The University of Queensland is leading research on the philosophical and ethical questions raised by using digital technology such as wearable devices for health and physical education in schools.
Head researcher Michael Gard, an Associate Professor in the School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences, will collaborate with academics in Canberra, Melbourne and Illinois in the United States for the project.
It is being funded with a $177,000 Australian Research Council Discovery Grant.
The project builds on some of Gard's existing research on the role of schools in promoting health and the growing commercialisation of physical education curriculum materials.
"We generally think of schools as a place where we can make kids healthier," Gard told Information Age.
"But, of course, research into 100 years' of schooling shows the schools aren't very good at making a difference."
Gard cites sex and alcohol education as examples where curriculum hasn't made much of a dent in behaviour, and he believes attempts so far to fight childhood obesity in the classroom have suffered from a similar lack of success.
However, he notes an "increasing interest" in digital technology and whether it could be used by schools to fight obesity.
"I think this is misguided, but there is a lot of interest in whether digital technology can succeed where humans have failed," he said.
"There's not much research about using digital technology in schools to try and make kids healthier, but there's a lot of enthusiasm for it."
Gard also notes that digital technology is allowing brands to have greater access to children in schools.
"A lot of the online teaching resources in health and physical education these days are branded," he said. "I've been researching this in Australia and the US.
"It became clear over the last couple of years that digital technology was making [the commercialisation of schools] easier."
One ethical question not considered in Gard's past research, however, is surveillance.
"Technology will make it much easier for the government to collect information about childrens' body weight or how much they eat or how much physical activity they do," Gard said.
"But what we do in schools is always a big, open question. There are a million things we could teach kids about and different kinds of experiences we can have at schools.
"The question this research asks is: is this what we should be doing?"
On a practical level, Gard hopes to find out by talking to teachers in 80 schools in the ACT, Victoria, Queensland and Illinois, coinciding with the location of the research project team.
Does technology impede students' choices?
With schools in the US - such as Notre Dame Catholic Elementary School in Texas - providing students with wearable devices like the Fitbit, Gard believes it's time to have a discussion about how such technology is used.
A fundamental question he asks is whether or not schools should even be involved in the collection of health and fitness data of students.
"Just because we can doesn't mean we should," he said.
"I think there has to be a conversation, at least at a professional level, about what health and physical education in schools is for.
"If it is for helping children to open their minds and explore different possibilities in the way they live, then it's not obvious to me we need to know everything they ate in the last 48 hours.
"We might be better just talking to kids about the choice to monitor themselves or not and to raise good questions about the choices we have in terms of our lifestyle."
He raised concerns at schools imposing digital health technology on students in that context.
"If a school decided it was going to collect data on all their students that would be a way of closing down the choices their students had," he said.