6 Education Lessons from Fitbit

I continue my monthlong reflection on gamification in education.  One activity that I find helpful is looking at specific gamification examples “in the wild” and thinking about what insights educators can garner.  That is where I got the idea for the recent article on What Educators Can Learn from Angry Birds.  While a bit less viral than that addictive game that seeks revenge against the pigs, Fitbit has a growing fan base. Unlike Angry Birds, this device merges the physical and the digital, which offers educators the opportunity to think about mixing two of the hottest educational trends, gamification and blended learning.

Have you heard of Fitbit?  Among other things, this company sells small wireless trackers that give you feedback on things like how many steps you take in a day, how many flights of stairs you climb, and even how well you slept last night.  Connecting through your computer, the device uploads the data to your online Fitbit account and provides all sorts of interesting tracking tools.  I got my first Fitbit in December, part of my ongoing exploration of what educators can learn from games and gamification products outside of education.  So, what can educators learn from Fitbit?  I suggest the following six lessons as a discussion starter, but I would love to hear some of your ideas as well.

  1. Constant Feedback in Easy to Understand Formats – With the Fitbit, you can quickly look at the device to find out the number of steps that you’ve taken at any point in the day.  That allows to you track whether you are progressing toward your goal.  Do you want to reach 10,000 steps a day?  If it is noon and you are only at 2000 steps, then that bit of feedback may be enough to motivate you to go for a walk over lunch.  What would happen if we provided that sort of immediate feedback to our learners about their progress toward a goal? Of course, to do that requires us to get creative about how we might be able to track and record meaningful student data.
  2. It Doesn’t Choose the Goals for You – This is contrary to what we typically suggest in the classroom.  We usually tell teachers to be very clear about the learning goals, communicating them at the beginning of each lesson so that students know the target.  However, as we start to think about things like self-organized learning environments, self-directed learning, and student-directed project-based learning, this model might just have something to teach educators.  It doesn’t explicitly state a goal, but it does give very specific feedback.
  3. It Suggests Goals By Rewarding Certain Accomplishments – While goals are not explicitly stated, they are implied, and certain accomplishments are valued by being rewarded with “badges” of accomplishment. According to the site, “The Fitbit family motivates you to stay active, live better, and meet your goals.”  There is no question that this is a device that encourages an active lifestyle. That is a “core value” of the device and it is encouraged and presented by recognizing achievements related to an active lifestyle.  Log into your online account and you will see the badges that you’ve earned over the lifetime of having a Fitbit account/device.  When you climb your first 10 flights of stairs in a single day, you are greeted with an email that congratulates you and you get a digital badge to commemorate the achievement. The more flights you climb, the more badges you earn.  The same is true when you reach your first 5000 step day.  Note that these badges are extrinsic rewards, but they serve to connect with your personal goals and aspirations.  It is up to you to decide what you want to achieve.  The badges just recognize when you do it.  Are there any educational lessons for us to glean?  This certainly seems to offer us one promising model for using badges to recognize achievements. Notice that this is an “assessment” method that rewards achievements and not punishing failure.
  4. The Fitbit Doesn’t Tell You How to Step, When to Step, or Where to Step – It certainly encourages you to take steps by measuring them and giving you feedback.  Beyond that, it us up to you to decide the how, when and where.  You can walk, dance, jog, sprint, or hop.  You can do it inside, on a trail, in a shopping mall, or as you are running to catch your connecting flight in the airport. You can do it all in the morning, all at night, or in small bits throughout the day.  When it comes to the method, Fitbit is neutral.  Imagine instances when the classroom could benefit from a similar strategy.  It doesn’t matter how you get to the goal.  As the learner, you have the freedom to be creative about how you achieve it, when you achieve it and where you do it. In some ways, this part one of the affordances that comes with blended and online learning options.  Of course, the teacher and classmates can provide suggestions about the when, where, and how, but what if we sometimes left more of this final decision up to the learner?
  5. The Online System Facilitates User-generated Interest Groups – When you log into the system online, there is a “community” section where users can create groups related to goals, common locations, and shared life experiences.  Browse the list of groups and you can find fellow Fitbit users with groups dedicated to organ donors who want to stay fit, Austrian Fitbit users, flight attendants, pregnant users, and even groups that agree to add extra incentives for reaching certain goals (one of my favorites is a group where each member pays him/herself $1 for each mile that they walk so that they can reward themselves with buying something special at the end of the month).  By the way, there is no limit to how many groups you can join. What can we learn from this?  What if we facilitated the formation of similar groups in our learning organizations? Students could connect with others who shared common life experiences, learning goals, or the like?  I can thing of a few risks to this in a school setting, but I think we could mitigate against most of those will little thought and planning.
  6. The Online System Has a Built-in Space for Journaling – This a simple journal tool with limited features.  You can rate your mood and/or energy from excellent to horrible, your allergies from absent to severe, and you have a place to type any reflections for the day.  This might be a place where you record the types of activities, where you were, or anything else that you deem relevant to your goals.  Once you are done with your entry, click “log” and it records it in the system with a date and time stamp.  You also get one last option.  You can keep your entry private, sharing it with trusted friends or making it visible to everyone in the Fitbit community.  This is a simple activity, but there is ample literature to support the benefits of such “learning journals” in school as well.  This provides learners with a chance to reflect on their progress, document any factors that they consider important, and provide useful detail for themselves and their teachers. The simple sharing option also provides some interesting possibilities for having peer accountability partners as well as keeping teachers and parents informed.  It would not be difficult to build a similar simple iPad app, for example, where learners could reflect on their learning, log it, and even share it with the teacher, parents, classmates, etc.

These are not the only Fitbit features, but they are the ones that caught my attention right away as offering a stimulus for thinking about how we might leverage some gamification, feedback, and self-reflection features into the learning experience.  If you have used Fitbit, I would love to get some of your additions to the list.

One Reply to “6 Education Lessons from Fitbit”

  1. Kim

    Great post Bernard! I’ve been wearing my Fitbit for 3 weeks now and never related the personal gratification I receive from it to education. You are spot on…the immediate feedback allows me to “plan” my day. I often look at it and am shocked at how little I’ve walked. It gives me the added push needed to block out time to get my steps in! The weekly feedback that is mailed to me is even more inspiring. We need to invent an “Edbit”!
    Oh, and by the way, I’ve lost 12.6 pounds in 3 weeks so I know for a fact that the concept works! 🙂

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