Anyone who has watched a child with an iPad will know that interactivity quickly becomes an expected feature of play. Take the iPad away and replace it with a book and often the child will continue swiping and prodding merrily away, expecting the book to offer up some sort of feedback. The freedom of exploration and endless fascination with the simple things (the wrapping paper, rather than the expensive iPad it’s concealing) is a crucial process in any child’s cognitive development.
In the coming decades it will be these simple everyday things that start to become connected to the Internet of Things, with predictions ranging from 26 to 50 billion devices connected by 2020, and the effect of this technological revolution on our children’s development and education is something we all have a vested interest in.
Breaking down Barriers to Interactivity
For the best part of forty years the mouse and keyboard has prevented meaningful interaction between very young children and computers. The advent of touchscreens went a long way in breaking down this barrier, allowing children of four or five to interact with a screen in a far more natural and direct fashion. As gesture based interactive platforms have become more advanced and commonplace, so too has the potential for meaningful interactions between very young children and technology.
The growth of wearables and other connected things that can monitor and relay interactions between the child and the real world around them further breaks down these barriers but it also raises some very important questions. How can children consent to being monitored in this way and who has access to the data being accumulated? Perhaps more worryingly, could these devices ever directly or indirectly influence child behaviour?
Teddy the Guardian is a cuddly toy that exemplifies this concept. Able to monitor child temperature and heart rate when hugged, the idea is that the teddy bear does away with the need for adult interventions with intrusive medical instruments that could be distressing for a sick child. The Croatian company that is manufacturing the bears is donating them to hospitals across Europe to help nurses and medical staff monitor children. An upshot of all of this could be that the child begins to associate the bear with health services or the concept of protection in general and this could have unforeseen consequences for their cognitive development, as strong associations are formed at a very early age.
The Benefits to Learning Outcomes
The IoT has the potential to revolutionise early development though. Experts agree that at a very young age independent learning is important. Quite apart from the fact that children seem to really enjoy it, it also helps nurture independent thinking. Interactive children’s books that change content or feedback based on the child’s actions have been available for some time on digital platforms and as advanced toys. The IoT will make that data big. By tracking, collating and sending data on how a child interacts with a particular book or toy and making it available online, learning outcomes can become dynamic. Masses of this data can be analysed by experts and the book can change content or feedback to give the best learning outcome based on previous experience.
In this sense we could witness in the next few years the beginning of a process of constant and rapid improvement and insight into child development and child psychology. If a child shows a particular interest in, say, animals then some of their other toys and books can all reconfigure to take account of this when appropriate. In this way learning outcomes can be maximised, a child’s focus on play is kept high, and even the costs of new toys for the parents could be minimised.
There are unsurprisingly big concerns about this type of integration of the Internet into children’s playthings, with recent press coverage of hacked doll Cayla, not doing a lot to improve public perception. Good PR and honest dialogue with consumers is perhaps more crucial in this area than any other in the M2M marketplace.
Is the data safe? Is my child safe from interference? What dynamic content is being sent to my child’s toys? What kind of data is being sent back? Manufacturers will live and die by how they answer these questions and deal with security concerns. We all take on board an element of risk every time we send information across the internet, but children are blissfully unaware of this danger. Failure to safeguard children’s security could put child education and learning within the IoT back years or even decades in terms of consumer confidence.
As today’s toddlers grow up and go to school so too will the Internet of Things grow up and develop with them, becoming more ubiquitous in classrooms. In a recent article for edSurge, Max Meyers of Deloitte’s Federal Practice discusses how the IoT could change assumptions about technology in schools. Of particular interest are the death of the computer lab and enabling multiple devices for learning through one common platform utilising Single Sign On (SSO) and allowing for more centralised security and monitoring.
Of course the rush for integration of more connected technology in schools, especially when it is designed to free up teacher time and ‘unnecessary’ interactions with students, is not without its critics. Blogger for Insidehighered.com, John Warner, laments Meyer’s vision to reduce bureaucratic tasks, such as attendance being automated through smart tech and wearables, as a slippery slope to a less human and ultimately less rounded education system, where small but meaningful interactions between teachers and students are replaced by silent notifications to mobile devices or tablets. He even goes so far as to predict the tech becoming a potential justification for larger class sizes.
Warner’s fears may seem far fetched, even Orwellian, but they represent part of a genuine public concern about the IoT in general and its effect on children and their education specifically. Handing over the everyday tasks of a teacher, such as discipline and determining the pace of learning, to an algorithm is a bold step by any stretch of the imagination and will require effective relationships to be built between educators, policy makers and manufacturers.
Of course there is plenty of evidence to suggest that educators and parents groups on the whole see the IoT overall as a benefit and not a threat. A recent £800,000 project to bring the IoT to UK schools, from a consortium that includes Intel, Xively, Science Scope, Explorer HQ, Stakeholder Design, the University of Birmingham’s Urban Climate Laboratory, the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis and the Open University Department of Computing , has the potential to bring schools together to form data sharing initiatives. As well as an effective means of data collection that could benefit society as a whole, the project could inspire young minds to get more involved in science, engineering and geography and even build their own IoT products and sensors.
“Imagine all schools having a weather station and each one being interconnected,” explains David Crellin, of science education hardware and software manufacturer Science Scope. “They all have a vested interest in it working from an educational perspective, but the density of knowledge [and data this produces] could be much more significant than anything that’s available to the Met Office today.”
From the advent of the very first ‘learning toys’ to today’s apps and games on tablets and computers, we’ve come a long way. In the coming decades the IoT will begin to exercise an increasing influence over child development, education and entertainment. The pace of this transition will ultimately be governed by the cost-effectiveness of connecting traditionally non-connected toys and learning devices to the internet. The paradigm will shift from why would you make a book that is internet enabled, to why wouldn’t you.
When it comes to children’s education, policy makers will be instrumental in steering the IoT revolution through uncharted territory and allaying and addressing the fears of parents and educators, as well as creating strong and robust regulatory frameworks that will clamp down on abuses of power and ensure datasets on children are properly protected.