Testing the Waters: Mobile and Cloud Computing for Education

By Dr. Ben Lieberman

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In an increasingly digital and online era, education practices must adapt to a changing world to take full advantage of technological advances. Of these technologies, the large display, touch-enabled, all-in-one computer shows great promise in facilitating a wide-variety of teaching environments across the academic spectrum of primary, secondary, and higher education. When these systems are coupled with the growing power and sophistication of tablet computing and a secure cloud-based infrastructure, a whole new range of learning possibilities can be realized.

Technology has always played an important role in education, albeit often a lagging one. Standard learning tools such as textbooks, white boards, and pens and paper are rapidly being augmented with sophisticated audio-visual enabled computing environments. Inexpensive, high-definition projectors tied to networked computers now allow instructors to present video as well as static images on a large viewing screen, offering more timely presentation of topics to students without the lag time often seen with textbook publishing.

The introduction of ubiquitous, secure, cloud-based computing resources has provided a tremendous opportunity for cross-cultural access, adapted or assisted learning for disabled individuals, and the reduction in overall cost to schools for access to high-performance computing environments.

Working with hardware manufacturer Intel, the software development company IdentityMine (http://www.identitymine.com) has explored these technological opportunities as well as the challenges of integrating mobile and touch-enabled computing devices into the cloud-enabled classroom.

The Classroom in the Cloud

The newer generations of touch-enabled computing devices, and especially where those devices interact via an ad hoc network, have presented an entirely new approach to classroom learning. Now, students come equipped with not only backpacks and notebooks but an entire computing environment in their pocket in the form of a smartphone. Tablets and lightweight laptop computers with extended battery life can be used to enable learning opportunities instead of providing students with constant distractions. Wireless connections to a local network are inexpensive, easy to administer, and can be secured to allow only a limited set of physical devices. Ad hoc networking permits peer-to-peer communication, so that teachers send materials directly to students' tablets and vice versa.

A typical network installation in these cases would likely involve a broad-spectrum wireless network with regularly spaced repeaters. This setup ensures that the signal strength across the campus remains uniform and eliminates “dead zones.” Moreover, the network should be divided into two primary private zones, one for the teachers (with access to the public Internet as appropriate) and the other for the use of students (limited to school-approved local resources). Each network has a specific key for access that is tied to the user identity of the particular individual, such as a user name-password combination. If the network is administered from a Windows Server*–based system, then a standard practice is to use Active Directory*. Alternatively, for a more varied computing environment, network access can be granted using a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol-enabled security system. In both cases, encryption of at least WPA2 strength is recommended to ensure proper privacy and security.

Making these technologies seamless to the education experience requires careful thought and planning. Selected approaches must be highly secure, easy to configure, and free of licensing costs. Moreover, they must be resilient to outage and as self-healing as possible. Finally, the solution should place as little burden as possible on the particular school or district; few schools can afford full-time technical support teams to troubleshoot problems.

In support of these cost and support constraints, a school or district can use Platform as a Service or Storage as a Service cloud-based implementations. Doing so has the effect of off-loading the oversight and maintenance responsibilities to the cloud vendor, allowing the school to focus resources on education-enhancing solutions. As the school’s storage or computation needs increase (or decrease), the school board can negotiate with multiple vendors for the best price, and then expand (or contract) resources as-needed.

Using cloud-based data sources for assignments, homework, and augmented information resources (such as higher education library access) permits teachers to assign homework and students to submit completed work using a secure shared online data store. In class, this work can be downloaded to a local mobile device or shared with the entire class using a large-screen display or projector. Because everyone is sharing the same private network with access specific to common storage folders, teachers can assign and collect work in a stable, secure manner.

A cloud-enabled classroom is also a key enabler for the idea of joined classrooms. Teachers and students who are separated by arbitrary distances can directly interact using the shared cloud-based resources and simple video networking, such as Skype or Google+*. The advantages to language studies are clear: Students would be working with partners whose native language is the complement of each other. Moreover, for social studies, consider the benefits to students and teachers of directly interacting with people of other cultures on a regular basis.

With the development of high-performance tablet computing, there are now additional opportunities to facilitate education. These devices have become common for students and teachers to possess and allow on-the-fly networking, where devices in a local network join and leave seamlessly. Given a secure wireless network as discussed earlier, devices can now join or leave ad hoc local networks using protocols such as Bonjour*. Students can join or leave dedicated social “spaces” in which virtual whiteboards can be used to interact with both local and remote partners.

“Allow Me to Demonstrate... ”

When CNN introduced its “Magic Wall” during the 2008 presidential primaries, it sparked a large number of jokes and comedy skits, such as comedian Stephen Colbert’s “Moral Compass 5000,” where he created a large-screen, touch-enabled parody. However, in both cases, there was a more subtle message in play: High-definition touch screen displays could be used effectively to present complex information to a large audience.

In a classroom setting, such screens can be even more effective than an overhead projector, because the instructor is not tied to a separate computer screen. Instead, the teacher can simply reach out and manipulate the information on the screen directly. Consider some of the following possibilities:

  • Simulations: physics and mathematics, geography, architecture and engineering, chemistry, astronomy. The presentation of material through interactive simulations is a time-honored method of engaging students in complex topics. Live demonstrations via simulation software bring the topic “to life.” As Joel Day, senior developer at IdentityMine, notes, “If I had seen a visual simulation of the calculation of Pi when I was a kid in school, I would have understood that concept instantly, contrasting to how long it took when it was just the archaic way that it was being explained.”
  • Enhanced audio-visual presentations: 3D virtual walkthroughs. Many historical and cultural locations are now accessible via virtual tours and walkthroughs, including the Parthenon in Greece and the Louvre in Paris. Students can take direct control of the tour through their mobile device and explore.
  • Textbook and presentation notations, such as circles, boxes, and arrows. Teachers and students can add notes, comments, bookmarks, and other notations to electronic textbooks and assignments through their tablet mobile device. As Marcus Ghaly, senior interaction designer at IdentityMine, puts it, “You can’t do that with a textbook. To take notes in a textbook is to destroy a textbook. But to take notes digitally is free.”
  • Gesture recognition: Kinect*-based motion detection. With the addition of motion-detection hardware, the need for direct touch on a screen is removed. Such technology is particularly useful for individuals who have limited mobility.

Working Together in a Mobile World

One of the most common activities in a classroom is breaking up into separate workgroups and having students work together on a specific problem. When working as a group, especially when working remotely, some way must be provided to allow for turn-taking when interacting with the material in a shared environment. For example, consider the simulations discussed earlier: Only one student can manipulate a shared screen view at a time. So how do we establish control, and then allow users to share that control? A lesson can be learned from current chat and shared web session systems in use today, such as those provided by Google and WebEx. These systems list all of the current attendees to a shared session and allow one special user (the session owner) to assign a presenter. Only the presenter has control over the shared space and materials.

Notes Ghaly, “There would be some way that the teacher could say, ‘Who in the class is paying attention or who hasn’t answered in a while?’ You could figure out, ‘Oh, Marcus hasn’t answered in a while. Maybe I should ask him and bring him into the conversation.’”

Another aspect to shared mobile computing involves home-bound students or students living remote from the school. Rather than simply home-schooling these children, parents could choose to participate in part with standard school day activities using the privately networked mobile computer systems in the classroom. Coupled with a remotely operated camera, which gives the student the ability to focus on the instructor, other students in the class, or other materials being shown, a remote student can participate directly in class. If the controls are implemented with a touch-enabled display, the student would simply gesture to make the camera pan, focus, or zoom.

Some of the technical concerns with these remote learning options include bandwidth and latency issues that could degrade the video or audio signal. To address these issues, a sliding scale of resolution could be introduced that would allow lower-fidelity images while maintaining a connection, but this is not an optimal solution, as a buffered data stream would not ensure a real-time interaction with the instructor and other students.

One intriguing possibility for shared mobile computing comes with the ability to create an ad hoc large display by combining multiple tablet devices on a flat surface (see Figure 1). By joining the common local network, students can combine visualization on multiple side-by-side tablets. Those devices could use near-field communication (NFC) to initiate such a team working session. After the networking details are exchanged via NFC, the devices would use peer-to-peer communication to reduce the cost of maintaining a dedicated server and scale better in case more devices join the session. The actual networking technology would likely be Wi-Fi* and use a socket connection for a fast data exchange without the overhead of standard HTTP. The underlying hardware requirements are common for most devices, but a protocol would need to be designed and developed to cover all the possible actions and operations. Such a protocol would ideally be open source to ensure that this near-field collaboration system could be integrated for a broad range of devices.



Figure 1. Building an ad hoc screen space from multiple mobile devices

Other possible direct collaborations include learning games that require cooperation between the various teams to complete a task. No one team can solve the problem: Only by working together is the solution possible. For these kinds of assignments, a common mobile computing device environment would be ideal. Each group can work on a separate section, and then submit the result to the instructor to be combined and shown on the main classroom display. Engineering, architecture, mathematics, and other topics that require extensive critical thinking can all be made more interesting and immersive using such technologies.

Conclusion

The widespread adoption of touch-enabled mobile computing platforms, and especially tablet computing devices, is poised to remake our understanding of the modern classroom. This article introduced various ways that mobile computing can be used to facilitate teaching, collaboration, and learning. I discussed some of the technological challenges facing the adoption of mobile devices in the classroom and proposed approaches for resolving them. Combining existing cloud-based infrastructure with open source software and standards for networking and network security provides a cost-effective and maintainable approach for harnessing the power of these remarkable devices.

About IdentityMine

IdentityMine is focused on user experience, both from a design and an engineering perspective. Specializing in natural user interfaces, IdentityMine is experienced in building rich, custom applications across a variety of industry verticals and enterprise, including game design, retail, media, aviation, automotive, and hospitality.

The IdentityMine team has extensive experience with large-format displays, projection walls, tablets, touch screens, and several mobile device platforms. Using a variety of input modalities, including multitouch, voice, and camera-based vision, IdentityMine delivers solutions for technologies for Windows* 8, Windows Phone, Xbox LIVE*, and Kinect.

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