Google Glass – dream learning tool or privacy nightmare?

January 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I work as Director of Learning at Epic, and part of my role is to explore the potential of new communications technologies to support people to learn at work. I’m particularly interested in the potential of mobile devices to support learning and this interest led me to study for a part-time Doctorate with the Department of Education, within the Learning and New Technologies Research Group. The focus of my research is on the potential of mobile devices to help adult learners in the workplace.

As someone interested in mobile devices for learning, I’ve obviously been following recent developments in mobile technology with interest and one of the more exciting advances has to be the advent of Google Glass and similar wearable devices. Google are now trialing their new technology enhanced spectacles, provoking plenty of speculation and debate. This is what Google have to say.

Some of the speculation centers around what people will look like wearing Google Glasses (will they feel cool enough?!) and at Epic, we’re reading Fashionable Technology: The Intersection of Design, Fashion, Science, and Technology with interest. While it’s certainly true that if people don’t feel confident and comfortable sporting wearable technology, it won’t take off, there are other more far-reaching concerns to consider.

It won’t be a huge surprise that I’m an enthusiast of all things techie, so I’m as excited about the potential of Google Glass as I am about the iWatch, gesture-based technology and the various measurement apps being developed by the quantified-self movement.

This year, Epic were fortunate enough to be successful in our application to trial a pair of Google glasses, and I got the chance to try them out for myself. In terms of looking cool, I think I can safely say I failed: I caused some amusement walking around the workplace vigorously nodding my head to reset the view. It was exciting though and within a few minutes I had browsed our website, looked someone up on Wikipedia and made a phone call to a colleague in New York, all without typing anything into a device. The view wasn’t too obstructive and the voice recognition worked well for simple commands, although it didn’t seem to get along too well with my accent for anything more complex.

Some of the potential activities I can envisage for future learners wearing Google Glass include on-the-job performance support for workers learning practical skills such as bricklaying and plumbing or even surgery, or a vocabulary reminder for people learning new languages, helping them cement their understanding in context. On a LinkedIn discussion in Epic’s learning technologies group members suggested support for medical students, prompts for people giving presentations and even help for new skiers! And that’s just taking advantage of the potential that Google Glass can add to your peripheral vision.

Google Glass technology also offers the potential to video record what you can see and to stream it to someone else. This could be hugely useful for learning. For example, apprentices could benefit from this when discussing performance challenges with mentors. This would be a unique opportunity to see through the eyes of someone who is either more or less skilled at performing a task.

But there are also causes for concern. There is a negative potential for future Google Glass wearers to unobtrusively record things in their vision. Tech analysts are not just thinking about the experiences of those people wearing the glasses, but also about the experiences of those people the Glass wearers are looking at. In a future Google Glass wearing society, it is possible that many of us won’t know when and where we are being recorded, who is storing those recordings and what they are doing with them.

It’s one thing to voluntarily decide to take part in recording your performance for the purpose of identifying areas for improvement – athletes do this all the time, as do executives honing their public speaking skills – but it’s quite different to be involuntarily recorded as you take your child to the park, or eat a quiet dinner with friends in a neighborhood restaurant.
While Google Glass is likely to be a great new support tool in the former case, it could also have serious implications for privacy in the latter case, as this article suggests.

If much more of what we do and say can be recorded and stored, it will give more weight to fleeting moments and we will find ourselves on public show at times when we would prefer to lower our guards and relax. Some people have already made the mistake of thinking that conversations on Twitter are like private conversations with friends, and have found themselves taken to court for expressing off-remarks in writing that might have been disregarded or forgotten had they been spoken in the pub. Because our online opinions are stored in the public domain and often remain there indefinitely for anyone to view, they are treated in a different way.

If private moments start to be routinely recorded and stored, then chatting to your friends in a cafe or bar could become more like having a written conversation on Twitter or Facebook, where anything you say can be saved, stored and tweeted around the world or even used in evidence against you.
If Google Glass takes off, it’s likely that etiquette will evolve around using it, in the same way that people are now asked to switch their phones off in the theatre or cinema. Agreements may also evolve about who owns the videos and who may video what.

Still, it’s a sobering thought. Many technologies have potential for harm as well as good, and while I still can’t help but be excited by the potential of Google Glass and keen to keep playing with our pair, I’m also concerned by the potential erosion of privacy.

When it comes to using this technology for training, designers of technology-based training and performance support, and especially executives in Learning and Development departments, will need to give careful thought to formulating policies about what is and isn’t appropriate and what will happen to the data they generate.

An earlier version of this blog appeared on the Epic blog in March 2013.

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