The Potential of Internet of Things on Campus


Jul 03, 2017 By G. John Cole

Just about everyone’s heard the phrase ‘Internet of Things' (IoT) bandied about over the past couple of years, but far fewer of us have a clear idea of what it actually means – or how it will affect our daily lives.

The first part of the question is relatively straightforward. IoT is what happens when the everyday devices around us increasingly come to feature Wi-Fi capabilities and sensors so that they can talk to each other and regulate our lives in more automated ways. For example, you might turn a light switch on and off with your cellphone, or your refrigerator might be programmed to add ‘milk' to your online shopping list when it senses you're getting low.

The deeper issue of the impact it will have on our lives is being played out before our eyes – some researchers estimate the number of IoT devices around us to reach 24 billion by the year 2020. Developments are likely to be most keenly pursued by businesses and governments, who can save a lot of money by automating their processes on a massive scale, while consumers will likely spare a little of their elastic income for fancy new gadgets (such as the Amazon Echo) as they always have.

But what will be the impact on campus – that unique in-between place that’s not quite business, not quite municipality, and is home from home for so many?

Well, for those students who do make it their temporary home by living on campus, there is likely to be an improvement in services and systems to make their daily lives easier and create a more sophisticated environment in which to study. It might be as simple as students getting an automated text message when their laundry cycle finishes, or as complex as the use of pooled data from Fitbit devices to track traffic patterns and plan the positions of new buildings and facilities accordingly.

The data that all these devices collect on any given student can be used to personalize their experience within the institution - from their initial inquiry to graduation. A combination of factors such as the status of submitted work, personal schedules, and behavioral patterns might be used to send students messages and reminders at the moments they are likely to be most effective, or even to gamify elements of their student life by offering rewards for certain behaviors or achievements. Students might have courses, internship opportunities, or events recommended to them, or alerts might be sent to administrators if students are struggling academically or even in immediate danger.

But the canniest institutions won’t just be installing and running IoT networks – they'll be leading the field in IoT research and innovation.

In the UK, a consortium of nine universities and 47 industry and public service partners have unveiled a £28m ($36m) IoT research hub, partly supported by the government's IoTUK program; an initiative the country's then-digital economy minister boasted would make the UK a "world leader in the adoption of Internet of Things technologies". Experts at Lancaster University, for example, are developing cyber security driven architectures, IoT systems for smarter highways maintenance and ambient environments, and other new design techniques as part of the initiative.

In the States, students and staff at New York’s Syracuse University already have ten years of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication research behind them, with a number of patents and new companies resulting from their work.

When such innovations find themselves embedded in campus infrastructure, a key effect is the harvesting of reams of data. This information needn't only result in better laundry room allocation and cycle path planning, but also in ever more sophisticated and personalized teaching and learning practices. USC's Center for Human-Applied Reasoning and the Internet of Things (CHARIOT), for example, uses cameras and sensors to track cognitive modeling methods with the aim of optimizing individualized learning for all students.

Another significant advantage for institutions who become not just consumers but developers of IoT solutions is the deeper understanding they have of the potential pitfalls. If there is one challenge that faces campuses as they make IoT part of their physical and virtual structure, it is that there are still a lot of uncertainties and security issues surrounding the technology – from the need to protect personal data, to the potential for hackers to wreak havoc with a campus's physical systems.

This is an opportunity to take on a problem up front,” as Vyas Sekar, a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon’s cybersecurity research center puts it. “We can proactively inform how to build secure and private IoT infrastructure before it’s here.”