Ubiquitous Computing

If we take the definition of ubiquitous as 'existing or being everywhere, especially at the same time' then ubiquitous learning is not a new trend. Learning has always happened everywhere. As humans we are always learning regardless of the time and place. What is driving this trend is the idea of ubiquitous computing and how it is influencing learning.

So what is ubiquitous computing – known to its friends as ubicomp? A computer scientist from the Xerox PARC laboratory called Mark Weiser is credited as the father of the concept in the 80s & 90s. He spoke of three waves of computing:

  • Mainframes
  • Personal Computers
  • Ubiquitous Computing

In the first two waves the users have to go to the computers in order to interact, and the technology takes centre stage. In the third wave technology recedes into the background and becomes an almost invisible part of everyday life.

He defined four key concepts of ubicomp:

  • The purpose of a computer is to help do something else
  • The best computer is a quite and invisible servant
  • Computers should extend the unconcious
  • Technology should create calm, ie. inform but not demand focus of attention

Finally Weiser described three levels of ubicomp devices:

  • Tabs – centimetre sized wearable devices
  • Pads – handheld size devices
  • Boards – metre sized interactive boards

The thing that is now driving the trend of ubiquitous technology is the arrival of the devices that Weiser envisioned. We now have the embeddable wearable chips, the iPad has pushed into the limelight the concept of the handheld Pad, and interactive boards and tabletops are also available.

A second driver, which comes back to the idea of ubiquity being 'everywhere at the same time' is cloud computing, which allows us to access the same data from any location, on multiple devices, at the same time. Google docs is a good example of this, with multiple people anywhere in the world, using a variety of devices can all edit the same document at the same time. 

The impact of this for teaching and learning is that the need to go to the technology to do 'computer stuff' is rapidly disappearing. Mobile devices like iPads and smart phones mean that technology can be more easily integrated into the learning process, anytime and any place. Technology is becoming that quiet invisible servant that informs but does not demand attention.

The two key implications for schools are:

  • Infrastructure provision needs to focus on robust wireless networks to facilitate the widespread use of ubiquitous computing devices, particularly student owned devices
  • All teaching content and student generated data needs to be cloud based to allow for access from anywhere on any device

For the last couple of centuries we have got into the mindset that in order to learn you have to turn up at a certain place and stay there for a set number of hours each day. Hopefully, more than anything, what ubicomp will do is push learning back to what it has always been, a ubiquitous process.

Can you already see ubiquitous computing impacting on your classroom?

What steps is your school taking to be ready for the rise of ubicomp?