The Apple Watch: Considering the Potential of Haptics in Education

I’m finishing up my 2nd week with the Apple Watch. As with any new technology tool, I spend some time considering how it will impact education either in my role in higher education or in my beloved field of School Counseling. In this post I’ll discuss one of my favorite features of the device and connect it to some ideas for education. This is the first post in a series about imagining the potential uses of the Apple Watch in the worlds I know.

My personal experience of the Apple Watch has highlighted the power of haptic technology. The word “haptic” was introduced in 1931 and has its roots in a Greek word that means “able to touch” (Minogue & Jones, 2006). As you read this post, it is important to remember that the word “haptic” is about touch and not just about touch through technology. Haptics, in the case of the Apple Watch however, are technologically delivered in the light pulses you feel on the wrist as notifications for text messages, progress updates on your daily movement, upcoming turns in navigation and more. “Haptic” is not a word I used to use but now I’m using it quite frequently as I answer questions about my new device. Haptics are known to other devices we use like smart phones, fitness devices, video game controllers, and more. I haven’t owned a device with haptics that has had as much impact on me in the day-to-day until the Apple Watch.

As an individual with a hearing impairment (since birth), I’ve relied heavily on my other non-auditory senses to help me interact with the world. I get by pretty well but visuals are my primary compensatory sense when it comes to learning, teaching, conversing and most things I do on a day to day basis. So far, haptics on the Apple Watch have drastically improved my remote communication with my husband. Not so much in a qualitative sense but in a quantitative sense. Hearing a call or text come in has been futile (and often frustrating for both parties) in my case, so the phone set on vibrate has been my M.O. He knows I’m far more likely to be responsive to text messages than calls but even with an iPhone set to vibrate, I frequently missed his calls or texts if it was in my purse, work bag or plugged into the charger. The work settings I encounter don’t encourage the audible beeping of a phone but a vibrating phone set to “silent” can still be an audible distraction when it shakes on the table. Wearing clothes with a pocket has been the best accommodation until now but even that wasn’t a guarantee, or fashionably convenient. Receiving text messages on my Apple Watch (the husband has one too) has been a dream come true because I have yet to miss one. The haptic is noticeable to me but not to others, and the watch is always easily accessible on my wrist. It seems simple but the relief is real. Some others in my life (parents, friends and co-workers) know that texting is ideal for me too so I’ve felt the anxiety lift that I won’t miss something from them when it comes in. I’m very happy with my haptics.

As a former school counselor, all this business about haptics has me wondering how my school and learning experiences might have been different if haptics were more involved. Naturally, this leads me to consider students, and from there, my fellow educators. I don’t claim to be an expert in the use of haptics in education by any means but my Apple Watch experience has certainly piqued my interest in this area. A simple Google search didn’t reveal a lot of recent studies but this article from 2006, Haptics in education: An untapped sensory modality, provides some food for thought and reviews the available research up until that time.

School Counselors, like many educators, know each student learns in a unique way and that there are multiple learning styles and needs. I can think of many students I had who were kinesthetic learners and needed to experience things hands-on and to touch to learn best. Such students have a preference for haptic experiences but would haptics through technology be additive for them? Or what about kids, who like me, have hearing issues and rely mostly on visuals, would their learning be enhanced with haptics? Perhaps students with visual issues, motor issues, developmental delays or special needs of various kinds can benefit from having haptics as part of their school experience. As a school counselor for about 250 students with IEPs for 5 years, I can recall the teachers of some of my more severe and profound students using touch, finger taps on the left or right hand, for example, to reinforce motor activities and tasks the students were learning. Again, “haptic” hasn’t been a word that I’ve been known to use, or have known others in my professional circles to use when talking about learning or interventions. We have been more inclined to use “kinesthetic” or “hands on” but perhaps “haptic” will soon be common in our shared education vocabulary.

We already know students are tethered to their phones and that they consume and produce copious amounts of texts and incoming data throughout the day. If the Apple Watch (or similar devices) takes off with the younger teen population at some point, I suspect the same level of activity will simply transfer over. The “have” and the “have not” socio-economic gap of devices among students is real and I believe will persist as long as newer and shinier devices enter the market. Increased sophistication of the Apple Watch will increase functionality, app availability and perhaps, potential uses in education. I think many like me wonder, does this mean we should consider Apple Watch purchases in schools as we have seen with iPods, tablets and other devices? Not necessarily but what might the upsides of haptic technology be for education? And how might the Apple Watch be helping us to consider them?

The upsides might be greater information accessibility and communication options for students for whom haptics improves their ability to interact and learn. Imagine those students who cannot (or cannot easily) manipulate a cell phone or who simply don’t respond to it but who could receive notifications or reinforcements in the way of haptics through technology. Consider the possibilities of using haptic technology devices, like the Apple Watch, as behavior shaping tools for everything from physical health to stress management to study skills to the college application process.

Think about the current trends and practices in school counseling such as teaching students belly breathing, mindfulness exercises, meditation, physical brain-based exercises, and yoga, these seem to be ushering in the value for haptic or touch-based learning. Imagine if haptics via technology guided students through a muscle relaxation exercise or a series of yoga poses. I suspect that there is more of this to come as our society, and our children, seem to be distracted and overstimulated and need ways to refocus on the physical body and gain clarity on the present moment. The audio-recorded yoga routine I practice often softly utters a phrase after a period of shavasana (in which my mind tends to be distracted), “come back to the body.” Perhaps the purpose and benefits of touch-based learning or haptics is to do just this, and perhaps that is why these practices are on the rise in education.

Could products like the Apple Watch be the kind of haptic technology device that actually helps us and our students to focus less on technology?

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