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9 Things We Learn About Learning From Fitbit
January 6, 2013 - 9:00pm

This Hanukkah/Christmas my wife and I gave each other Fitbit Ones, a wearable digital activity tracker that measures steps, distance, calories burned, stairs climbed and sleep.  

Since 12/12/12 I have walked 334,176 steps, climbed 550 floors, and covered 172.19 miles.   

What can we learn about learning (and teaching) from the Fitbit?

1. Learning and Exercise Are Hard: Perhaps the biggest inhibitor of improving our own performance is the belief that other people are "naturals" at a given task. We say that someone is naturally good at math, or that they have a runners body. We can never be as good as they are, so why even try? The truth is that learning and exercise are hard. Nothing good comes easy.  We all need some help. The Fitbit helps me exercise. It motives me to take more steps. Recognizing that exercise, and learning, are difficult tasks can help us look for methods that might help.  We need to think about how we can use technology to encourage learning beyond what is possible with traditional methods.

2. Nudging Towards Better Habits: What the Fitbit does is provide external rewards that hopefully nudge us to adopt better exercise habits.  I run those extra minutes on the treadmill, or take the stairs and not the elevator, in order to reach my daily goal of 10,000 steps.  Eventually those actions should become habit, I'll do then without thinking.  How can we use technology to nudge students towards better learning habits? Can we find ways to provide rewards that foster both internal motivation and better study habits? If the Fitbit is truly successful at creating better exercise habits (something that I think needs verification from experimental research), can we translate the Fitbit's fitness technology to learning technology?

3. The Power of Instant Feedback: The Fitbit provides instant feedback as to how many steps, miles, stairs climbed and calories burned that I've accomplished. All of these data points are tracked in real time on the device, and captured on my own personal web based Fitbit dashboard. I don't need to wait a day or a week to see the results. And Fitbit sends me badges, in the form of e-mail and on the my Fitbit Dashboard, for every time I reach a goal (say 10,000 steps) or a particular milestone (like 500 floors climbed). Fast feedback motivates behavior.   We need to set our courses up so that we can provide fast feedback and periodic recognition of milestones. We all know that a grade at the end of a class, or a week after an exam, is too late.   What is less obvious, and what the Fitbit teaches us, is that we may be better off creating smaller assignments and deliverables in which we can provide fast feedback and turn-around.  We should also be liberal in creating formative computer graded assessments where learners can get instant feedback on their progress.

4. Setting Goals: The Fitbit allows me to set my own activity goals. The default is 10,000 steps a day (and we know the power of defaults), but we can set that goal for anything that we like. Goals can be for calories or miles, steps or stairs.  Setting our own goals is vastly more effective than having someone set them for us. We have done a good job in our course designs of including learning objectives and goals for individual modules. Have we done enough to figure out what our learners' goals are, and then to measure their performance against those individual goals? We talk a great deal about adaptive learning and personalized learning environments, but in my experience these methods remain infrequently practiced.   

5. Tracking the Data: We don't improve what we don't measure. The Fitbit is one example of the emerging Internet of things and a source for all that big data we keep hearing about.   Every minute of every day that I where my Fitbit I'm creating vast amounts of fitness related data that can be tracked, measured, indexed, and I'm sure sold to advertisers and marketers.   All this data is effective in motivating my behavior, as I can see days when I did reach my goals and try to adjust future behaviors to avoid low activity days. We are doing a better job of tracking learning (or at least assessment) data within our courses, but we are only at the beginning of connecting and aggregating learning data for the entire length of a students' higher education career.   (And forget trying to connect K-12 with post-secondary data). The digitization of learning will help us track things like time spent reading, watching course lectures and simulations, participating in collaborative platforms, and of course taking formative and summative assessments. Will we make all this data available to our students?  Will it run longitudinally across courses? Will employers or graduate schools want to see this data?

6. The Social Element: Learning is social. Every edtech company is trying to turn their learning platforms into social learning platforms. Fitbit lets me see the activity levels of my Fitbit friends via the web based dashboard. If your friends or family buy a Fitbit, and give you permission, you can see how many miles they traveled each day. So far, I have 3 Fitbit friends at work, my wife and her sister in my network. Getting crushed each day by these (apparently incredible active) colleagues and family member is amazingly motivating. Social learning may be effective if classmates can share (can opt-in) to display learning inputs. Time spent interacting with online presentations. Numbers of course blog or discussion postings. Utilization of online, computer graded formative assessments. A Fitbit community tends to set norms around levels of activity, just as a social learning community could set norms around levels of learning effort and time.   

7. The Potential of Mobile Devices: The Fitbit works to improve fitness (if it works, again we need some experimental verification), because it is a mobile technology. Clip it on and forget about it. The data syncs automatically to my web based Fitbit account. No need to plug and download anything. The Fitbit device both tracks and displays my activity, so I can check my progress as I go through the day.   The potential of mobilizing our learning is that our students will have their courses and course materials wherever they go. A set of readings, lectures, videos, collaboration opportunities and assessments on a smart phone will be available whenever a learner has a few free minutes. Our existing digital learning platforms have, for the most part, been born on the web - not on the smart phone. Do we have a learning management system that was designed first as an app, and then secondarily as a website?   What would a born mobile learning platform look like?

8. Ecosystems and the Danger of Lock-In: The Fitbit is not only a souped-up pedometer. It is a website. It is a smartphone app. It even includes a WiFi scale (for $129.95) that lets up to 8 people in your household track their weight, BMI, and body fat on the Fitbit dashboard. (I've lost 5 pounds so far!).  The value add for the Fitbit is not the little device, but the way that the ecosystem hangs together and the manner in which all the data populates the Fitbit network. The danger is of course lock-in. My Fitbit data (as far as I know) is not portable, if I switch to say the Nike FuelBand I'll lose all my fitness history. We need to learn how to build our learning ecosystem while avoiding locking our learners in to one platform. Personalized learning data should be accessible across learning platforms, exportable, and ingestible in other platforms. We need to follow Amazon Kindle and Fitbit in creating a valuable ecosystem for learning, but avoid the sins of these companies in making the data (whether e-books or fitness data) proprietary.   

9. The Need for Better Devices:  As much as I love the Fitbit ecosystem, I worry about losing my Fitbit device. A clip on Fitbit is sub-optimal for my lifestyle, I think it will get knocked off, lost or left behind too easily. What I want is a Fitbit watch. Waterproof. Something I can wear all the time and forget. Something that charges by the natural motion of my body. I'm betting (hoping) that Fitbit has this device in development (does anybody know?), until then I live in fear of misplacing the gadget. We also need better mobile e-learning platforms. I dream about Apple or Google or Microsoft putting learning at the core of their mobile operating systems.  The potential to bake in learning applications at the mobile OS level, rather than leaving these apps to the application marketplace, seems to me like the smartest long-term strategic bet that any of these company's could make. Can we imagine what an iPhone, Android, or Windows phone would act like if it was purpose built for learning?

What do you think we can learn about learning from Fitbit?

Are any of you also Fitbit devotees?

 

 

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