Internet of (Community) Things: an upcoming workshop at the University of Edinburgh and how we are trying to reimagine the distance in distance education
Dr Jeremy Knox and I, both of the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, are running two workshops for faculty and students on Internet of Things (IoT) technology and how this might be designed to bridge distance for the university across campuses (there are several discrete campuses within the city) and between distance (about 2600-3000 currently) and on-campus students (≈30,000). For the faculty session, we will be looking to explore how IoT can inform teaching practice (long story short: it can). For students, we are looking to generate ideas around IoT can be used to build community, a sense of belonging, a functional, aesthetic, cognitive, or emotional connection to the university. These workshops (faculty event link here and student event link here) are a part of the Festival of Creative Learning at the university and I see them tangentially linked to my other project on Near Future Teaching.
We will be designing around a set of four personas representing four students. Different majors, countries of origin, some distance and some on the physical campus. We will identify, if it exists, how IoT (specifically the underlying data being generated by the larger university community) can provide a sense of connection for these four to the larger community. A meaningful connection. Clearly some utilitarian function here: building resilience, mitigating disengagement and/or retention are all part of our collective mission here. IoT might be part of a larger address of these issues particularly as our distance education remit is expanding. My personal interest is in identifying and engaging underrepresented (or underserved) populations, particular regions, non-native English language speakers, domestic deprivation, those from first generation university families, and the like. If IoT gives me a mechanism (in tandem with other systems, of course) to reach these groups, I want to explore it. But beyond that is the potential, largely untapped, of using data and technology in tandem in largely aesthetic and emotional ways. Beyond merely offsetting loneliness or isolation, there is work to be done here on how it proactively builds community, redefines these connections between student and student, university and student, and so on.
Caution: anecdotal evidence forthcoming. I know how inadvertently the digital can build presence, connection, and the thrall of an academic community. I have two Masters degrees, both online. The first (2004-2006) was early days digital education for the most part. The second (2009-2011) was the MSc in Digital Education at this very university (a different story for a different day, but that experience led directly to me sitting here right now at the Centre exploring these very themes that I once dreamed about). I did both online as I was living abroad at the time (Seoul, Korea and Princeton, US respectively). I would chat and interact and discuss with my fellow classmates, interact with university largely administratively (and largely in the abstract). My classmates and my faculty were my community. But I would sit in Seoul in my apartment towards the end of the year. A snowy night. Coursework completed. My wife had gone home to NYC to visit family. I would sit unmoored a bit as the post-course completion excitement had waned. I sometimes made playlists or looked to more creative activity. I was fascinated by city cams, those web cams perched on buildings around public landmarks. I would assemble four or five of them on my desktop screen, where four or five of my closest classmates lived (and one for Edinburgh itself, of course). I would just watch them unfold and play my music with the snow falling outside on a cold December evening. I was completely and utterly connected and content.
Are city cams the same as IoT? No, not exactly but some of these feelings, that same sense of presence might be possible with Iot to connect people like me with the university in meaningful ways. And yes, often in emotional or aesthetic ways. Much as I do now when missing friends from Seoul, or even the city itself. Ultimately, belonging or identifying with a community isn’t always an intellectual or financial or prestige enterprise (although those are all certainly a part of it). It is largely an aesthetic and an emotional one as well. Thus endeth the anecdote.
Some text for the event
More and more everyday objects are being connected to the internet in order to share data and interact with people and other objects (for example, fridges that can automatically order fresh milk when you run out, or toothbrushes that can count how many times children brush their teeth). This connected world of the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) has potential to shape future teaching in creative ways by drawing on the potential for increased communication, not just between people but between the objects and spaces that surround our educational activities.
However, along with the increasingly ‘smart’ campus, ever more sophisticated forms of surveillance appear to be on the horizon. We might choose to ‘quantify’ more and more of our social lives through fitness apps and trackers, but what kind of place might these technologies have in higher education, and how should we be preparing our students for the increasing ‘datafication’ of the campus?
This workshop will outline work from a recent research project that has sought to explore the relationship between distance students and those on the campus, and to develop prototype wearable technologies that create an ‘ambient awareness’ of the distributed university community. Drawing on these example IoT gadgets as inspiration, this workshop will encourage you to design creative ways of utilizing connected technologies for the future of higher education teaching, working with the themes of ‘distance and presence’, ‘community and communication’, and ‘data and surveillance’.