When all the chatter first started about the then forthcoming Apple Watch, my mind immediately turned to how wearable devices could be “next big thing” in digital learning. I started to visualise scenarios of engineers, perched high in precarious places, looking to their wrist for helpful instructions about what they should do next. Then one of my technology partners reminded me that you needed to have your iPhone nearby and that it wouldn’t really offer much without that connected device. A valid point. In your average scenario, if having to choose between the tiny watch screen and the larger one on my smartphone, most people would realistically choose the latter. So I stopped thinking about wearables.
Then Samsung brought out their Gear S smartwatch – with its own 3G SIM and telephone number – and my interest returned. If smartwatches could run under their own steam, then that would offer many more options in the learning and performance support space. So I bought one and connected it to a data plan.
Changing digital behaviours
Well, it turned out I rarely used it away from the Samsung smartphone with which it was paired – so bang went that hypothesis – but I very quickly started to appreciate what a smartwatch was offering and how that was benefiting me on a day-to-day basis. Even though the Gear S ran on the Tizen operating system – which I think might already have gone the “Betamax” route – and so struggled through a serious lack of useful apps, I was still able to see the potential of wearables.
Almost without realising it, I was reaching less for my phone. I didn’t need to. I was being alerted to what really mattered by the short snippets that were popping up on the watch. A quick look to my wrist was all that was needed and then I could refocus back on whatever was doing at the time. I was not being further distracted by other things on my phone, which is often the case when you pick it up to look at notifications there. In meetings, being able to stay up-to-date more discretely was also more respectful to those present. In fact, I started to notice more those who were clearly more overtly distracted by their smartphones. I could now leave my smartphone on mute and face down, or not go into a cold sweat by even leaving it in my bag.
Just these couple of things that left me feeling more productive led me to sell the Gear S on eBay some three months later, re-use the SIM card in another phone and hotfoot it to the Apple Store on Regent’s Street, London, from which I left with the basic Sports model running OS1.
Now my primary phone has always been an iPhone and with so many more apps already with companion Apple Watch apps, I was really able to get serious about smartwatches. So here is my latest thinking.
Wearables as a platform for performance support
For me, we should be starting to re-define what we, as learning professionals, provide our organisations in terms of learning and development. I won’t apologise for continuing to speak about the need to respond to the changing work patterns and learning preferences of our learners which now call for more shorter bursts of learning, delivered more at the point of need. For me, this means a shift towards developing more performance support options, rather than more linear learning-focused content. This had been the driver for me to move significantly into the area of mobile learning and wearable devices are the natural extension to this. And with the increasing chatter out there about micro-learning, maybe wearables would be a good delivery platform for these bite-sized learning objects.
Sharper learning messages
The small screen size of your average smartwatch really focuses the mind on what can be delivered. Across the various iOS apps I have, the most common interaction I have with Apple Watch are the one-line summaries of what is happening on the corresponding main app on the iPhone. For the most part, the Watch tells me enough, but I always have the option to pick up the phone and read more. And the clever “Handoff” feature that enables me to move seamlessly between the Watch app and main iPhone app, in some cases, really makes this easy.
Reminders to keep learning on-track
I am also using the native Reminders app more and more and that means becoming Siri’s friend, as that’s the only way you can currently set a reminder from the Watch. I’ve yet to talk to my wrist in public, but I really appreciate the ease at which I can stop myself forgetting to do something. And the ability to set a reminder to be triggered at a certain location is also very useful.
The Activity app has long consigned my Fitbit to the top drawer and the very visual and subtle way it keeps me focused on exercising more – with more in-depth analysis of my performance on the iPhone – is proving an effective support tool, even though I’m not yet using any of the social features, where I can compare my progress with others.
With the arrival of the updated OS2 software, the scope to use the smartwatch for video playback is here in theory, though I’ll be happier if and when YouTube issues its own Watch app.
suggested learning applications for wearables…
So in the learning context, I can envisage scenarios where:
- Learners receive regular bite-sized learning reminders of things they studied in other training. These need be no more than single lines of text. On the user’s smartphone will be the full app that would contain more information to support each prompt. I’ve already developed apps that support the transfer of learning back into the workplace, so this is just an extension of this work.
- Using the watch’s location-based services, reminders could even be programmed to trigger at certain places, adding another interesting variable.
- A line manager, trainer or even a learner shares prompts using the reminder share feature with others on the programme.
- An app would be given to all learners that – inspired by the Activity app – would enable each person to track their progress in performing the newly acquired skills back on the job. In place of the usual “move, exercise and stand” activities could be a handful of the core skills that needed to be practiced. It’s unlikely that the watch is going to be able to automatically track my activity – though “being more accessible to staff” by walking about the shop/office floor would be covered – but a combination of prompts requiring data input or even allowing others to provide observational assessment data, could achieve a similar effect. And just as the current Activities app shows me my achievements and progress history, similar gamification practices could be included.
- A companion app that contains check-lists could be issued, so that learners can be reminded of the key steps of a process long after the main training event.
- Very short explainer-type videos could be created that summarise the key learning points from some training or – even better – provide a simple step-by-step guide to a specific process. Keeping in mind the small screen size on the watch means keeping the word count to a minimum, or relying on clear simple graphics; and remembering that the options to use an audio voiceover might be limited, simply due to the environment in which the users will find themselves. Though Bluetooth headsets would help here.
…that are possible now.
Pragmatically I can already do some of these things for myself.
- I could look at my post-training action plan and use the Reminders app on my iPhone to set a series of timed reminders aligned to the interim deadlines I’d set myself. For example, I could remind myself to use one of the new facilitation skills I’d learned, maybe just before a team meeting.
- Using the location feature I could trigger these reminders based on my travel plans, for example, reminding myself of some negotiation hints and tips just before I entered a client’s building.
- As a manager, using my own phone, I could share the agreed post-training activity plans in the form of reminders to my direct report’s smartphone Reminders app (and onto their watch if they had one).
- Although I would need to develop a post-training activity-based app, the fee-based Streaks app and Watch companion allows you to enter six habits that you’d like to change, so this could be customised to keep six new skills front of mind. Other similar apps include Goal Streaks, Productive and Habits.
- There is no shortage of productivity enhancing apps, most of which are based around the concept of user-created check-lists (to do lists); and many now have an Apple Watch app extension. Some even have built-in social collaboration too, which is exciting, including Todoist, Nozbe and Wunderlist. How about getting groups of learners to action plan on the same app and collaborate on the implementation of these?
- There a handful of video playback apps out there already, though I’ve yet to find one that worked well. But there are plans for the Vine video-streaming service to release an Apple Watch app soon that will mean learners could review punchy six-second reminders.
A good starting point
Of course, it’s still early days for wearables and still early days for our profession when it comes to thinking differently about how we deliver the type of learning now demanded by our businesses. And unless we see an explosion in the number of learners wearing smartwatches and other future wearable devices yet to be invented, these devices will remain an optional extra for our people and learning strategies; though “smart”-learners, as I’ve just shown, can already self-start in this area for themselves. But smart-wearables are only going to get smarter, so this is a space I’m going to continue to watch carefully – no pun intended!