Mobile Learning | Feature

A First Look at How Educators Are Really Using Google Glass

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It has been heralded as the device that will eliminate language barriers, diagnose learning disabilities, and pull the plug on paper forever.

As the world waits not-so-patiently for a general release that's months away, speculation on how Google Glass will impact education has reached a critical mass. Already, it seems, the early buzz has propelled the augmented reality eyewear into the most talked-about piece of wearable technology since the wristwatch.

But so far only a trickle of educators have gotten the chance to slip on a pair of their own, thanks to Google's hyper-exclusive selection process for its beta testers. By all accounts, app developers got first dibs, but the lucky few educators given the green light can already confirm that, while it has fewer practical applications than, say, an iPad, Glass holds its own as an education tool.

But don't go rushing to the preorder queue just yet.

"I don't think there's any delusions that Glass is going to be the tool to transform education--it wasn't built to be that tool," said Andrew Vanden Heuvel, a science teacher at Michigan Virtual School. Vanden Heuvel was probably the first teacher to receive Glass back in March, when Google invited him and his family to Geneva for a promotional video where he toured the Large Hadron Collider and interacted with students back home.

In this STEMBite video, Andrew Vanden Heuvel explores how to create your own bone conduction speakers, like those found in Glass.

What Glass does offer, Vanden Heuvel said, is a shift in perspective, particularly because teachers can use it as a tool to engage students faster and more easily than before. After returning from Geneva, Vanden Heuvel launched a YouTube channel devoted to his experiments with science--and Glass--called STEMBite. To date, in more than two dozen videos, he's guided viewers through the physics of ball spin on the tennis court to the polarization of light through (appropriately enough) a pair of glasses. 

"What I'm excited by making these videos is not only that they're filmed with Google Glass, but they're high engagement videos, so they're meant to be really short and to get kids to think about how math and science is all around," he said. "I suppose I could have done that before, but it's just so easy now."

Fresh Perspective
While educators may be impressed by augmented reality features from at-a-glance navigation to spoken Google search-and-response, they frequently save their best praise for Glass' eye-level video-capture function. Call it the literal component to Vanden Heuvel's "shift in perspective" theory.

"I've had videos in my classroom before--that's not a novel thing--but I've never been able to take a video from my eye perspective," said Hannah Brown, another early Glass adopter who works as a high school art teacher at Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an all-online statewide charter school in Ohio.

Hannah Brown created this video through Glass at the Ohio State Fair to demonstrate linear perspective. "I could explain the concept, but they just wouldn't be seeing it from my eyes," she said.

Since Brown mainly teaches introduction to drawing, the online environment presents its share of challenges. "I think the visual nature of what I'm teaching lends itself to video and wanting to show students something in person," she said. "So I'm going to do some Glass mirroring on my computer so I'll be able to draw something and they'll be able to see me doing it then, and they can stop me and ask questions as I do it."

It isn't just the teacher's perspective that can be shared. Margaret Powers, a tech coordinator in Philadelphia who works mainly with young learners and their teachers, has been documenting her use of Glass on a personal tumblr, posting brief, narrative vignettes that record her mailing a postcard or reading a book. But in taking Glass to the classroom, she's most excited about its potential to let students tell their own stories. Despite Google's suggestion that users be at least 13, she has considered letting students try a pair on, briefly, to record a video or snap a picture to show what the classroom looks like from their vantage point. "That's something we can't conceptualize otherwise," she said.

Powers also describes how Glass provides her with a newfound sense of freedom when working with students, especially when documenting projects for parents and teachers. She's especially excited to start using both hands while addressing a class. "It's hard to see behind my camera and also guide them through an activity," she said. "I'm hoping this will help me document their learning process while also helping me be more directly engaged with them."

Brown, too, is banking on Glass as an engagement tool. Later this year, she'll take Glass on the road for a series of trips to Ohio's fine art museums, which she will livestream to students at home. Field trips, she said, often suffer from chronic low attendance, drawing as few as 20 students out of a class of 1,000. On her Glass field trip, she said, "I'll be walking around with a docent, and then whatever we'd normally do in our physical field trip they would also be able to see from home so they wouldn't feel left out because they couldn't go."

The Conversation Deepens
Conveniences aside, Glass has limitations. Battery life is marginal at best, averaging about four to five hours of heavy use. Users have complained that Glass can get uncomfortably warm when worn for long spells. And concerns about privacy, already a bone of contention, magnify when students come into the picture. Adam Bellow, a Glass user and founder of the ed tech site eduClipper, said, "A lot of people ask me, 'Are you recording this?' If you wear them in the classroom, people instantly have concerns about, 'Oh you're taking pictures of students without consent and you could be sharing them.'"

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to implementation of Glass in education is the staggering price point ($1,500 plus tax). That's expected to fall, but exactly where it will land has yet to be crystallized. And the app selection--so vital in making the iPad this decade's must-have education device--remains an open question.

All this uncertainty, Vanden Heuvel said, coupled with an unusually long pre-release marketing campaign, has sparked some much-needed discourse about what educators really need from their devices, and whether fast adoption is the same as smart adoption.

"Schools are not going to invest tons of money in Google Glass, and part of that is there's a conversation that's being had about what technology is, and what do we want from our technology," he said. "I think that if they released iPads the same way, schools would have been a little more critical of the value that iPads bring to the classroom."