IoT and the Campus of Things

min read

Industry is abuzz with the potential of the emerging Internet of Things, but the excitement should not be theirs alone. The higher education community has reason to join in. The Campus of Things is coming, and it can extend significant benefits to our campuses, our classrooms, and our students.

IoT and the Campus of Things

The Internet of Things (or more commonly, IoT) is a vision of a world where everyday objects can sense, compute, and communicate with one another and other Internet-connected things. This ecosystem of chattering objects will be incredibly diverse in its makeup, ranging from vehicles and roadways, to surgical tools and hospital beds, to forks and toothbrushes. The collective measurements and calculations provided by this new Internet tier will provide unprecedented, macroscopic visibility into a world filled with complex patterns and behaviors that heretofore were too large to see. These latent patterns and behaviors will be made manifest, and the everyday things that populate our homes, our businesses, and our schools will seamlessly coordinate to optimize our everyday experiences. Sensing, computing, and communication technology will be integrated everywhere, and we won't even know it's there.

This futuristic vision of an everything, everywhere, connected world, where technology silently recedes into the background, is hardly new. The vision stems from seeds planted nearly three decades ago by computer visionary Mark Weiser. Weiser articulated the computing paradigm known as ubiquitous computing []: "It is invisible, everywhere computing that does not live on a personal device of any sort, but is in the woodwork everywhere." In the late 1980s, when ubiquitous computing first emerged, the vision outstripped the technological foundation necessary to achieve it. But time is a wheel, and good ideas have a way of revolving until the foundations needed to realize them catch up. Sometimes, it takes multiple revolutions.

A decade after the birth of ubiquitous computing, in the same year that its progenitor passed away prematurely, the idea made another revolution, marked by another important extension to the computing lexicon. Kevin Ashton coined "Internet of Things" in 1999. A brand manager with Procter and Gamble, Ashton was intrigued by the idea of lipstick cases that could communicate their type and location to support inventory management across facilities. The planned implementation was simple, based on passive RFID tags that could transmit a small amount of static, preprogrammed information when activated by a network-connected reader – embedded, for example, in a display case. "I am Natural Blush 621!" "I am Crushed Shells 541!" "I am Wine to Five 538!" The approach became a blueprint for global retailers like Walmart, which rely on the simple, monotonous chatter of shirts, razors, and other goods to manage their global supply chain. This is a far cry from Weiser's vision of seamlessly integrated computational intelligence, but it provides a compelling business case for the power of communicating things.

The IoT fuse was lit at the beginning of a catalytic era for computing. The past 15 years have seen synergistic advancements across a number of domains on the critical path to achieving the ubiquitous computing vision. Among the most important, led through investments by DARPA and the NSF, was the development of robust, miniaturized, wireless sensing technology. Wireless sensors that vary from the size of a postage stamp to the size of a matchbox can be deployed to monitor a host of phenomena, ranging from volcanic activity to human physiology. At the same time, machine-to-machine cellular connectivity has expanded dramatically, with concurrent growth in global Internet connectivity. Coupled with the emergence of cloud computing and big data analytics, the technology ecosystem necessary to enable an Internet of Things was complete. A newfound industrial emphasis on the transformative power of data and the myriad process improvements it can inform served as the final catalyst. The IoT as a reality — not a phrase — was born.

Today, the IoT sits at the peak of Gartner's Hype Cycle. It's probably not surprising that industry is abuzz with the promise of streaming sensor data. The oft quoted "50 billion connected devices by 2020!" has become a rallying cry for technology analysts, chip vendors, network providers, and other proponents of a deeply connected, communicating world. What is surprising is that academia has been relatively slow to join the parade, particularly when the potential impacts are so exciting. Like most organizations that manage significant facilities, universities stand to benefit by adopting the IoT as part of their management strategy. The IoT also affords new opportunities to improve the customer experience. For universities, this means the ability to provide new student services and improve on those already offered. Perhaps most surprisingly, the IoT represents an opportunity to better engage a diverse student base in computer science and engineering, and to amplify these programs through meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration.

Universities must manage the significant capital assets required to support their research, teaching, and service missions. For large, research-intensive institutions, this management task can consume a nontrivial portion of the operating budget. Campus-wide IoT adoption can provide important benefits in this context, reducing operating costs through improved asset monitoring, and optimization of hands-on personnel time. Adoption of passive, RFID-based tracking solutions is an obvious example where the IoT can provide value to an institution. But active, sensor-based monitoring solutions can provide a broader range of benefits. Consider a campus tasked with managing a small fleet of golf carts or Segways, both commonly used for transit across large campuses. An active monitoring system could not only provide continuous information on the location of the fleet, but also diagnostic data useful in managing the maintenance cycle for each vehicle. It would be useful to know, for example, that the battery in Segway #6 had exceeded the number of charge-discharge cycles suggested by the manufacturer, or that the front-right tire in Golf Cart #9 was low. This same concept applies to the maintenance of laboratory equipment, ranging from specialized refrigeration units and environmental chambers, to wave tanks and imaging equipment.

The IoT can also play an important role in campus planning, particularly space planning. As a testament to the supply-demand tension at most universities, it's sometimes quipped that "faculty will argue for raises — but kill for space!" The space management challenges experienced at universities across the country mirror the challenges seen in the management of any scarce resource: Sound allocation decisions are difficult to make in the absence of reliable information about how the resource is or will be used. How is that new laboratory being used? Does it have an average occupancy of five students, or 25? Could the laboratory accommodate other activities on certain days at certain times? For a host of reasons, some technical, some human, university administrators often struggle to find answers to these questions. This is an ideal opportunity for an IoT application that provides reports of campus traffic — through walking paths and breezeways, dining halls and break rooms, and, most importantly, through classrooms and laboratories. The application could be used as part of a step-wise planning process, or executed continuously to inform ongoing allocation adjustments. Increased monitoring density provides more fine-grained use information, but the architecture can be scaled to accommodate the available budget.

The potential benefits of the IoT to the academic community extend beyond facilities management to improving our students' experience. The lowest hanging fruit can be harvested by adapting some of the smart city applications that have emerged. What student hasn't shown up late to class after circling the parking lot looking for a space? Ask any student at a major university if it would improve their campus experience to be able to check on their smart phones which parking spots were available. The answer will be a resounding "yes!" and there's nothing futuristic about it. IoT parking management systems are commercially available through a number of vendors. This same type of technology can be adapted to enable students to find open meeting rooms, computer facilities, or café seating. What might be really exciting for students living in campus dormitories: A guarantee that they'll never walk down three flights of stairs balancing two loads of dirty laundry to find that none of the washing machines are available. On many campuses, the washing machines are already network-connected to support electronic payment; availability reporting is a straightforward extension.

These examples represent just the tip of the iceberg. The IoT has the potential to streamline students' commuting, provide dynamic navigation systems for students with disabilities, and support emergency response management. The most exciting opportunities for university adoption of the IoT, though, are in improving the most important service that we offer — the educational experience. In the classroom, IoT-enabled "clickers" are already in common use. These devices — either physical or virtualized through a smart phone or tablet — allow students to respond quickly to questions posed during a lecture. Rapid, in-class assessment of content understanding allows educators to quickly identify points of confusion, individually or in aggregate, and dynamically adapt lesson plans or apply individual interventions.

As beneficial as clickers can be, it's intriguing to imagine what this technology might become. (It can also be frightening to imagine, if we fail to manage the enormous security and privacy risks — but that is a story for another day.) One of the most compelling possibilities builds on the rapid feedback approach enabled by clickers, but achieves real-time, passive assessment of student mood and engagement. Wearable, network-connected sensors are increasingly popular, and they create new opportunities for detecting phenomena that are much richer than the raw physical and physiological measures that they collect. Advancements in wearable sensing technology and data analytics may make real-time assessment of mood and engagement possible. A number of groups across the country have already begun to realize aspects of this potential, with some commercial activity. Imagine addressing a large lecture hall of students and having the ability to check their engagement with a quick glance at your watch. Today, it's still science fiction, but the potential is there. And good ideas have a way of coming round and round again until the technology catches up.

Technology adoption is not the only avenue for universities to benefit from the emergence of the IoT. The increasing commercial interest in IoT technology and the people capable of developing and applying it will bolster demand for a new type of engineering graduate. The IoT workforce of the future will require engineering leads who are comfortable across a multitude of hardware and software domains. These engineers will work across the technology stack, from embedded systems, to wireless networking, to data analytics, to web applications, and the various layers in-between. At the same time, these engineers will have to communicate and collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to understand the requirements and constraints of their application partners in civil engineering, environmental science, healthcare, and the myriad other domains that will drive IoT demand. For academic institutions, this can serve as an important catalyst for new investments in interdisciplinary engineering education. While highly focused expertise will always be needed, the IoT's future depends on renaissance engineers and the interdisciplinary programs that train them.

An important attendant impact of these new training programs is their potential for broadening the diversity of the engineering workforce. Engineering disciplines are often not perceived as direct pathways to achieving positive environmental or social impact. The science of broadening participation tells us that this perception serves as a disincentive for girls and women who might otherwise consider an engineering career. Similarly, there is reason to think that this perception serves as a deterrent to minority participation. Opening students' eyes to the enormous potential of the IoT to engage with their communities and affect positive environmental and social change represents an exciting opportunity to engage a rich, untapped demographic — one that is vital to ensuring a globally competitive, 21st century engineering workforce.

The IoT will reach its tendrils into campuses across the country, bringing to life a silently chattering ecosystem of intelligent things. Their observations and interactions could have a profound impact on universities, streamlining campus operations, improving the student experience, and revitalizing engineering degree programs. It might not happen quickly. There are risks, and there will be bumps — but there is much to be excited about. Get ready for the Campus of Things.

Jason O. Hallstrom, PhD, serves as director of the Institute for Sensing and Embedded Network Systems Engineering at Florida Atlantic University (I-SENSE@FAU) and as a professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

© 2016 Jason O. Hallstrom. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.