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Posted by on Feb 8, 2018

Internet of (Campus) Things: 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 a Near Future Teaching session called Internet of (Campus) Things at the uCreate Studio. We had done a similar session for staff in November, but this one was squarely focused on students. We had groups of students physically in the room and a few participating remotely via Collaborate (not without some hiccups there, but getting distance students involved in on-campus events is something to which we are committed).

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 university 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 first the domain of IoT: using sensors to collect data, 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 scattered 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 developing some sort of intimacy between students and their academic communities, to give a ‘feel’ to the distance experience.

Jeremy then discussed his Pulse project, which served as the inspiration for both these IoT events (and another we are doing next week with teachers for a digital centre of excellence school in the region). 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. This was the backdrop for the workshop.

From there, we discussed some bespoke IoT projects that have provided some inspiration for how we explore this 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 is 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.

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

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.

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 meetings, events; as well as collaborative video watching. Another had devised a globe distributed to all students on induction which lights in particular areas when particular activity is performed. Another suggested a mood lamp of activity from the students worldwide, a soft presence. Another group discussed an app showing activity on different campuses. 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 community and doing so in an emotive way, providing an aesthetic vision of presence which is often hard to see in which for an increasingly distributed university is critical to ensure that all are involved are the community.

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