National Parks Service staff (see http://www.nps.gov/nama/photosmultimedia/app-page.htm), provide true added value to the Parks experience. For example, the NPS Mall App, which can be used when in DC national parks, offers a unique augmented reality tool that allows the visitor to alternately view actual monuments and then access cloud-based media.

Yet, there are times that the unvarnished experience is the purest reality. For example, if you seen a herd of moose running across a plain in Yellowstone Park, put down your camera, stash your cell phone and just enjoy! In fact, one of the Parks subcommittees is simultaneously recommending that Parks be empowered with Wi-Fi/4G connectivity; yet, have strategically placed signs that say “Power Down Zone,” indicating the visitor has reached a space that could be best enjoyed with no filters, especially technology driven ones. In the end, those of us who support place-base experiences are confronted with the same issues faced by 21st century contemporary society—how do we best used our devices to enhance, rather than distract from, our lives.

Q: Could mobile data collection by everyday visitors eventually inform park management and help curate national treasures?

Absolutely! Actually, that’s an easy transition from what’s been happening for years. Consider the numerous monarch butterfly tracking projects, where naturalists and other scientists work with students and teachers to track and collect data on monarch migrations. These types of activities are designed to create citizen scientists, everyday people who, under the right conditions and paired in some way with real scientists, can participate in actual scientific activities, such as providing tracking data on butterfly migrations. While some of the initial projects were PC based, we’re already seeing the availability of citizen scientist projects on mobile devices. For example, there are the Project Noah and Marine Debris Tracker apps that leverage active communities, such as students and teachers, to work with scientist in data collection and documentation.

Of course, even without apps, mobile and certain wearable devices come with inherent geo-tagging and time-stamp features, which are useful for data collection and curation activities. For example, in many of these devices, the very act of taking a picture invokes an array of meta-data—such as the location, time, and sometimes weather conditions—that were present when the picture was taken. And we can add text or audio notes to our pictures and videos, providing rich documentation of the experience.

Later this year, a group of educators, working with National Parks staff, will explore the historic sights in Philadelphia’s Independence Park to explore ways that we can use mobile and wearable devices to document some national treasures. We’ll then examine the classroom implications of such activities.

Q: What learning experiences and outcomes do you hope your participants will take home from the SITE 2015 workshop?

Well, I guess I’ll begin with a point you raised earlier. If nothing more happens than enjoying the beauty and surroundings of Red Rock Canyon, we would have had a rich experience. However, if we use the mobile and wearable devices that we carry around with us on a daily basis to collect data and document our experiences, then our trip to the park will become more engaging. Finally, we end with some reflective time addressing issues that concerns many educators: How can we best incorporate our exciting informal learning experiences into formal classroom activities? For example, can data and documentation collected in the Red Rock Canyon with our mobile and wearable devices then be integrated into lesson plans and curriculum standards?

Want to Learn More? Register for SITE 2015

Do not miss the SITE 2015 workshop ‘Taking it Outdoors: Personalized Learning Technologies and Place-Based Education’. To register access the SITE website at site.aace.org.

Taking it Outdoors: Personalized Learning Technologies and Place-Based Education

This innovative workshop will examine the role of personalized learning technologies as a place-based education tools. For example, how can wearable devices and mobile technologies be transformed to support informal and formal learning experiences for students? Working with the US Bureau of Land Management and the US National Parks Service, workshop participants will be transported to the scenic Red Rock Canyon Park. Once there, we will take a guided tour through key areas of the Park. Facilitated by workshop leaders, participants will use wearable technologies and mobile devices to collect data and document their experiences in Red Rock Canyon. Returning to conference headquarters, participants will then engage with workshop leaders on how personalized learning technologies (PLTs) can be incorporated into formal classroom experiences. While workshop participants are encouraged to bring their own mobile and wearable devices to this workshop, a limited handful of new devices will be on hand to explore their potential as learning tools.

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  1. This was a very popular workshop organized by Mike Searson at the SITE Conference.

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