© James Ferguson

As Silicon Valley busies itself inventing new forms of wearable technologies, a handful of business school professors and students in the US are already trying to work out how these inventions can help them in the classroom.

The focus of these early forays into the intersection of wearable technology and business education varies widely — fitting for a sector of technology that encompasses everything from smart glasses to exercise trackers and wearable drones.

For the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, the novelty and wide range of wearable technology itself is the key to using it as a learning tool, as is the chance to explore the possibilities of a new field, says Steve Blank, a lecturer on entrepreneurship.

“One of the biggest lessons in wearables is that they’re in a new market,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is experiential, hands-on. While at its core it’s a bunch of theory, it’s really a bunch of practice.”

To that end, Haas teamed up with Intel to support a competition the semiconductor company launched last year to encourage entrepreneurs to develop wearable technologies.

For Intel, the 2014 Make It Wearable Challenge helped to promote the chips it has designed for emerging devices. For Haas, the challenge gave its centre for entrepreneurship — the Lester Center — a chance to build an online curriculum for the 10 finalists.

This involved instructors from the centre guiding the start-up teams through an accelerator programme that culminated in November with a week at Haas.

The competition’s winning product, a wrist-mounted camera drone called Nixie, came from a team of three non-Haas students, including one Berkeley graduate. In second place was a low-cost robotic hand and in third a production tool called Proglove that helps industrial workers track data and information on the job.

On the other side of the US, at New York University Stern School of Business, the administration is using wearables to give incoming students an early lesson in project management and teamwork.

As part of orientation for its full-time and part-time MBA programme, Stern has put students to work on short projects that integrate Google Glass and a clip-on camera called Narrative Clip. An early project had teams using the camera to observe New York City streets and then using that data to develop a proposal for improving traffic safety, says Maya Georgieva, associate director of Stern’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, who lead the project.

“This is a way to tell [students] that this is an opportunity to look into the future, so try to think about how you would use this,” says Ms Georgieva. “These devices are so new . . . we don’t have a prescriptive way [to use them].”

The lack of precedent means students can be creative in designing their projects. Also, tech companies themselves are still experimenting. Google has now suspended its Glass programme while it redevelops the product, leaving Ms Georgieva playing a “waiting game” while she reworks that part of her project. The clip-on cameras at least, she says, will remain.

Some other professors are finding ways to use wearables not as tools for teaching their students lessons, but as tools for teaching themselves.

At Harvard Business School, for example, a number of professors have used wearable trackers that measure their steps. The aim was to test the theory that their activity level in class correlates with how well students absorb the course material.

One of the Harvard professors is Ethan Bernstein, who wore a Jawbone UP wristband. He noticed a correlation between how many steps he took in a class and how well he thought that class understood the core concepts in the case studies.

Prof Bernstein stresses, however, that this does not imply causation, nor was it a scientifically rigorous study.

Moving around the room, he says, might help facilitate class discussion by prompting students to talk more with each other. “We’re there to try to pull together the conversation not with our own words but the words of others, so moving through the classroom does force everyone to talk with each other not just us,” he says.

Yet many professors and students caution against expecting wearable technology to spread too widely in the classroom.

After all, very few professors integrate smartphone apps into their courses, except for running the odd in-class poll, points out Dan Mitchell, a student at UCLA Anderson and president of a student group focused on the intersection of technology and business.

That leaves many schools, sometimes at the behest of students, turning to extracurricular workshops to introduce new technologies on to the campus. This applies to new hardware, software, or web development tools.

Mr Mitchell himself uses a Pebble Smartwatch to keep an unobtrusive eye on emails and messages during lectures. He learnt about the watch when a speaker from the start-up gave a lecture at UCLA and showed how wearables can be better than smartphones for multitasking in professional settings.

“[He] was checking the scores for the [San Francisco] Giants’ World Series game on his watch during the panel, so he was able to keep up on the World Series while also being a great speaker,” says Mr Mitchell.

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