Colleges are all about preparing students for the working world. So now that major employers, from Bank of America to Target, require employees to wear fitness trackers, it makes sense that universities would follow along.
Oral Roberts University, a Christian university in Oklahoma, announced earlier this year that it would require incoming freshman to wear Fitbits, given professors access to step count and heart rate data of their students. Though students can opt out, the default is that each student will wear one, and this will allow professors to determine whether students have met their university-mandated 10,000-steps-per-day fitness requirement.
The privacy and security questions are immediate with this kind of data collection. Will math professors know when students pretend they are sick, but really went out for a jog or took a nap? The answer is, for now, no. Only the relevant health teachers have access to the data, which is fairly limited. For 50 years, the school has required that students meet a daily fitness goal but previously their progress was self-reported, says Mike Mathews, ORU’s chief information officer. The Fitbits will simply automate the process, he says, and allow students to better track their progress.
"We’re only collecting steps and heart rate, that’s it. Everything else we consider intrusive at this point," says Matthews.
Still, there are a lot of interesting questions that can be asked with a wider range of Fitbit data. Matthews says student groups have already formed and want to correlate sleep patterns to grades on tests. But the school hasn’t authorized that kind of research on a larger scale.
"Is there any evidence that if you cram for a test, that you’re going to get better scores? Probably not," Matthews says "This system makes it possible to start monitoring that . . . but we chose not to at this point."
Other schools, though, are monitoring this kind of information. For example, researchers at the University of Notre Dame are enrolling student volunteers in a four-year study to look at similar kinds of questions, including the relationship between students’ networks of friends and their health and sleep patterns.
What’s most interesting is that Fitbits aren’t the only example of data that ORU is working with. The school works with the education software company D2L, which runs the "learning management system" that students and faculty use. D2L has programs that it claims can predict whether a student will fail a course before the first day of school with 92% accuracy. After a few weeks in the class, the software can more often than not correctly estimate the student’s exact letter grade. The idea is to provide a red flag as early as possible to students, faculty, and administrators when there is trouble. Overall, ORU says these systems can help the school improve graduation and retention rates, especially among lower-income and first-generation students who tend to drop out more. But whether these kinds of systems might guide students to take easier classes is an open question.
"We’ve been a weird spot in education for a very long time where we're kind of guessing at what has an impact," says John Baker, CEO of D2L. The company, in its labs, is in the early stages of testing how emerging wearable devices—such as brain wave sensors—could be used in education.
Matthews envisions a future with an education-focused wearable that could help students put together all their own data. Would this be the day university become Big Brother? He says no: "I’d be hard-pressed to say education wants to be Big Brother in any form or fashion, but the fear may be there. We’re really trying to help people succeed and place them in the right job."
"The hope is better learning outcomes, better health, better spirit in this case. How do you pull the data together to give them the right advice at the right time to guide them?"