Using the Internet-of-Things to Teach Computer Science
The following text is an excerpt from Educating the Internet-of-Things Generation, an article I wrote with my colleagues Arosha Bandara, Neil Smith, Mike Richards and Marian Petre from the Open University. The article appeared in IEEE Computer, Feb. 2013 (vol. 46 no. 2), pp. 53-61. A pdf of the preprint is also available.
"Over the last decades the world of computing has changed dramatically. The continuing relevance of Moore’s laws together with the near-‐zero cost of processing, networking and communication is giving rise to the Internet of Things, a new global computing infrastructure of trillions of connected devices that permeate the world we live in. The emergence of the Internet of Things will have a transformative effect on our society and requires us to rethink how to educate the coming generation of engineers and computer scientists. This important issue arises at a time when higher education is facing increasing pressures to transform itself to respond to critical changes in our society:
- Emerging new jobs require new skills: it has become clear that new developments in computing, energy and transportation will play a key role in what Jeremy Rifkin calls the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ , the reconfiguration of industry towards renewable energies, smart grid technologies, and energy positive buildings. This revolution will create demand for engineering and science jobs, which will be strongly connected to the Internet of Things.
- More people require and demand education: over the last decades millions of people around the world have been raised from poverty to middle class and now require and demand access to higher education. Yet increasingly higher education institutions cannot accommodate the growing number of potential students.
- Consumers are becoming producers: The recent shift from consumer cultures to participatory cultures [2, 3] has reconfigured people’s expectations about technology and their own role as producer and maker. Technology design increasingly needs to focus on democratic control, openness, social production and mass collaboration as much as on functional aspects and aesthetics.
These trends create a need for an education provision that can empower a new generation of digital citizen who can understand both the technologies that underpin the Internet of Things, as well as the societal impacts of widespread adoption of these technologies. Moreover, higher education programmes need to make sure that the next generation of engineers understand how to design and build technological systems that reflect our altered expectations of openness and participation. For computer science the challenge is to develop new forms of scalable education that are able to accommodate the large numbers of students around the world, that are attractive to potential students with various interests and that deliver an innovative curriculum that reflects the radical changes in computing technology.
In response to these challenges the Open University in the UK has embarked on a program to revamp its undergraduate computer science education and in Oct 2011 has started offering a new online course designed around Internet of Things concepts aimed at first year undergraduates. Since then close to 6000 students have signed up for this 9-‐month course and about 4000 students have completed it. The key objective of this new course, called My Digital Life, is to place the Internet of Things at the core of the 1st year computing curriculum and to prime students from the very beginning for the coming changes in society and technology. Rather than narrowly defining the Internet of Things as a technical subject, this course is designed to help students view the Internet of Things as a tool to understand and interrogate their own world, and recognize their own role in realising the potential of the Internet of Things. This is achieved through an educational model that focuses on concrete experiences, creative experimentation, active participation and collaborative learning – all factors associated with improved engagement and learning outcomes .
Collaborative Learning for the Internet of Things
The Open University (OU) was the world's first successful distance teaching university and has been offering open education programmes and distance education for over 40 years. With more than 250,000 active students it is Britain’s largest university. There is a now growing worldwide trend towards online education, yet delivering successful online courses is a tremendous challenge. Massively open online courses (MOOC), a relatively recent form of online education, have garnered extensive attention due to initiatives of high-‐profile institutions like Stanford and MIT, and start-‐ups such as Coursera, Udacity, and 2tor. Yet unlike these open and free course offerings, OU students receive extensive, personalised support from tutors and – upon successful completion – get credits counting towards a BSc in Computing.
The Internet of Things is a new topic for online education, and opinions about what the Internet of Things is, should be, or will be, differ greatly. The course team identified several concepts as fundamental for the Internet of Things and essential for this new course:
- the merging of the physical and digital realms;
- physical objects that become first class entities on the Internet;
- the huge increase in the number of internet-‐connected devices, objects, sensors and actuators;
- the huge increase in the amount and value of data;
- the emergence of novel embedded device platforms below the level of personal mobile devices;
- and novel applications in energy, transport, health, business and daily life.
Teaching Internet of Things concepts to first year students is a challenge, let alone teaching them online. Few students at home have access to embedded networked devices and very few solutions exist for teaching internet-‐scale programming of sensor applications. Most embedded device technologies require an understanding of hardware that cannot be expected of 1st year undergraduates – nor can we expect that large numbers of first-‐year students are willing to engage with hardware before moving on to other topics. Most importantly however, the significance of the Internet of Things lies not in its technology alone but in its implications for society – and in its impact on the computing discipline itself: we believe that the Internet of Things represents an ideal basis for a wide-‐ranging and rigorous introduction to computing, from algorithms to networks, from hardware architectures to big data. Using the Internet of Things as a foundation for teaching computer science also encourages a participative and collaborative pedagogic approach. The Internet of Things is an inherently democratic phenomenon, with many small parts, loosely coupled, each contributing as they can to a greater whole. By working with this structure, we can encourage students to learn with IOT technology, rather than merely learning about the IOT. This is reflected in the topics and educational goals of the My Digital Life course:
- Algorithms: students should acquire the ability to develop algorithms that operate on sensor data and create an output in the real world.
- Programming skill: students should develop an understanding of the principles of programming, and demonstrate the ability to program networked systems embedded in the real world, including sensing and actuation.
- Distribution and collaboration: students should develop an understanding of the importance of distributed and collaborative system architectures in computing, and demonstrate the ability to develop networked sensing applications.
- Creative design: the course should enable students to become creative and apply the Do-‐it-‐Yourself philosophy to the Internet of Things, as suggested for example by [4,5,6]. This involves creating ideas for applications that manifest themselves in the physical world and transform these ideas into working prototypes
- Collaborative design: students should develop the ability to work with other students to collaborate in the design of applications.
- Ethical issues: students should develop an understanding of issues relating to privacy and security in the IoT, as well as the need for public involvement in the debate on the role of technology in society.
- Computing in Society: students should understand how computing technology and the IoT underpin society and contribute to business and daily life, including historical context of the technological and intellectual developments that led to the Internet of Things.
Teaching an online course has significant challenges, for example related to student engagement and student evaluation. In order to ensure an exceptional student experience and avoid high dropout rates, our pedagogic approach is informed by experiential learning  and collaborative learning theories . Experiential learning emphasises concrete experience and active experimentation while collaborative learning highlights a learning process where students capitalize on one another’s skills and understandings, and actively support each other’s learning. The course design has also been strongly influenced by the tradition of constructionism, which postulates that people are most likely to become engaged in an activity and learn things from it when they are active and creative participants . Overall, the course is designed to support collective open engagement and experimentation by students.
 Jeremy Rifkin. Third Industrial Revolution. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
 Miller, Vincent. Understanding Digital Culture. "Convergence and the Contemporary Media Experience." Sage. 2011.
 Tapscott, Don. Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics:How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything. Penguin USA: New York, 2006
 Irena Pletikosa Cvijikj, Florian Michahelles. The Toolkit Approach for End-‐User Participation in the Internet of Things. In: Dieter Uckelmann, Mark Harrison, Florian Michahelles (eds.) Architecting the Internet of Things, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2011.
 Gerd Kortuem and Fahim Kawsar. Market-‐based User Innovation for the Internet of Things. Internet of Things 2010 Conference (IoT-‐2010) Nov 29 -‐ Dec 1, Tokyo, Japan.
 Marc Roelands, Marc Godon, Mohamed Ali Feki and Lieven Trappeniers. Orientation towards Do-‐it-‐ Yourself Internet-‐of-‐Things Mass Creativity. Workshop on Pervasive Workshop :What can the Internet of Things do for the citizen?. Pervasive Computing Conference 2010.
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