eLearning: When Monitors Watch Back

By Cait Etherington
February 26, 2017

Over the past month, smart monitors and devices have continued to make headlines in high-profile lawsuits about personal privacy and bans of specific devices. While much of the news has been negative, there is a potential silver lining. eLearning when monitors watch back holds the potential to create more responsive and effective learning environments. The challenge facing instructional designers is how to harness the potential of monitors that watch back without compromising personal privacy.

How and Why Monitors and Devices Watch Back

eLearningFirst, in early February, Vizio, one of the largest Internet-connected television providers, agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged it had been collecting and selling data about viewers without their knowledge or consent. Vizio wasn’t just watching to see how long viewers stayed on a single channel, using the IP address attached to all devices in the home, they were also analyzing whether or not viewers hopped online to explore a product after viewing an advertisement for the product. This data was then sold back to specific companies.  Then, last week, German officials announced that they were taking Cayla, a talking doll, off the market after the nation’s Federal Network Agency determined that hackers were using the doll to steal personal data by recording private conversations in people’s home over an insecure Bluetooth connection.  Only days after Cayla went silent in Germany, the New York Times ran a front page story about TVision, which tracks people’s eye movements as they watch television with the aim of gathering a more accurate understanding of how people engage with programs and advertisements.  Notably, it’s not just televisions and dolls that have the capacity to watch back now. Many smart phones, including Android devices, are also already equipped to “look” at their users and analyze their engagements.

eLearning when Monitors Watch Back Could Increase Training Impacts

Understandably, the idea of being watched doesn’t sit well with most people. Indeed, for many of us, the first thing that comes to mind the dystopian world depicted in the novel, 1984.  Of course, there are reasons to proceed with caution. As screens increasingly are designed to watch back, we should be asking serious questions about privacy.  That said, there are some instances in which smart screens can increase training impacts.
eLearningInside - EdTech newsAs an example, consider the complex task of training pilots. For many years, the airline industry has been a leader in virtual training.  By simulating flight conditions, the industry can turn out pilots who are better prepared to tackle real life situations but they can do so at a lower cost and lower risk.  A simulator that watches pilots in training would further enhance pilot training on several levels. Pilots need to have their eyes on multiple fields of vision and information channels at all times in order to safely navigate planes through shared air space.   A screen that watches back can give pilots in training real-time advice on whether or not they are paying attention to the right information at the right time.  Air traffic controllers in training could also benefit from real-time feedback on how they are scanning the information on the various screens with which they are expected to engage.

It is also worth considering the potential uses of eLearning when monitors watch back in a classroom setting.  Moving forward, literacy will increasingly be defined by one’s ability to not only read but read and manage large amounts of information simultaneously. Children could be taught to read not only single units (words) but entire fields of data more effectively with real-time feedback from monitors. Consider a child with a specific learning disability that has not yet been detected. By analyzing when the child slows down (e.g., at what words or word sequences), one could more easily identify a potential learning disability and offer real-time feedback to the child.

The bottom line is that in terms of training and education, eLearning, when monitors watch back, offers two potential benefits: metrics and real-time feedback. In short, smart monitors could make training more responsive to learners’ needs and more effective. Until we find a way to ensure that personal information will not be hacked in the process, however, most instructional designers are proceeding with caution. The goal, after all, is to build learning environments that can respond to learners’ needs even more quickly and effectively than humans without exposing trainees and students to unnecessary levels of surveillance.  What is clear is that moving forward, our screens will increasingly play a key role in providing feedback and even determining how and what we learn in both training and K-12 and higher education environments.


  1. “As bots enter the classroom, both teachers and learners will have to reflect on their uses and outcomes. They will need to adopt an awareness of AI’s presence. Teachers must recognize AI’s short comings, such as inherently developing biases and its inability to process human emotions.”

    This statement is correct as it relates to AI, generally; however, it assumes that AI exists as THE entity that students directly interact with. There are many potential expressions of AI, including a human-in-the-loop approach, in which it is configured in such as way as to facilitate dialogs and interactions between people, either studentteacher or studentstudent.

    For example, we’re building an L2 language speaking practice app (Language Hero Smart Chat). We use AI to enable beginning students, who speak different languages, to have natural, real life conversations in each other’s language from Day 1. They speak directly to each other, interacting with the system only to select from multiple content choices suggested by it, designed to facilitate a real free-ranging dialog resulting in real bonding, to the extent it’s possible, rather than to practice a particular lexical structure (they can also text or go off the grid to have pure video chat).

    Teachers can use this system as well for group chat. They can upload their own curriculum as well (the Smart Chat system configures it as multiple vector (branching script) chat or merges it with the system curriculum (focused on real life useful topics like travel, food, shopping, social chat, expressing ideas, etc.). Everything they say is comprehensible to their students, and so are all student responses.

    When such a system is implemented in a manner that pays particular attention to the affective components that make human interaction so effective for creating the desire to learn (and corresponding openness to processing L2 content, in this case), we think it can be a more effective tool than bot chat.