Internet of (Campus) Things

12 Mar 2018
Workshop image

Summary of a recent Festival of Creative Learning event 

As part of the Festival of Creative Learning and feeding into the Near Future Teaching project at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Jeremy Knox of the Centre for Research in Digital Education and I conducted several workshops on Internet of Things (IoT) technology: with faculty at Kings Buildings in December, 2017; with Edinburgh students at the uCreate Studio in February of this year; and with secondary school teachers for a digital centre of excellence school at Pollock Halls just a few weeks ago.

The purpose was to stimulate thinking around how IoT technology can be used to proactively build community or improve teaching or research practices using configurations of data being generated by the educational environment  itself. The richness and intensity of campus life is often taken for granted. Yet physical co-location, visible in the bustle between lectures or the queues for coffee, create a peripheral awareness of the university community, and a crucially important ‘sense’ of the diverse yet shared pursuit of learning that ties the university together. This workshop sought to develop ways of including ‘distance’ students – whether studying ‘at’ Edinburgh from another country, or simply based in another part of the campus – in this shared, yet diverse, University of Edinburgh community.

The workshop itself started with a presentation establishing our interpretation of IoT: using sensors to collect data from the physical environment, and using that data drive some kind of technology, and to develop some kind of activity. We discussed how we are a distributed university already: 30,000 on campus students located in various campuses around the city, 2600 distance students scattered globally, 2.2 million participating in MOOCs and in some way a part of this larger community. But this wasn’t so much about scale as about developing a kind of awareness of, or intimacy between, students and their academic communities, to give a ‘feel’ to the distance experience.

The primary driver of these events was Jeremy’s Pulse project. The Pulse project was designed to “develop wearable technologies that will enhance our awareness of student communities in an era of increasing online provision, where students ‘attend’ the university but not necessarily the campus itself.” This project therefore seeks to develop new and innovative ways of creating an ‘ambient awareness’ of the broader global space of the university community, connecting distant online students and those located at the campus, and in these ways explore global citizenship in the student population. However, technologies that increase our connections and develop new ways of collecting data in the educational environment also surface important issues of privacy and surveillance, which are key themes in the research. This was the backdrop for the workshop.

From there, we discussed some bespoke IoT projects that have provided some inspiration for how we explore notions of community and connection with IoT. The first, Light Reminders, explores social interaction and home lighting: each light representing a person in the designer’s life, and each light’s power level determined by how long it’s been since the designer has seen that person. The more they see their friends, the brighter the home. Another, AirPlay: Smog Music translates air quality data over a three year period in Beijing into music based on how it approaches and often exceeds hazardous levels. Listen to Wikipedia is just that: an attempt to transform edits or additions to Wikipedia to musical form. Bells indicate additions and string plucks indicate subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit; the larger the edit, the deeper the note. Green circles show edits from unregistered contributors, purple circles mark edits performed by automated bots (this example didn’t use sensors, but it did exemplify an important creative approach of turning data into an alternative sensory experience, in this case sound).

There are many more to choose from but we were looking to explore projects that had a sense of presence, of place, and of some emotional or aesthetic connection to real people, communities or places.

As for data, Jeremy explained that there are rivers of data flowing through the university already: environmental data (air and sound quality, etc.), university events (graduations, matriculations, seminars, and more), online activity (logins, discussion board posts), bodies (footfalls on campus, ID entries into the library), and more. To frame the discussion a bit, we then presented personas, or students we were designing for, some distance and some in Edinburgh, all with different takes on the university experience. Personas move the discussion away from the abstraction a bit. Jeremy and I explained that the personas could be about teaching, research, or community based improvements: distance to distance, distance to campus, campus to distance, all of the above. Groups discussed the personas, discussed data points to use and configurations to explore.

IoT posters

(With many thanks to Ludovica Luisa Vissat, Nada Aisayegh, Ami Bakhai, Yu Jo Tseng, Adela Rotar, Teodora Georgescu, Pinar Arabaci, Anna Domagala, Luisa Vista, James Lamb, Athary Almuhanna, Chudalu Ezenwafor, and Charlotte Rixten for the ideas in the images above and for all who contributed to the workshop)

Groups discussed, designed and then presented their IoT configurations. Everyone then participated in an anonymous vote for the winning group and prizes were awarded (an IoT starter kit). The ideas generated were remarkable.

One group had a discussion around a human Uber, or a surrogate for physical presence: attending meetings and events; as well as collaborative video watching. Another had devised a model globe distributed to all students on induction which would light up in particular geographical areas when activity was performed there. Another suggested a ‘mood lamp’ of activity from the students worldwide, a soft presence that indicated emotions from a distance. Another group discussed an app that would show activity on different campuses at the University. Another had an interface showing locations (anonymously) of all students in one color, a color which shifts if the student indicates their willingness to chat. Ambient awareness of the larger community abounded in all these works.

All of these configurations were about strengthening connections and extra-curricular activity, and doing so in an emotive way, providing an aesthetic vision of presence which is often hard to see, and which for an increasingly distributed university, is critical to ensure that all are involved in the community. We feel it is this kind of creative project that is needed to ensure that the extra-curricular, community aspects of the university still play a role in the new visions of learning at scale.

Dr Michael Gallagher