Our digital future 4: Pervasive computing

A few years ago I presented a keynote for the Reform Symposium. Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the Reform Symposium, let me explain: It's a 72 hour live web based symposium that follows the sun.

Participants can join in and leave at any time, as the rolling programme of keynotes, discussions, panels and seminars/workshops plays out in real time on screen. It has been called PD in your PJs, because many participants watch from their beds in the late evenings or small hours.

It was a distinct honour to be invited to keynote, and I spoke on one of my favourite (and probably most dangerous) of topics - the future of education. In my slides (which as I write have topped 110,000 views on SlideShare) I mention the four trends that have been recognised in educational technology in the last 30 years.

In the 1980s, we saw the rise in popularity of multi-media, which revolutionised content both inside the classroom and beyond it. In the 1990s we witnessed the rise of the Internet and the rapid proliferation of web based content. By the turn of the century, we saw the introduction of affordable, and extremely portable mobile phones, which evolved into smart phones - small, powerful computers that are multi-functional. It could be said that where multimedia brought the world into the classroom, so smart mobiles took the classroom back into the world.

So what next? On the horizon, and already with us to an extent - is pervasive computing.

What exactly is pervasive computing? Some household appliances are already designed with embedded microcomputers. Fridges, washing machines, microwaves and even vacuum cleaners have small computers that control their use. But most are not yet connected to the Web. It will come. Because of the growing power of networks and telecommunication systems, and the ever decreasing size of digital technology, we can now embed small (micro) computers into just about any object in common use, and they will communicate with each other, and with your personal technology. Ricght now, you can tell Siri to put your 2pm appointment back an hour if you're running late. In the future you will be able to ask Siri to mow your lawn, wash your car, or lower the temperature in your living room - from wherever you might be in the world. Pervasive technology is constantly connected, always available and ubiquitous. There are endless examples of pervasive computing online, and a quick search will unearth some great ideas that have already been put into practice.

But how might pervasive computing be used in education? Consider a school visit to a museum. All of the children have a personal smart device. All of the museum exhibits have information embedded within them. When the smart phone is produced and is lined up with the Radio Frequency Identity (RFID) sensor in the exhibit, information starts to flow from the exhibit to the child's smart device. The longer the child stands holding up the device, the more information will be sent. The system is context aware. Some museums already use RFID technology to tag and GPS locate valuable exhibits for security purposes and the technology has proved quite effective.

We could also track students on a campus more easily using pervasive computing. Attendance in lectures and seminars, number of visits to the library, hours spent in study groups, all of these activities can be logged and archived automatically - if we really want to travel down that corridor of surveillance. New and emerging embedded systems such as iBeacon might perform this kind of activity tracking, but might also be used to enhance communications across campus, and within communities of practice.

Pervasive computing is already being deployed in business, entertainment and sport. It is only a matter of time before we begin to see embedded, ubiquitous computing introduced to education.

Previous posts in this series
Our digital future 1: Gazing down the corridor
Our digital future 2: Smart clothing
Our digital future 3: Semantic Web

Photo by Phillip on Flickr

Creative Commons License
Our digital future 4: Pervasive computing by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Madison said…
So fascinating, thanks for sharing! The Reform Symposium looks fascinating, will definitely check it out next time. It is true already we are seeing more and more pervasing computing with intelligent home devices like alarms and lights, even thermostats and coffee makers, just imagine a house intuitively built to respond to your schedule and habits. It is fascinating but also daunting, privacy is a big thing to consider. In education like you've said it has a lot of great applications, in museums and on campus, particularly at primary level it could really engage the students for a more personalised experience!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the article Steve! :)

There's another side to the "Internet of Things" (IoT) that security expert Bruce Schneier wrote about in this essay: https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2016/02/the_internet_of_1.html

I hope you find it interesting! :)
Steve Wheeler said…
Yep, privacy and security issues are high on the agenda every time I speak about/teach this subject. It's also an important component of digital literacy frameworks.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for the link
Nikos Andriotis said…
in terms of imagining and designing a future experience, I'd throw in machine learning.

The system is really amazing when it can evalaute, monitor, feedback and modify itself on the basis of how well does it fulfill the aim of teaching. That would be an actual two-way human-machine interaction in which both partners in the interaction would not only exchange information but also accomodate their own behaviour in the course of an interaction.

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