A Q&A with Robbie Melton – By Mary Grush 09/20/16
The Internet of Things has started a new wave of connectedness. We have been able to connect certain common devices to the Internet that simply weren’t there before and discover new ways to interact with them. The ability to connect to — and obtain data from — the real and physical world over the Internet has amazed and inspired us.
Now, as we move further into the IoT, we are seeing that the technology has simply gotten better. From wearables, to smart objects and environments, to sensor networks, and more, our choices are increasing exponentially.
And with all the advancements and innovations, an awareness of the larger implications of connectedness has hit us — now, we are beginning to talk about the Internet of Everything. We’ll be tapping into big data from diverse sources, often outside our institutions as well as within, to help us make decisions in real time. Soon, it seems we will be able to consult nearly everything to decide anything.
But how can our institutions leverage these offerings in a way that supports and deepens higher education’s own enduring values? Here, we asked Robbie K. Melton, associate vice chancellor for mobile and emerging technologies at the Tennessee Board of Regents, for some advice and insight for higher education institutions as they explore — and hopefully benefit from — the unique applications of the IoE in education.
Mary Grush: In your role as the Tennessee Board of Regent’s associate vice chancellor for emerging technologies you have been studying the Internet of Things for some years, to identify the best possibilities for education. Now, you are talking about the Internet of Everything. So first of all, how would you differentiate the IoT from the IoE? Is there a difference, or is the IoE just a more “in” term right now?
Robbie Melton: The “Internet of Everything” is an expression that popped up just recently. But I think the difference is significant. The term “Everything” is telling us that we’re now able connect many, many more things, and that these things will be much smarter. Potentially, almost anything could be connected — clothing and wearables, for example, or maybe your chair. We are truly going to be able to explore how “everything is connected”. That’s why we are now speaking about the Internet of Everything.
Grush: What are some of the things you’ve been looking at in IoT and IoE in your office at TBR?
Melton: We have been looking at the IoT for well over four years now. This came naturally out of our work with mobile devices. We started by connecting through our networks to our laptops, smart phones, tablets, fitness trackers, and watches, and we realized, “Wow, we are pulling data from all of these sources — what can the possibilities be for teaching, learning, and workforce training?”
We’ve looked at learning analytics and real-time data, and, together with faculty, administration, and staff throughout Tennessee, we have envisioned real-time solutions with IoT — and of course now, with IoE. So, from that jumping off point of working with the hardware and the connectivity, we have been pondering what we can do for education and the workforce.
Grush: What are some of the successful applications you were able to demonstrate?
Melton: I’ll give you a simple example relating to student activity. Looking at connectivity and use of student-connected mobile devices, we found through our data that students at one college were more active and participated more on Monday through Thursday, and less on Friday. We were able to determine this much more quickly using our mobile data than we would have through more traditional observations, and we were able to make the change to a four-day week much sooner — we didn’t have to wait until the end of the academic year to make helpful changes.
Another example is related to textbooks. When we were using traditional hard bound and paperback books, it was very difficult to gauge where, when, and what students were reading, in the course material, as well as what content was being skipped. And it was hard to find out, without testing, which concepts were not being understood by the students.
With our ability to track and monitor electronic textbook usage, we can get data on these things in real time. This not only helps inform and improve the teaching and learning process, but it also helps us to utilize our resources in much more efficient ways. One of the benefits of this is that we now can purchase just selected chapters and content from books versus having students pay for the entire book.
Grush: Are there different levels of use of the IoE, such as faculty versus administrators? And are there differences in how IoE is used, by discipline?
Melton: As an administrator, using the IoE, you are looking at a holistic view of the entire campus operations of networks, teaching, learning, and services. You are not usually looking so much at a particular course — you are concerned with a whole program in regards to its alignment with student performance, retention, health, and safety.
For example, one of our campuses noticed an increase in calls regarding safety and security issues. So, the administrator pulled data (on demand and now in real time through IoE) from not only their internal cameras, but from external community surveillance sensors, law enforcement data, and other connected sources, including campus mobile devices that could help provide insight as to the ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ of incidents and how campus security systems and safety procedures were working, or not working well, overall or in selected areas on the campus.
A faculty member using the IoE would more likely be concentrating on the lesson at hand and on what specifically is going on in their classroom — especially in the areas of student engagement, performance, retention, and outcomes. An example from a science lab showed us how the instructor could monitor lab use with IoE applications, both to track and improve student learning and to keep up on supplies.
And yes, there are differences in how these technologies are being embraced and utilized in the disciplines. The STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are at the top in terms of adoption, with the medical field being early adopters. I’ll give you an example from a physical therapy lab, where there are IoE wearables such as smart shoes, clothes, and sensored adaptive devices. There are even innovative sensored therapy floors now, that can share data on how, when, and where clients are walking — allowing therapists to track progress with their therapy. So, therapists and their student interns can identify problems quickly, using real-time data from these smart floors and wearable medical devices. Also in the medical field, we were fortunate to have helped evaluate and pilot several of the first smartphone and mobile phone-based blood pressure cups — not merely adopting the technology for use on our campuses, but providing a test bed and feedback for the technology’s development and validity out in the field.
I can add that even my own shoes, clothes, smartphones, earphones, and my watch are now keeping track of my follow-through on commitments I’ve made to exercise, getting fit, and eating healthy — when I don’t keep it up, my shoes and devices will send a message to my phone to get up and get moving!
I’ll give you an intriguing example from physical education: I have a smart basketball. It will coach me by talking me through what I need to do to improve my techniques. And, when the ball is communicating with me, it is also letting the instructor know how I am doing in real time, so my human coach can immediately intervene.
Safety and security are definitely to be added high on the list of disciplines incorporating IoE, along with business and marketing, which are investigating the wealth of IoE possibilities. Have you noticed that when you drive past certain businesses your smartphone will display their logo and products, as well as update your recent purchases?
Agriculture and environmental science gave us an interesting example of the utilization of IoE. Our State Ag departments were consulted on a growing problem with wild hogs. These animals had to be captured and managed usually during the middle of the night. Consulting with Verizon Wireless IoT Connectivity Solutions, Ag agents in the field are now using a ‘smart fencing system’ that is able to track and help contain these creatures remotely without needing on-site staff at 2:00AM.
Grush: Do some of these devices have dashboards for the instructors?
Melton: Yes, certainly. For example, we are piloting a digital tool called NearPod. This allows the instructor to connect to every device in the classroom — even to several different platforms and types of devices — as well as interacting with students at any remote location. An instructor can use the dashboard to send communications and to deliver content to all the students’ devices, and to monitor student performance as needed. And remember, this is all happening in real time.
Grush: How do you introduce these technologies or offer training that will help faculty, staff, and administrators on campus?
Melton: First, we provide professional development activities regarding the innovations and changes in technology — including emerging tools, new practices, and knowledge concepts. We use terms, symbols, and labels like “smart tools” or even “edugadgets” to convey that these are serious tools, not for entertainment or frivolous use, but for education and workforce training. We make faculty, staff, and administrators aware of what’s out there and what’s coming. We offer showcases featuring what we call “Education and Workforce Smart Tools and Gadgets for IoE”. Seeing these things gives our constituents a fresh perspective so they can help us envision the possibilities for a given device. Very recent examples include our IoE showcases and pilots that use virtual reality, augmented reality, and holograms to improve teaching, learning, and workforce training.
Participants learn to consider: (1) What is the placement or who is the wearer of the smart device? (2) What kind of data can be gathered with this device? (3) How will you monitor and track the data? and (4) What are you going to do with the data — how can you use it to make effective changes?
So the full cycle is: We find emerging tech, we assess it, we pilot it, we evaluate the application of it, and we share the outcomes and the impact of it. Then, after getting feedback and making the adjustments we need, only then do we enter the full institutional or classroom application phase.
Grush: Within your responsibilities at TBR, how are you able to demonstrate which devices are useful and worth an investment by state institutions — and which may not be, at least for now? On the surface, some of the devices you explore in your research could seem as though they might be too expensive or too exotic or just not ready or useful yet. Are you able to show institutions around the state which devices might be both effective and practical?
Melton: Yes. Consider the whole process again: First of all, TBR has invested in — not through a grant, but through its own funding infrastructure — a system-wide office for emerging technologies. This office seeks out innovations and new technologies that have the potential and possibilities for improving teaching, learning, and workforce training. The office provides a research center and testing ground for emerging technologies where campuses may ‘try out’ before purchasing and ‘test out’ for ADA standards.
Next, we introduce these tools to the faculty and administration. Every year we have a major emerging tech conference where they can peruse the latest and greatest, and we see what sparks their interest and which technologies will complement and support their programs and services.
Then, we take these technologies to the campuses, and to the various education programs. We run pilots to track and monitor the impact of the technologies and get the feedback we need to modify them to optimize teaching and learning.
Finally, TBR as a system may choose to say, “Yes, this particular technology has the potential to be a game changer. Let’s investigate and invest more.” And that way, we identify both the very latest and the very best technologies for our institutions. This model has saved the TBR institutions from expensive, one-off efforts at individual schools or programs, reducing duplication and maximizing resources and efforts while offering a proof of concept approach that can ensure our institutions are getting the most innovative technologies — viable, productive education technologies that prepare our students for a technological world of work.