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.

12 Things You Can’t Do With an eBook

I like eBooks.  I really do.  I have hundreds of them…but I have a couple thousand books, and they’ll always play an important part of my life.  I’m an adult convert to the book. I hardly touched one until my senior year of high school. One summer, house sitting for a teacher who clearly loved books, I set the goal of reading one a day for the next two months.  I might have missed a day here and there, but there is no question that something shifted inside of me.  Even before that time, I respected books. Maybe that was due to good marketing from Scholastic or those posters in the elementary school libraries that cast a vision of reading as a way to explore exotic lands.  I always thought of books as something that could change you, but I just didn’t have the patience or discipline to work through a long one without pictures…not until that summer.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a book is, “a written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.”  Given this definition, an ebook is not a book, although the OED does define an eBook as “a version of a book.”  If that topic interests you, then there is no shortage of blog posts and articles on the subject.  Here is small selection that I’ve enjoyed:

For me, the comparison of the book and the ebook is a fascinating and valuable topic, but I realize that others see little use in the discussion, noting that the future is one where most reading takes place on some sort of screen.  Whatever the case, I’m devoting the rest of this post to reflecting on the obvious…not to make a point as much as to enjoy what is distinct about the book when compared to its digital counterpart. Ultimately, this is little more than a nostalgic reflection on the role that books play in our past and present.

Things That You Can’t Do with an eBook.

  1. You can’t turn the pages with you fingers.
  2. You can’t rip out a page, which might change the dramatic effect of that beloved scene in Dead Poet’s Society.
  3. You can’t lose it (well, you can, but you can usually download it again).
  4. You can’t watch a friend or loved one unwrap it and read that note on the inside cover.
  5. You can’t line them up on your shelves like a hunter’s trophy chest or relics that remind you of travels to distant lands.
  6. You can’t smell it (although people came up with a variety of solutions for this one already).
  7. You can can’t guess its age by the look and feel.
  8. You can’t use it as a subtle discussion starter with a stranger in the airport by lifting the cover up just a bit higher than usual.
  9. You can’t burn it in protest or blot out the “bad words” with a black marker, just enough mystery to entice the young and clever reader to fill in the blanks for himself.
  10. You can’t write in the margins, leaving the chicken scratch as mental (or emotional) footprints for your great-grandchildren to cipher after you’re gone.
  11. You can’t leave coffee, tea, wine, or tear stains on the pages.
  12. And you can’t steady the leg of that uneven chair with a bad one, leaving you feeling a bit better about wasting ten dollars on it.





Information Overload – Choose What is Better

A recent post to Slashdot pointed out a new article at Wired entitled, Researcher, Info Overload Costs Economy. This article described the predicted problem of the year for 2008, information overload. The article highlighted the overload of emails and the adverse impact upon business productivity. Jesdanun writes, “He estimates that such disruptions cost the U.S. economy $650 billion in 2006.”

Is the economy the only thing at risk? If you are able, think back to the days when you did not have the Internet at your beck and call. How was life different for you? In what ways has this immediate access to information improved your life? In what ways has it detracted from your quality of life or perhaps drawn you away from that which was more important? Have you ever experienced anxiety about your inability to keep up with the latest news and trends? Was this anxiety greater or less in the days prior to widespread access to the Internet?

I have probably already referenced this before, but it is worth repeating. In Technopoly, Neil Postman reminds us that what may be most important today is not necessarily learning how to use every technology, but rather to better understand how technology uses us. Unless we seek to hand over our lives, beliefs, time, energy, character, and legacy to the latest trends and technologies, we are wise to heed Postman’s words. Perhaps this is a timely article, as 2007 comes to an end and we begin to consider goals and priorities for the New Year. What will determine how each of us spends our time and energy in 2008?

I am reminded of an account in the Christian Scriptures where Jesus comes to the house of his friends in Bethany. There are two sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha, we are told, was very busy, occupied with all of the preparations that one might expect for such an honored guest and friend. Mary, on the other hand, sat with others at the feet of Jesus while he was teaching or perhaps sharing about his recent journey. Martha was not happy about this.

From Luke 10:

“But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

As we consider the myriad of urgent tasks and pressing information of 2008, may we each choose what is better.