Big data and the Internet of (School) Things

Statistics Business BackgroundThe ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) with its data collection potential and promising business forecast – McKinsey Global Institute reports that the IoT business will deliver $6.2 trillion of revenue by 2025 – is generating a next big things hype. Not just exciting for businesses, the growing inter-connectivity of people, processes and devices is helping to create a ‘smarter’ way of living with endless opportunities on the horizon. So, where are we at with its impact on education?


By Annika Burgess


Firstly, let’s quickly summarise what IoT means. The term was first coined in the 1990s as an all-encompassing phrase to describe a future in which everyday physical objects and devices are connected to the Internet in order to give them special functions. It was estimated that in 2013, 10 billion devices were connected to the Internet. Through wired or wireless networks, these devices are exchanging information between each other with little or no human interaction. For example, road sensors along your route to work can tell your alarm clock to go off early in case there’s an accident. Alternatively, devices can speak directly to the user via a computer or mobile device.


A major factor in this information exchange is the amount of data these devices can collect. For most, that data is being harnessed for social and economic good. Innovations are now being based on larger amounts of data, which is helping to guide decisions, cut costs and respond to challenges.


Luis von Ahn, the man famous for creating the CAPTCHA at age 22, and then the successful language learning app Duolingo, highlights one of the most effective ways that big data – a by-product of IoT – is reshaping education. Outlined in the book Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education’, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, von Ahn explains how Duolingo has been able to collect data in volumes that was not possible before. That data, obtained from tens of millions of students interacting with the app over a number of years, enabled him to take the questioning of ‘how people learn best’ one step further to ‘which people’, specifically.


His data analysis led him to the conclusion that the best way to teach a language differs depending on the students’ native tongue and the language they’re trying to learn.  For example, his findings taught him that the term ‘it’ is particularly confusing for Spanish speakers learning English, and that if you wait to introduce the term a few weeks after ‘he’ and ‘she’ it improves course retention rates.


As the idea of IoT stems beyond connected devices to also encompass processes and people, in a school setting those Internet connected things can be students; they are the sensors sending data back to school servers. Based on this concept, Renee Patton, the director of US public-sector education for Cisco Systems – a companyheavily involved in advancing IoT, or as they refer to it ‘Internet of Everything’ –envisages classes in which students wear connected devices that could potentially be used to assess their abilities and even allow teachers to monitor student engagement by tracking eye movements.


However, the use of IoT in the classroom today is still in its early stages. A consortium of tech firms recently launched a project to bring IoT to schools in order to further advance education through new technology. Eight schools in the UK were selected to take part in the one-year pilot project, called DISTANCE, which draws on IoT to develop tech-centric learning. It aims to encourage teachers and students to take a more active role in creating and sharing digital content in schools.


Students and teachers are using various IoT devices such as weather stations and energy monitors that send data to a web portal which can then be used for analysis and discussion as part of classroom activities.


The project website states: “Our goals are to get students and teachers measuring and sharingdata – using new technology on the emerging Internet of Things – in ways that help make learning fun, link directly to the curriculum, and ultimately inform the design of the next generation of schools.”


Open University (OU), an organisation that’s part of the DISTANCE programme, has also been independently pioneering IoT education by introducing it into courses. Since 2011, OU has been offering a first-year computer science online course focused on IoT, which has since been completed by several thousand students.


*Professor Mayer-Schönberger was a keynote speaker at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013. You can view his presentation, Big Data: The Next Big Thing for Education, here.

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