Technology (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

The Internet of Things (IoT): The Art of the Possible

Internet of Things

PHOTO © GAUDILAB

Eighty-five percent of 300 top K-12 decisionmakers, IT professionals and administrators say the Internet of Things (IoT) will make schools safer, 81 percent say it will improve student engagement and 65 percent say it will save schools/districts significant money. This is according to a survey released in June by Vernon Hills, Illinois-based CDW-G, a leading multi-brand technology solutions provider.

With a goal of taking a closer look at schools’ and districts’ progress around IoT adoption and their goals for IoT transformation, the survey results yielded quite a lot of information. For example, of the top three tools and applications to date, 48 percent are smart/connected security cameras, 37 percent are smart lighting systems and 35 percent smart HVAC systems and/or smart thermostats.

And, of those using IoT, the top three benefits cited to date are improved school safety/security (55 percent), improved energy efficiency (38 percent) and improved student engagement (36 percent).

The three biggest concerns regarding the implementation of IoT are cost/budget (58 percent), privacy issues (33 percent) and security issues (30 percent). In addition, 81 percent of respondents also indicate that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. To see the complete Safety and Savings: IoT Opportunities in K-12 infographic, visit www.cdwnewsroom.com/safety-and-savings.

What Is IoT?

That’s a lot of numbers and a lot of information to absorb. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how school administrators are defining IoT, starting with Tony Inglese, CETL, chief financial officer for Batavia Public School District 101 in Illinois, and co-chair of Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) Emerging Technologies Committee. CoSN is a Washington-based organization that empowers educational leaders to leverage technology to create engaging learning environments and provides the tools essential for their success.

“IoT is hard to define because it’s so broad and no one really knows what it will mean for schools,” says Inglese. “Every year we talk about studying it with our Emerging Technologies Committee but, because it is so elusive, we then decide to put it off. Really, anything that’s connected to the Internet is part of the IoT. But, when a device needs a certain amount of user intervention and direction, then you’re not talking about IoT, you’re talking an internet-enabled device. It’s nebulous and, just as quickly as we can provide examples, we can show how they don’t exactly fit in all cases.”

Inglese’s CoSN Emerging Technologies Committee co-chair is Norton Gusky, a Pittsburgh-based-teacher-turned-educational-technology-broker who believes in using technology to empower communities and seeing technology as a tool for innovation. For 21 years he served as coordinator of educational technology for Pittsburgh-based Fox Chapel School District. About eight years ago, he was instrumental in helping the district move its HVAC systems to IoT in order to have constant feedback from sensors on a network where they could be monitored and controlled. “When we look at what is IoT,” he says, “there are people who have come up with good names and terms. For example, in an article in EdTech magazine, George Siemens, a professor at University of Texas at Arlington, defined IoT as making the physical digital — taking things that are physical and making them digital so you have the ability to use the information from the devices in some fashion. I think this captures it very, very succinctly.”

For Example

One example is a line of intelligent locks for non-architectural applications, which provide the same high level of security and access control found at the building level, but on a more localized scale. Offered by Concordville, Pennsylvania-based Southco, a global leader in engineered access hardware, these locks ensure the security of individual lockers, server cabinets, industrial equipment, storage units, technology carts, podiums and more, providing monitored access far beyond a simple lock and key or general building access system.

“Most schools are applying IoT technology, whether they realize it or not,” says Steve Spatig, Southco’s general manager of Electronic Access Solutions. “If they have electronic access at the building level, it’s easy to add a lock at the equipment level and tie it to the existing system.”

Intelligent locks provide an audit trail, so administrators know when a room or a piece of equipment was accessed and by whom. Other benefits include the ease of credentialing, ability for remote management, ease of installation (there’s less equipment to install because it’s cloud based) and that there’s little or no initial investment because, in many cases, it’s a subscription-based solution.

Another example is Bus Central, a platform that allows school administrators to communicate with and monitor a fleet of smart buses out in the field. Developed by World Wide Technology, a global technology integrator, in partnership with Cisco Systems and Davra Networks, it provides valuable insights into the performance and safety of a school bus fleet. Specifically, it is possible to do the following.

  1. Track which students are on specific buses and where those buses are located in real time.
  2. Notify substitute drivers of next stops and pick-up locations on a computerized map.
  3. Immediately find out when a school bus is running late, strays from its route, breaks down or is in an accident.
  4. Administrators can automatically dispatch a maintenance crew through the app.
  5. Receive live diagnostics on a bus’s engine, oil, mileage and tire levels. Administrators can avoid break downs before they occur and use the analytics to improve driving patterns.
  6. Place audio and video calls with individual drivers while on route, or send notification alerts to the entire fleet.

The driving force behind these examples and the expansion of IoT isn’t the IoT itself, but the analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence that recognizes achievement or non-achievement of data points and creates meaningful and often corrective or reinforcing actions. “IoT is just an extension of the accumulation of data points and their ability to signal the environment to take action,” observes Ron Reyer, the director of Technology for Bethel Park School District in Pittsburgh.

Trends and Concerns

The trend in adopting the IoT is that districts are already using it in their core functional areas (as opposed to educational application), but don’t call it that. “Card access systems, IP-based video security cameras and automated HVAC control systems are all excellent examples of IoT,” says Reyer. “What differentiates these existing systems from the IoT systems that are receiving so much press today is that they are proprietary and dedicated vs. open and multi-use. While I can take an Axis security camera and use it as one of 170 security cameras I can also take the Axis camera in the gymnasium and split a second video feed off of it and use it to patch into my television mixer to help the television crew help film the basketball game. Of course these additional applications are not without security and access concerns so with open and non-proprietary systems comes the risk that many people could find them on your network and potentially exploit them for nefarious purposes.”

As Reyer points out, the main challenge with IoT is and will continue to be security. Many IoT devices require unrestricted access to the Internet that is not associated to a specific account. “This is problematic for schools, which are required by CIPA to know who is on the network and how they are using it,” says Reyer. “IoT can also serve as hacking targets as IoT devices that are not kept up to date or managed centrally by the IT department are going to attract both inside and outside elements to explore the network and potentially provide a point of entry for further exploration of sensitive data.”

Inglese agrees. “As Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa continue to develop, they will track what’s happening and, in some cases, listen. This is great at home, but is quite another thing in the school environment where we have to consider the privacy and consent of individuals. We can’t send information to the Internet and hope it’s okay. We have to be very deliberate in protecting the privacy of students and teachers.”

Going Forward

There’s no doubt that the school facility itself plays a large role in student success. “Learning is affected by acoustics, lighting, air quality, and the technology used for individual education,” says Michael Mann, director of Marketing and Strategy for Buildingwide Systems Integration for Johnson Controls, a global firm that creates intelligent buildings, efficient energy solutions, integrated infrastructure and more that work seamlessly together. “These things are important. And parents want the technology that provides high-quality acoustics, lighting, air quality, and technology for education, even if they don’t understand it.”

It’s safe to say that administrators want higher performance learning environments, too, notably to support their overall mission of student achievement. Currently, they purchase disparate systems — pieces and parts from different vendors to accomplish different goals. Once they have a clearer picture of IoT capabilities and what they want to accomplish via those capabilities, they will work with a partner who is able to construct and deliver both smart and IoT outcomes — designing, planning and implementing technology from a central point, ensuring systems interoperation and a network sized to handle all of the information traveling across it. “A strategic advisor can help administrators look at how integrated technology supports an overall mission of student achievement, in addition to saving first costs, which can be ploughed back into things they didn’t know they could afford,” says Mann. “They’re beginning to talk with us about creating a technology roadmap, including plans for paying for it via such methods as tax credits and rebates.”

A large part of the roadmap to which Mann refers is based on the building sensing changes and acting on them. For example, in the case of a fire, the building sensing the smoke, unlocking doors, lighting an egress path, sending a text alert to staff and teachers telling them where it is, notifying the fire department and more. “In building the roadmap,” he says, “we want to start at the beginning and talk through all the opportunities and how the systems get tied together and are used to drive outcomes like higher performance, safety, comfort and sustainability.”

Not to be overlooked in the planning process is policy. While it may be important for a museum to track the areas its visitors use, is it as important for a school to know how many times students have gone to the bathroom? “If people know they are being tracked, are they going to be happy about it,” asks Gusky? “We have to ask how much information we want to track and what information is really important.”

Late Adopters

Because of cost, security challenges and the desire to invest in something that has a proven return on investment by delivering intended outcomes, experts indicate that schools will be late adopters. The good thing about this is that the kinks will be worked out in the meantime. Also, the construction process will change toward integrated project delivery so that the entire team is discussing IoT priorities at the beginning of a project. When they’re ready to get on board, administrators will know from the beginning what they’re purchasing, how it works, how it benefits them, how secure it is and how scalable it is.

What will drive adoption is gained efficiencies and energy savings. “People are looking into whether the investments they make are generating the right kinds of metrics: safety, smoother processes, a better experience for the end users,” says Jamie Milne, IoT Engagement Manager for World Wide Technology. “Having a clear definition of those goals is really important, and not to be overlooked in the excitement about implementing the newest, latest and greatest.”

And, with changing demographics and the public becoming more technology- and achievement-minded, so will schools’ brands drive IoT adoption. “Technology is going to drive your brand,” says Mann. “It is going to allow administrators to say, ‘We’re the most safe, secure, comfortable and technology savvy school. You should send your students here.’”

Returning to CDW-G’s survey numbers, 83 percent of respondents expect their IoT investments to increase through the next five years, by an average of 47 percent, and 82 percent indicate that the majority of schools/districts will have incorporated IoT into their core functional areas in five years. Planning now for the future allows you to ensure that all the pieces are integrated and that you can focus on providing high-quality education to your students. “We call it the art of the possible,” sums Mann.

This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

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