Orchestrating classrooms: A huge challenge and a huge opportunity

Harnessing the potential of wearables in the classroom

I’m excited by the recent release of the Android Wear platform, as it adds to a growing suite of technologies that will transform how teachers manage, or “orchestrate”, their everyday classroom activities.

Orchestration can take on many forms - for instance, students may need the teacher to review their work before moving on to another activity. Knowing which students need teacher intervention and when are core orchestration challenges.

Doing orchestration right is both very hard and very critical.

In 2013, the European Network of Excellence in Technology Enhanced Learning (STELLAR), highlighted orchestration as one of its “Grand Challenges”. It has also been one of the main focuses of my own research for many years.

A big question that has come out of this research, and one that wearable technologies is particularly well suited to answering is: How do we support the teacher in being an active teacher — one who is able to respond to changing class dynamics and intervene when they are most needed?

Most technology-based approaches to this challenge have fallen short. Much of this stems from the kinds of interfaces and paradigms of use we’ve forced teachers into using. These often end up either:

1) Promoting a “heads down” experience, where a teacher has to constantly look down at a tablet/computer (rather than the students in the class).


2) Providing information post-hoc (after an activity is completed), which while valuable, does little to help the teacher in at-the-moment intervention.

When a teacher’s head is in a tablet they’re not watching the class

Wearable devices have considerable promise in addressing both of these issues — by helping teachers be aware of the state of the class, and empowered to take meaningful action, without requiring them to keep their heads buried in a tablet.

Wearables — lightweight, ambient, and context aware

One thing I have learned from my own work is that if you give a teacher a tablet and they don’t need it all the time, two things are going to invariably happen:

  • The teacher is going to spend lots of time looking at it when they don’t need to.
  • The teacher is going to eventually put it down and miss the things they need to know.
Wearable technologies have the potential to dramatically change classroom orchestration

Free the hands and free the eyes

With wearable technologies such as watches, the teacher doesn’t have to carry around an obtrusive and heavy tablet. Instead the teacher is free to ignore a watch until it is needed. The teacher can focus on what’s happening in the classroom reducing the chances of missing critical information.

Be aware and be meaningful

By its nature, a watch sits at the periphery of the wearer’s attention, only requiring direct (or “center”) attention when needed. The ability to move between these two levels of attention sits at the heart of the profound affect that wearables could have in supporting classroom orchestration.

By connecting the watch to the other devices in the room, we can have the watch alert the teacher when critical events happen. For instance, if a group has a question, they could send an alert (via their group’s tablet) to the teacher’s watch. If the teacher is working with another group, he/she can finish up with them first. The group with the question, knowing that the teacher has been alerted, can continue to try and solve the problem themselves, rather than spending their time with hands in the air trying to get the teacher’s attention.

What’s particularly compelling about this is that the teacher is not forced to immediately act upon the information, but they can be made aware of it, and can act upon when they deem appropriate.

We’ve now maximized everyone’s time while reducing their need for constant monitoring — this is a significant and powerful shift from regular classroom practices.

It’s more than just information, it’s a discussion

Supporting teachers in orchestrating classes with ambient technologies has had significant success with projects like Lantern — which used physical towers of light that students could press to get a teacher’s attention during math tutorial sessions.

Lantern: A light tower used to let teachers know when students have questions in class

However, coupled with rich data mining and real time messaging, the opportunity to make the alerts more flexible and adaptive to emergent class patterns is particularly compelling for wearable technologies. Networked wearables can allow two-way interactions between teacher and students, promoting more dynamic exchanges and flow of classroom activities. The teacher can let the students know he/she will be there shortly, approve their work, ask them to refine their ideas, or even provide quick formative assessment — all with simple commands from their wrist.

Three possible interfaces for wearables in the classroom: 1) Alerting a teacher that a group has a question; 2) Approving student work or asking them to resubmit it; and 3) Giving quick assessments of student work

What, and When, and Why for Wearables in Classrooms

One of the big challenges going forward for educational designers will be to understand what information is relevant for the teacher to help them orchestrate class activities. Give them too much or irrelevant information and they’ll tune it out — making it no better than a tablet left on a table!

Not everything needs to be sent to a wearable device, and working closely with teachers on the ground to develop these information flows will be essential to their adoption and success.

Ultimately, smart wearable design should be part of a broader eco-system of technologies, information flows, and teacher moves working together to achieve the desired learning goals of the classroom.