Connecting the Classroom with the Internet of Things


“Line up to enter the classroom, then pick up your materials from the table at the front.” “SLANT in your seat—sit up, listen, answer questions, nod, and track the speaker.” “Pass papers to the end of the row.”

These directions serve as the soundtrack to the 1025 hours the average American student spends in classroom instruction each year. More than 308 of these hours are likely lost to interruptions, based on estimates by instructional design textbooks such as Teaching Strategies. In fact, this text suggests that 1 out of every 5 minutes spent in American classrooms is consumed by “anticipated interruptions”—transitions, materials distribution, and starting or ending class.

What if new tools could help teachers get these hours back? Each minute teachers spend managing large group procedures takes away from time they could spend on the hard work of teaching, such as differentiating instruction or developing students’ socio-emotional skills.

Connected devices, an emerging trend in computing technology, may offer the potential to relieve teachers of some of this administrative burden, allowing more time to focus on students’ learning needs. By embedding internet connectivity in everyday devices, the “Internet of Things” connects our physical and virtual worlds, enabling computers to provide real-time insights without requiring user input. Early visions of “smart” devices may not seem relevant to schools: refrigerators making grocery lists, cars scheduling their own maintenance, or fitness trackers nagging users to work out. But connected devices that reduce the teacher’s role in managing procedures could transform the classroom experience.

As students take their seats, for example, attendance could be logged automatically using a device such as the Nymi, a wearable “smartband” that uses ECG patterns to authenticate identity. A beacon might push a warm-up exercise directly to students’ smart surfaces. Teachers, freed from managing many classroom procedures, now focus more fully on students—and perhaps focus more incisively too. Neurosensors, akin to InteraXon’s Muse, could provide insight into students' cognitive activity using EEG technology that measures brain activity like one might measure a pulse. Identifying which students are expending a higher amount of cognitive energy on an exercise would allow teachers to dedicate attention to students who need it—not just those who ask for help the loudest.

When it comes to keeping students on task, teachers could send a “haptic” vibration—similar to silent notifications on mobile devices—to a student’s wearable or tablet, redirecting her attention or behavior in a way that limits public embarrassment and reduces direct confrontation. Educators with years of experience often develop an intuitive understanding of such complex behavioral dynamics, but a connected classroom could provide insights even to the teacher just starting out. Imagine how pattern recognition software or data analytics might add to a teacher's contextual understanding, mapping the record of behavioral incidents against a student’s heart rate or the classroom temperature.

Incorporating just a few connected devices could allow teachers to tap into the capabilities of personal computing or the mobile web to more quickly or naturally address anticipated interruptions—without their attention buried in a screen. By shifting processes and procedures to the background, the teacher would have fewer responsibilities as an active manager and more time to craft the learning experience.

Admittedly, to effectively incorporate this next iteration of technological advances, education providers will have to work through complex issues such as privacy, digital literacy, and technology infrastructure. For example, some are already concerned about the rise of the quantified student and what happens when a student ID is linked to a student’s health record or family financial information. This makes it particularly important to design data collection around teachers’ need for specific, actionable knowledge, and to convert it into realtime indicators. But rather than discouraging adoption, these complexities suggest the importance of early investment in incremental change, experimentation, and community feedback.

Schools and districts who start crafting their digital culture and infrastructure today will be better able to take advantage of the capabilities offered by the 26 billion connected devices Gartner anticipates will exist by 2020. Beyond the “table stakes” of providing wireless connectivity, those who want to lead adoption should consider a few ways to revisit today’s assumptions about technology in schools:

  • Kill the computer lab. A single physical location is not only less relevant in our digitally-saturated world today—it can also reinforce a central, top-down approach to hardware purchasing decisions. If connected devices aim to enhance the classroom experience, then schools should empower teachers to select the hardware that best fits their classrooms, as modeled in programs like Digital Promise’s Teacher Wallets pilot. This shift means that districts and schools may need to rethink the budget process for technology, experimenting with teacher-driven, grant-based models like that piloted by Idaho’s West Ada district.
  • Build a digital platform. A variety of devices will provide more tailored classroom use, but it can also complicate access and security, as some Oakland schools found in their blended learning implementation. If each teacher uses different apps and devices, a student might have to remember over eight different credentials, but a common platform for these learning apps enables single sign on (SSO). Further, it also allows centralized information security, with data standards and systems monitoring.
  • Start with teachers. Districts and preservice training programs might consider how to build greater familiarity and digital literacy through webinars or “tech expos.” Once teachers are aware, they have the opportunity to experiment with use cases, like Peter Bakke, a science teacher who uses the If This Then That (IFTTT) app with his phone’s GPS functionality to log the time he spends in the school building. As part of his reflection on each unit, he analyzes spiking hours to help identify where instructional strategies might need future adjustment. (Personal interview, December 2014) And as he builds familiarity with the technology, it is likely that he will ultimately integrate the same functionality into his classroom.

Advances in emerging technology offer educators a chance to move beyond some of the challenges that have traditionally hindered effective technology use in the classroom, freeing teachers not only from their physical screens but potentially from administrative tasks too. Where many technologies remain a bolt-on to the classroom, connected devices could enhance teachers’ core craft—and may even prefigure a different and exciting breed of “edtech.”

Max Meyers is a consultant in Deloitte’s Federal Practice and a current GovLab Fellow, where his research focuses on what the Internet of Things means for government missions and employees. 

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