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Posted by on Nov 24, 2017

Internet of Things: a recent workshop at the University of Edinburgh

I originally drafted this post as part of the Near Future Teaching project at the University of Edinburgh, but am reposting a slightly edited version of it here as I wanted to draw out some more of projects we are looking to for inspiration. Bear with me for a bit.

Dr Jeremy Knox of the Centre for Research in Digital Education and I conducted a Near Future Teaching session called Internet of (Teaching) Things. 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. Most IoT technology that we might know is of the commercial and domestic variety: fridges that can automatically order fresh milk when you run out, or toothbrushes that can count how many times children brush their teeth). We wanted to look beyond those a bit and explore how these types of data and technology configurations can be used to attend to university work. 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. The workshop itself started with a presentation establishing first the domain of IoT: how it is about a sensor collecting data and using the data to port into some technology to do some 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.

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. Living Light in Seoul is a building facade that displays air quality (drawing on open data) and public interest (defined by online activity) in the environment to brighten or dim lights. eCloud is a dynamic sculpture inspired by the volume and behavior of an idealized cloud at San Jose Airport; made from unique polycarbonate tiles that can fade between transparent and opaque states, its patterns are transformed periodically by real time weather from around the world. 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. You may see announcements for new users as they join the site, punctuated by a string swell. You can welcome him or her by clicking the blue banner and adding a note on their talk page. the one below is Distance From Home, a song generated using refugee data from the United Nations from 1975 to 2012. The quantity, length, and pitch of the song’s instruments are controlled by the volume of refugee movement and distance traveled between their countries of origin and asylum.

Distance From Home – Translating Global Refugee Movement to Song from brian foo on Vimeo.

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. Jeremy then discussed the Pulse project, This project will 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.

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: how unlimited choices of data and things might lead to some decontextualization of the event so we wanted to frame it this way. 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 presented their IoT configurations.

Configuration #1
A configuration taking data from three distinct yet entirely representative aspects of university life: administration, social (coffee data), and more. ODL students would get wearable devices that change color depending on what is the dominant mode of activity on campus. Colour spectrum would be from red (intense learning activity) to green (leisure activity) and data would be drawn to represent each. For the reverse, there would be physical maps on campus representing the ODL campus: a live feed from ODL students’ activity globally with detail if interested. For example, Rebecca from Australia is drinking coffee (leisure) as am I in Edinburgh. A good use of non-scholarly data to support community and connections.

Configuration #2
The second group presented an emotional dashboard which was about making human connections. Within the course page, students use colors to describe their mood over the course. It useful for students to know I am not alone or what their peers feel in general. It is useful for staff to know when students are struggling and how they might help. They emphasized that such an approach could be layered so can just use color to suggest mood or can expand on that by adding an image or some other media to make a connection. Discussion boards could feed off this dashboard.

Configuration #3
Full disclaimer: this was Jeremy Knox, Lucy Kendra’s and my (Michael Gallagher) group. We designed for one of the personas (Gossy) who struggled to explain the university in meaningful ways to his family home in Nigeria. We explicitly saw this family and these extended connections as part of the larger university community. Our configuration involved Gossy collecting his social data (physical proximity with others, social media, and more) and using that to brighten or dim a lamp in his mother’s house. A simple connection. Another one was to take both Gossy and his mother, map their daily movements through Edinburgh and Lagos, respectively. To collect data along those walks and curate postcards at intervals through an application.

All of these configurations were about strengthening connections and community which for an increasingly distributed university is critical to ensure that all are involved are the community.

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