The Internet of Things for Educators and Learners

Key Takeaways

  • Given the phenomenal growth of connected devices in the Internet of Things, the issue of how higher education supports educators with the IoT in learning environments becomes a key consideration in teaching and learning.
  • An educational environment explicitly focused on supporting learning with the IoT could be extremely beneficial; we call it the Educators' and Learners' Internet of Things, or ELIoT.
  • What we have to decide is whether we will prepare, through the design of distributed, adaptive systems and methodologies, to give the ELIoT a warm welcome in higher education while managing the accompanying serious considerations.

Many of the things surrounding us gather information about us without our realizing it: things embedded into objects, worn on our bodies, controlled with sensors, developed for intelligence, and created for data gathering capacity and communication. All these things communicate through the cloud, make decisions, and share information. This is the Internet of Things. Given the rapid development of the IoT, it is important that we recognize its key characteristics and plan for its inevitable impacts in higher education.

The way that higher education supports educators with the IoT in learning environments will significantly affect how we as a society function, communicate, collaborate, and move into a world of increasing interconnectedness. This article is designed to jumpstart campus planning by providing some background on the IoT and guided considerations for supporting it in educational environments.


Recent studies suggest that the IoT has grown and developed as fast as the Internet. The Pew Research Center and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center sought predictions about the impact of the Internet over the next 10 years in an online canvas conducted between November 2013, and January 2014. The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet survey agreed that the expanding networking of everything and everyone — the IoT and embedded and wearable devices — would have widespread beneficial and challenging effects by 2025. The survey found a belief that opportunities and challenges resulting from amplified connectivity would influence nearly everything, nearly everyone, nearly everywhere.

A study published by the Gartner Group in November 2015 estimated 30 percent growth in the number of devices connected to the IoT in 2016. This totals more than six billion connected devices, with 5.5 million devices added every day. At that rate, Gartner predicts more than 20 billion devices connected to the IoT by 2020.

Data collected from sensors such as those in our automobiles, homes, phones, and on our wrists could help us use energy more efficiently, avoid traffic jams, stay healthier, and better educate learners. However, those same sensors can be a privacy nightmare because they enable others to track our location or activities, or even report on our health to interested third parties. Unlocking the full potential of the IoT in education will hinge on earning and retaining not only our community's confidence that the tool(s) can improve learning outcomes and merit the investment but also their trust in the ecosystem's responsible handling of their information.

Once those challenges are addressed, the IoT can support education in many ways. For example, EDUCAUSE President and CEO John O'Brien's recent article on "The Internet of Things: Unprecedented Collaboration Required" documented the thoughts of some industry and higher education experts on the speed, depth, and breadth of the IoT, paying specific attention to the potential impact on higher education. In 2014 EDUCAUSE published 7 Things You Should Know About the Internet of Things, highlighting the implications for teaching and learning, such as an increased capacity for immersive learning.

With a greater spectrum of learning "things" available and wider use of different teaching techniques, the potential for more personalized learning increases. A 2014 Deloitte GOV2020 article explored this possibility, pointing out that

"incorporating just a few connected devices creates the possibility for more dynamic interventions, more advanced classroom techniques, and even a modified role for teachers that is more focused on individual students. By shifting processes and procedures to the background, the educator has fewer responsibilities as an active 'manager' in the foreground — which could mean more time to craft a personalized learning experience."

The University of Wisconsin–Madison created an IoT Lab that supports the university mission. Students can collaborate with faculty and industry members in the lab as they develop innovative uses for the IoT.

Given the potential benefits, of which these examples represent the tip of the iceberg, it will not be long before campus resources are called to support innovative uses of the IoT in learning environments. Educators must understand the implications, challenges, and limitations of the technologies involved in the IoT so that we can better support the faculty, staff, and students who will be using it and help them realize the "art of the possible."

From the schoolhouse to the university, educators must develop a strong knowledge base about how to leverage the IoT to enhance the quality of education and prepare students to be active contributors to, and beneficiaries of, this educational integration. For example, devices connecting securely to data, content, and learning systems can enable and improve learning services that dynamically adapt to learners' needs as they evolve and educators' needs as they refine their curricula.

An educational environment explicitly focused on supporting learning with the IoT could be extremely beneficial; we'll call it the Educators' and Learners' Internet of Things, or ELIoT. As the IoT options grow, so will the ELIoT options. The ELIoT will give learners and faculty access to numerous sources of learning and teaching data in a manner that improves teaching, the curriculum, and learning.

ELIOT - Educators' and Learners' Internet of Things image

Consider how mobile applications supporting fitness could be connected to learners and educators. Right now, for example, we might evaluate how a FitBit supports kinesiology curricula or how information in a FitBit or similar device could promote learning when linked to items in the Array of Things (AoT), a network of interactive, modular sensor boxes that will be installed around Chicago to collect real-time data on the city's environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use. Alternatively, how could educators use a drone connected to the AoT to support students in learning mapping skills? Or how could a refrigerator monitor play a role in customization of learning healthy eating habits or in health science classes? The future of ELIoT remains unknown, but that does not mean we should not investigate, plan, and experiment with the possibilities. Looking for purposeful assessment, design, development, and evaluation opportunities supports the growth of the ELIoT, which is critical to enhancing curricula and promoting adoption of new IoT-related technologies for teaching and learning.

Planning for the ELIoT is crucial, but it will not occur in a vacuum. The rest of this article introduces some related elements for consideration: diffusion of innovation, silos, strategy and policy, impacts on security and data, and team growth.

Diffusion of Innovation

Understanding Everett M. Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations (DoI) adopter categorization1 will be critical to developing appropriate support for educators, learners, and the organization through the growth of the ELIoT.

Supporting and advancing innovation means educational organizations must rethink not only how we educate our learners, but how we develop competence for the entire educational community including our support staff, leadership, educators, and parents as well as learners. Each member of this group possesses different levels of knowledge about the ELIoT, and attentiveness to DoI categories will help enable appropriate knowledge development.

Enabling the growth of the ELIoT across the educational environment hinges on meeting each person where he or she sits on the spectrum of innovation (see figure 1). For example, asking an instructor who is an innovator to download an app, play with it for a few days, and develop a curriculum around it might work, an instructor who is in the late majority might benefit from one-on-one support and an opportunity to explore other curricula presented as part of the ELIoT before beginning to develop his or her own lesson or curriculum.

Figure 1. Rogers' adopter categorization on the basis of innovativeness - graph

Figure 1. Rogers' adopter categorization on the basis of innovativeness


While colleges and universities have a unifying mission of educating students, the realities of higher education also include competing for grants, resources, and prestige. This type of academic infighting can foster a silo mentality,2 yet there are ways to counter this tendency. Susan Frost and Daniel Teodorescu believe that if universities intend to increase interdisciplinary collaboration, then departmental customs and rules may need to change and faculty must be motivated intrinsically or be eligible for resources and compensation assigned specifically to interdisciplinary initiatives.3 Tapping into the ELIoT's many tools and ideas, some of which we have not yet imagined, could support such an approach, enabling the creation of bridges between organizations. The ELIoT can provide the university and its departments as well as the private and public sectors with opportunities for more collaboration and communication.

In turn, supporting this collaboration across an educational enterprise will require new thinking on the part of the educational technology community itself. Silos can be physical boundaries or informational boundaries, and the siloing of learner data will be at least as limiting to the possibilities inherent in the ELIoT as would keeping people and things physically apart. Multiple standards such as the Experience API and IMS Caliper Analytics are emerging to help manage this sort of chaotic data collection, but only by sticking ardently to the principles of open architectures can programs achieve success. Equally, portions of the institution's data will need to be accessible to ELIoT, whether for authentication, administration, or simply to provide content to the learner. Doing this scalably and securely is nontrivial, but if accomplished has the potential to break down human silos and allow technology to fall into the background of a modernized, hyper-personalized learning environment.

Strategy and Policy

Policies that encourage collaboration with the ELIoT and its effective integration into education are crucial. Policies must include sound change management practices among educational institutions to reduce the barriers to technology adoption and increase its scale. Professional development programs for educators should incorporate discussion of ways to take advantage of the ELIoT; such conversations would encourage early adoption and help educators develop innovative methodologies and appropriate pedagogies for the learning environment. The importance of collaboration between departments, universities, government, private industry, etc. will be critical to successful implementation.

Impacts on Security and Data Ownership

The proliferation of different devices, networks, platforms, and applications to access and support the ELIoT multiplies the vulnerabilities and greatly increases the potential for malicious attacks, according to Beecham Research. The Beecham Research "IoT Security Threat Map" highlights the key areas where external or internal attacks may originate and where the fast-growing IoT industry needs to do more to provide better security controls. Moreover, these same devices will need to integrate with and access institutional systems of record in order to provide more than marginal value, making each a sort of new endpoint for the enterprise.

ELIoT security will become an enormous issue, particularly in education. Without thoughtful development and security planning, pervasive expansion of the ELIoT will not take place across the marketplace and therefore not flow to educational institutions. Information must be available — yet confidential — when needed, with the information's owner deciding which people, groups, or organizations may have access to it. The question might become, "Who owns a learner's and faculty member's data and for what purposes?"

The Oxford English Dictionary now defines the Internet of Things as: "A proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data." Strikingly, the definition is accompanied by the following sentence as an example: "If one thing can prevent the Internet of Things from transforming the way we live and work, it will be a breakdown in security." If they are not already, institutions will soon be faced with having to make hard decisions about the ELIoT, balancing the need for information security against the need to modernize. One might posit that the answer is simple: protecting the information is paramount. But what is the cost to the learner, to the educator, and to society of not improving, embracing, and extending our ideas around personalized learning?

Educating Yourself and Your Team

Both education and the IoT are constantly evolving, requiring constant evaluation to capitalize on the latest advances. Research provided by organizations like the Pew Research Center provides a place to start. For example, their website contains a presentation by Lee Rainey, the Center's Director of Internet, Science, and Technology Research, that discusses findings from their "The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025." The report presents the views of hundreds of "technology builders and analysts" on the question of whether the IoT will have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public, but warns us we might not respond quickly enough to the challenges brought on by the IoT.

Other good sources of information include industry groups such as IBM and HP; the Gartner Group; journals such as Computer Communication; and associations such as EDUCAUSE.

Some Final Thoughts

The IoT is already altering health care, security, utilities, transportation, and household management. The devices themselves might be small, but they bring about major changes in how we live, work, and educate our society; we must plan for and question those changes. The ELIoT brings many opportunities and serious considerations as well, and we must take the time to think critically about how best to use it to support learning.

What does the future of the ELIoT look like in our classrooms? We need to stop asking ourselves that question. The ELIoT is not just about the classroom, what it looks like, the tools, etc. We need to focus on how we will make the ELIoT's ubiquitous access to high-quality learning connections enhance the overall educational experience. The ELIoT is about the entire educational community growing beyond thinking about domain-specific tools, playgrounds, or problems and starting to share and collaborate to reach the "art of the possible" for everyone.

Jesse Stommel makes a similar point about the human side of IoT in his June 2016 article, "Winona Ryder and the Internet of Things," we need to remember to bring our unique perspective as educators into IoT:

We must approach the Internet of Things from a place that doesn't reduce ourselves, or reduce students, to mere algorithms. We must approach the IoT as a space of learning, not as a way to monitor and regulate. Our best tools in this are ones that encourage compassion more than obedience. The Internet is made of people, not things.

We know as much today about what the ELIoT is and will become as we do about extraterrestrials. What we have to decide is whether we will prepare, through the design of distributed, adaptive systems and methodologies, to give the ELIoT a warm welcome in higher education or leave this work to others, ultimately leaving the ELIoT in the hands of ill-prepared, inflexible teams.


  1. Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th edition (New York, NY: Free Press, 2003; first edition 1983).
  2. Kathleen McKinney, "The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Past Lessons, Current Challenges, and Future Visions," in To Improve the Academy, Vol. 22: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, C. Wehlburg and S. Chadwick-Blossey, eds. (Bolton, MA: Anker, 2013), 3–19; and Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, "How to Create a Problem-Solving Institution," Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 57, No. 2 (August 29, 2010): A43–A44.
  3. Susan H. Frost and Daniel Teodorescu, "Teaching Excellence: How Faculty Guided Change at a Research University," Review of Higher Education, Vol. 24, No. 4 (2001): 397–415.

Dina Kurzweil, PhD, is director, Education and Technology Innovation Support Office, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

Sean Baker is chief technology officer, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.

© 2016 Dina Kurzweil and Sean Baker. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY 4.0 license.

The opinions or assertions contained herein are the private ones of the authors and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Department of Defense, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, or any other agency of the U.S. Government. The authors have no financial disclosures.