IoT in education by designing smart learning environments

Back in 2012, I was setting out my own personal IoT vision in an interview for the Bosch ConnectedWorld Blog:

What is your favorite IoT application – existing or futuristic? 

“My very personal IoT dream as an education expert is a fully connected study room: We spend so much time in conference rooms, in auditoriums or at school. I am convinced that the Internet of Things could make our information exchange and learning experiences much more efficient – and more fun.”

Now, four years later, I am a lot closer to achieving that broad vision. As a doctoral student, I research and analyze whether and in what ways the Internet of Things can be transferred across to teaching and learning processes. The goal of my research is to devise a concept for designing smart learning environments.

What actually is a smart learning environment?

Smart learning environments (SLEs) are physical spaces enhanced with digital and context-specific components (sensors and actuators, for instance) that facilitate better and faster learning. This allows for hybrid learning approaches that switch between formal and informal settings, independent and class learning, varying learning times and places, and analog and digital learning formats. These learning scenarios pave the way for hybrid synergies between the physical and digital world. Smart learning environments also adapt themselves to learners’ needs by taking information from the environment, processing it, and using it to initiate appropriate steps such as recommendations.



If the Internet of Things is to be used in learning processes and smart learning environments, there are six main areas to take into account:


1. Human Centered Design

Smart learning environments should always begin with the needs of their users. In order to be able to cater specifically to individual associate needs and activities, the first step should be to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the needs, context, and environment. This forms the basis for developing a personalized learning environment that supports independent learning and can be linked with formal learning scenarios.

2. Learning and work methods

Digital transformation calls for new expertise in areas such as communications, methods, media, and information. Increasingly, learning is complementary, on demand, and life-long, happening both in the workplace and on the move, and no longer exclusively in formal training sessions in traditional classrooms. Developing this expertise requires new learning techniques (e.g. independent learning or design thinking) that offer didactic variety while also being complemented by professional learning support, coaching, and mentoring. This means that formal learning time within a physical learning space merges with informal activities outside of the classroom, creating hybrid learning environments. Learning material becomes concentrated and more personalized, blurring the boundaries between learning, working, and an individual’s private life.

3. Learning and corporate culture

Every organization has its own culture – varying work techniques, procedures, and processes that must be taken into account. Innovative learning scenarios rely on a culture of trust and feedback , as well as a high degree of individual responsibility.

4. Smart IT infrastructure

Smart IT infrastructure is the core of the smart learning environment and is currently referred to as a “digital agent” or “digital assistant.” It comprises specific hardware and software components as well as the accompanying interfaces, which form the basis of smart data exchange. The smart IT infrastructure gathers together available and required knowledge in a cloud; this is where all learning/work materials and learning outcomes are stored (in a partly automated process) and accessible wherever you go. The integration of semantic concepts supplements and links learning content with further sources of information. For instance, a learner might enter the term “IoT.” They are then presented with relevant search results according to category (studies, communities, presentations, congresses, etc.) and data of publication.

Access to high-quality content is enabled through connectivity both with internal learning platforms such as Moodle and external resources such as online libraries, specialist databases, and specialist forums such as ResearchGate. The smart IT system operates as the interface between internal and external datasets, and organizes all of the relevant information according to the user’s needs. An example of an available prototype for “smart recommendation systems” is the OER EEXCESS project, which aims to connect valuable online resources and get content to users without them having to trawl through a variety of platforms to get it. The code is open source and available via GitHub. This video explains how it all works:

An important element of the Internet of Things is integrating technology into everyday items to make them “smart objects.” The aim is to enhance everyday objects, for instance by equipping a window with sensors and actuators so that it can be automated to provide an added benefit (such as windows that open automatically when air quality is not conducive to learning).

In this scenario, technology works unobtrusively in the background, which is also a concern from a design perspective. The smarter the technology, the less noticeable it is. It becomes a part of the architecture and furnishings, integrated into walls, tables, chairs, and similar items. Other examples include loudspeakers integrated into walls and sofas, or multifunctional partitions that provide a screen when required, and at other times serve as shelves or an interactive wall.

5. Digital & physical equipment

A key part of designing a space is its equipment – furniture, technology, and even plants, to name but a few. First there are the traditional analog items such as tables, chairs, stools, sofas, flip charts, partitions, pens, paper, post it notes, etc. Then there is the technology such as PCs, projectors, audio and conference systems – and smart devices. These smart devices include smart pens, tablets, 3D printers, smartphones, smart TVs, power walls, smart boards, and smart windows, which open automatically to let in fresh air. These elements can be creatively combined, as in co-working spaces such as the Fab Lab Berlin or Impact HUB. On top of this, smart learning environments feature digital tools (software applications), which continually support the learning and work process.

One example are applications that share learning outcomes with an (internal) “community of practice,” as well as pre-installed tools that allow users to create and edit photos, graphics, and videos during the learning process. Basically, it encompasses any application that aids information processing and contributes to connectivity with others (only if desired, of course). Every year, there is a good overview of tools relevant to learning and work practice compiled by Jane Heart – while an overview by Robin Good lists more than 550 work tools.

6. Workplace architecture

Workplace architecture has an impact on learning culture. Anyone can see the difference between working in a plain old office and, for instance, a Google office. Of course, these are two extremes – the key is to find the right balance. The key elements are a pleasant, modern design combined with multifunctional furnishings that can be quickly and easily adapted to a range of learning and work scenarios. It is also worth considering innovative concepts such as upcycling, in which for instance pallets are made into tables or shelves.

To conclude our consideration of these 6 key areas, I recommend the following actions in developing a smart learning environment:

grafik3_blog_imageYou’re interested in smart learning environments? I will give a talk at the hackathon of the Federal Agency for Civic Education. The hackathon takes part on the 26th and 27th of November 2016. You can find more information here (only in German).


About the author

Sirkka Freigang

Sirkka Freigang

I am a technical editor at Bosch Software Innovations, responsible for documenting IoT software solutions. I am also a PhD student in the Department of Educational Technologies at the Technische Universität Dresden, where I am doing a doctorate on IoT in Education. Previously, I worked as an IT education coordinator for the Institute of Computer Science at the Volkswagen AutoUni in Wolfsburg and as an assistant project manager in education research at the isw Institute. I am fascinated by the Internet of Things and the possibilities it offers for developing innovative learning spaces and formats. As for my background, I have a degree in Educational Sciences with a focus on Adult Education.