The Internet of Education Things (part 1)

Education_IoTThis is the 1st part of a 2-part post.

According to the Horizon Report for 2015 (Higher Education edition) the Internet of Things (IoT) has a 4-to-5-years adoption horizon in university education. Of course, we will only know the accuracy of that prediction in 2019/20 (although, as has been noted many times before, while we do tend to underestimate how long important new technologies take to come fully to fruition, equally we also tend to underestimate the overall impact that they ultimately have).

If we distil the Internet of Things down to its essential purpose, it is the use of technology to permit us as human beings to yield or surrender some aspects of our attention, the need for our attentiveness, to the smart machines and the smart network in (we hope) a controlled way, and in a way that benefits us and doesn’t harm us.

With this as a starting point, I have my own thoughts on IoT across education.

IoT and Education….

I have no doubt whatsoever that the Internet of Things (or the Internet of Everything, as my good friends at Cisco like to call it, drawing people, processes and data as well as ‘things’ into the concept) will eventually have a massive impact on our world. The smart object is already a reality. Add that to the IPv6-enabled Internet and the scene is set for all of those objects (along with the people and processes and data that so many of those objects will interact with or be bound to) to talk to each other, to talk to networks, to pass data of all kinds to intelligent machines and to spark myriad interesting and valuable events around us every day that will, we hope, make our world smarter, more efficient, safer, just a better place to be. Such is the dream.

Some of that will come true, I am sure. Mistakes will also be made, however, and uses will be found for IoT that might also make the world less humane, more controlling (more ‘Maoist’?), more dangerous, and in many other ways not such a good place to live. Such is the nature of technology.

One thing we can be sure of: the global market for IoT will be big. VERY BIG! We can take that as read. From the largest multinational corporations down to the smallest tech startups we can already feel a strong breeze blowing, one that will quickly become a gale and then eventually a hurricane of innovation, competitive frenzy, market-destruction, market-creation and marketing hype, all generating economic value in the trillions of dollars over time.

A Disturbing Future….

Pretty much every attempt to anticipate the potential of IoT in education that I have seen so far has been either so empty of ideas that it offers us an emperor without clothes, or so draped in the language and mindset of top-down control that it foretells of a frankly disturbing future for school, college and campus. A recent piece from a Deloitte consultant, Max Meyers, painted a picture that managed to range from the oppressive to the neurologically and pedagogically naive. He foresees the automatic logging of students as they enter the classroom, automatically pushing an exercise to them the moment they sit at their desks, skin-attached ‘neurosensors’  providing “…insight into students’ cognitive activity using EEG technology…”, and even haptic warnings (such as a vibration to their wearable or tablet) being sent silently to a student whose attention is ‘wandering’. And then this:

Imagine how pattern recognition software or data analytics might add to the teacher’s contextual understanding by then mapping the record of behavioral incidents against a student’s cognitive activity, heart rate, or the classroom temperature. Senior educators with years of classroom experience often develop an intuitive understanding of such complex learning dynamics, but a connected classroom could provide such insights even to the teacher just starting out.

He does at least have the sense to write: “…this added value does not come without concerns.”

More than a few concerns really. As the ever-smart Sylvia Martinez said of this drivel:

This is such a weird view of learning it’s hard to even explain all the things that are wrong with it.

What disturbed me most about this piece was the fact that it was re-published by EdSurge, a supposedly thoughtful and respected ed-tech blog! I think the tech trumped the ed on this occasion. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it takes as its starting point some notions of what IoT’s capabilities are and then hunts for possible ‘problems’ to which IoT might provide the solutions. It also, unwittingly or otherwise, takes a very particular corporate agenda as its starting point, an agenda that seeks to create markets in education whether they are intended to improve and enhance education or not.  So long as they generate revenue, to hell with the educational consequences. In my experience it is a minority of companies operating in education who take this indifferent approach to their market.

The big corporates are, as we know, always searching for new markets or new market adjacencies. To the less thoughtful amongst them, Education will simply be another market for the introduction of the monitoring + surveillance + sensing + measuring aspects of IoT in every interstice of the school or campus, and never mind the effect (good or bad, but mostly bad) it might have on the quality of any learning that takes place there. If we in education accept and allow this reductive starting point to be taken seriously, we will find our educational institutions being led up a tangled knot of garden paths to places where we as educators, and certainly all of us as learners, should not want our schools and colleges and universities to go. The more thoughtful corporates – and whatever the knee-jerk reactions of those who stupidly equate the private sector with all that is bad, they do exist (just as bad as equating the public sector automatically with all that is good) – will prefer to try to look at the real needs of education and then attempt to shape IoT to meet those needs. There will always be differences of opinion on what those real needs are – that is simply the nature of education – but at least the more reflective and considerate companies seeking to play with IoT in education will be trying to do the right thing.

Of course, in all of this, we have to be aware that a new technology brings with it new affordances – in other words, IoT will almost certainly allow us to do things that haven’t previously been possible in teaching and learning. This is the point that those who rail against any form of technological determinism in education forget about. Sometimes the technology does undoubtedly lead the pedagogy, whatever the purists might wish for. In IoT’s case, my guess is we have to wait and see what its capabilities are. In the meantime, we lead with the pedagogy and try to fit IoT to our needs, not the other way around as our friend from Deloitte and so many others are trying to do.

Go to Part 2 of this 2-part post.