Issue #62 Cover Story: Even Trees Can Talk: The Internet Of Things In Education

IoT_145370563-[Converted]By Dr Michelle Selinger.

You have probably heard about the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) but wondered what it means. The Internet of Things is about smart objects – interconnected things in which the line between the physical object and digital information about that object is blurred. At the simplest level, IoT focusses on sensor networks – machines communicating with other machines, and the data created as a result. As things add capabilities such as context-awareness, increased processing power, and energy independence, and, as more people and new information are connected, we have a network of networks where billions, or even trillions, of connections create unprecedented opportunities, as well as new risks.

There are a lot of examples of how IoT will impact our daily lives. Websites such as Postscape’s Internet of Things give some clear examples, but how will IoT impact what is taught both in the use of technology and across subject areas? What benefits could adopting IoT bring to education and what will educators need to know in order to exploit IoT to benefit learners?

Today, the internet connects people to many things (media, photos, information, etc.) but now it can also connect people to physical objects. We can launch applications on our computer by just touching a physical object, and physical objects can ‘talk’ to each other through an internet connection, feed data between themselves, and even command each other to perform a physical act. As things link with people, things also become part of social networks; in the same manner that photos are currently tagged with the names of the people in them, objects can also be tagged with their owners and users as well as with commentaries. This, in consequence, will give objects more history and more value for learning.

New ways of measuring student performance and setting activities
The technology exists today that can help assess learner’s skills and compare them not just with a class but with all learners. For example, peripheral devices might connect to computers, which have IP addresses, such as a keyboard connected to a computer via Bluetooth. Data about typing skills could be passed to the computer and IP used to relay this metadata about a user’s keyboard skills. This, in turn, could compare users to gauge and rank their skills, which could result in a keyboard exercise being relayed back to him or her to help them correct a habitual error. Imagine how many other ways a learner’s performance could be measured, and errors and misconceptions tackled, before they become too ingrained or harder to change.

With the proliferation of mobile devices from smartphones to tablets, and increasingly portable computers, we will be able to connect the right people together to accelerate learning as well as collecting and interpreting data on learners’ behaviours and activity. Used well, this will make learning more personalised and targeted to individuals’ learning needs, their learning styles and preferences, and their aspirations.

Education institutions can no longer rely solely on the core competences and knowledge of their teachers; instead, they will need to make use of IoT to capture intelligence faster and from many external sources. It is already clear that educators are no longer able to know about, or easily tap into, all the available knowledge in their domain; they increasingly have to rely on others to help find, assimilate and distribute the ever-growing collective wisdom.

The Potential of IoT
A fundamental skill set will be cross-domain understanding and how things interact in order for users to experience the benefits from IoT. It will be important for the education sector to understand how people connect to the internet to further their learning, and how they develop their understanding and application of their knowledge as a result. Time to mastery is going to be key since whatever we know today will be added to tomorrow, and those that thrive will know how best to keep themselves updated and ahead of the pack. Finding the right people with whom to learn and who to learn from is going to be crucial, and as each individual becomes a node on the network, people will need to know how to connect not just to the work of leading experts in a field of study, but to peers with the same passions and interests. They will share ideas, discuss research and latest developments in a domain of study and develop increasingly connected communities of practice. The experts in a specific area will be sought to teach classes anywhere in the world and sharing teaching via streamed or live video will become the norm.

People experience the world through their five senses and the IoT now becomes a proxy for sensing, understanding and managing our world. Humans are notoriously bad at capturing data accurately, consistently and routinely, but with IoT, things that were silent now have a ‘voice’ and devices gather data and stream it over the internet to a central source, where it is analysed and processed. As the capabilities of things connected to the internet continue to advance, they will become more intelligent by combining data into more useful information.

Having to go out to the physical object all the time to collect data in different conditions will be a thing of the past. Learners will tag physical objects to find and analyse data collected over 24 hours about the object and feed that information into other programs for analysis. Instead, learners will have 24-hour data collection, which can make research more accurate and the skills of knowing how to measure will become less important (the device will do that), but skills like collaborative problem solving and critical thinking, such as knowing which measurements are relevant for their specific analysis and how to analyse the results, can be given greater focus in a world where such skills have become increasingly important. Learners will also be able to access data from research initiatives; monitor programs on oceanography or climate change; find out how much carbon dioxide a tree is emitting (so trees really can talk!), and watch animals in real time in their natural habitat through webcams. The emergence of such authentic data will not only have a huge impact on learners’ interest, it will also help the environment through less field trips (which will still have value to ensure learners understand the context and issues associated with collecting raw data), and bring more real time information to learners than ever before.

IoT across the curriculum
An educational activity linked to mathematics, science and physical education is one in which learners use sensors to monitor their own everyday activity. By collecting data on how far they walk or run in a day, as well as their heart rate and other metabolic data, they become more aware of their own health and begin to develop an understanding of the impact their current life style will have on their future health and longevity. As a class project, human biology comes alive and leads to greater engagement. Biology classes become more interesting as learners are using the data to motivate each other to achieve better fitness and to maintain a balanced diet. Instead of talking about what is a good lifestyle, real, personal data can give clearer and more impactful messages about the need for a better lifestyle.

As well as making their own research more accurate, and working with and manipulating real data, learners will also contribute the data they have collected to data banks, and become contributing members of expert communities in research projects on climate change, species identification, archaeology, and much more. Sharing datasets with others around the world will enhance and extend their learning experience and make it more authentic through active engagement with the research community. Not only are learners in contact with researchers, they are working with them to help solve local and global problems. For example, if learners use sensors to monitor how much time they spend cycling and the routes they take, the aggregated data collected across schools in a city can be used to persuade the authorities to build more cycle ways. And as the data collected can be specific, the location of cycle ways and the order in which they need to be built are determined through authentic, crowd-sourced data.

Teachers can also create and attach RFID tags to physical objects and learners studying a foreign language will associate the object with the word in their selected language by scanning the object with an RFID reader. It will say the word for the item in both their native language and in the foreign language. Touching the item will give learners an additional sense and may help them remember the vocabulary through association with touch.

There a myriad of uses of technology in education, but much of the use is piecemeal and ad hoc with little ‘joined-up’ thinking. IoT has the potential to bring that all together.

Dr Michelle Selinger has worked in Australia, Egypt, Jordan, India, Israel, South Africa, UK, and US developing a vision and strategy for new pedagogical models, teacher development, collaboration scenarios, new designs in learning spaces, technology integration, and blended learning. 

In addition to her current role as CEO of ConsultEdu Ltd, an independent consultancy offering strategic advice, visioning workshops, policy planning, teacher development, learning space design, and research and authoring of white papers in technology, Michelle is also an adviser to a number of international agencies including the South African government on national e-skills development and UNESCO program, a member of the Australian Federal Minister of Education’s Digital Education Advisory Group.


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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.

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