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It won't be long until every city is 'smart'. But what does that mean for education?

Smart Cities is a term which is beginning to be widely and commonly used, but what does it mean?

Wikipedia suggests a smart city “uses digital technologies to enhance performance and well being, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.”

Whilst this might be broadly accurate I am tempted to explore further.

I believe that smart city technologies encompass a wide variety of things, and can be summarized as “technologies that make a city sentient”.

That is, the ability to understand who is where, what they want and need, and how to enable the optimum experience for that individual.

Powering most of this is location based technology, ranging from WiFi, RFID and Bluetooth to a few less common alternatives.

What sectors can smart city technologies be applied to?

There is, of course, the transportation element, ranging from driverless cars, to trains, drones and everything in between.

We have seen Google and numerous other international conglomerates looking into the driverless car, hoping to gain first mover advantage in a new sector.

Equally, Amazon are looking to revolutionize delivery with automated drones.

Then there are the elements of retail innovation, with smart city technologies built into the infrastructure of the building that can enable the tracking of visitors and contextual messages upon entry to certain areas or in front of chosen products.

They also enable access to a variety of data and content regarding the product in front of a user at any point in time.

Seamless contactless payments, and personalized advertisements, add a level of automated intelligence and personalization to the retail experience. (e.g. when walking in front of an INTEL interactive screen the individual can be recognized by age, sex and build).

Accessibility is another interesting area where smart city technologies can really have an impact.

With indoor navigation technologies, people with vision impairment will be able to navigate metro stations with simple use of their phones, which will be giving them turn by turn audio navigation to their desired destination.

Helping visually impaired users gain back their autonomy is a clearly a brilliant use of improving technology.

However, there is one area in particular that fascinates me, that being the opportunities within smart cities and education.

Starting with location based technologies. The main location based technology enablers worth mentioning are WiFI based solutions that use the existing WiFi infrastructure within a venue, such as Cisco Routers and access points providing data to users and venue owners.

The RFID based technologies are more common in warehouses and used for operational efficiency purposes, such as tracking where and when specific items or products were delivered, and where they were stored.

Bluetooth based smart city technologies, that uses hardware such as beacons can enable accurate indoor positioning, navigation and user interaction in a number of user cases.

How can smart city technologies impact education?

One scenario; a new student, Chris arrives on his first day at University, he walks into a vast campus, it’s his first time away from home, and he is feeling a little excited, perplexed, perhaps he’s lost.

He pulls out his smart phone to open the University App, that shows him exactly where he is within the campus, how to get to the induction room, the distance he needs to walk and how long it will take him.

Since he signed in using his profile, the app also shows him the rest of his schedule and recommends passing by the Union bar for a social lunch with the other freshers as he still has time before the induction begins.

After the induction, the app has a notification suggesting there is the freshers fair taking place on the south wing of the university, and in turn shows him how to get there, on foot or using public transport.

Moving on couple of months, as Chris enters the classroom, he is automatically checked in as attending, and this adds up to his attendance points.

As he takes his seat, the app brings up the schedule of the lecture, who the lecturer is, and other relevant links that he can sync with his computer.

From a teaching perspective, we have the lecturer, Prof. Smith who is an expert in computer science and student behavior.

He has been gathering data as to how many of his students attend his lectures, how many stay for the full length and how many of them interact using the digital platform that is available as a student resource.

During the lecture, to make it more interactive, Prof. Smith sets out a series of tasks that requires students to navigate to other locations within the campus where they can unlock specific content to assist them with the next stage of the assignment.

To make it even more enticing, students that complete the assignment receive accreditations.

All of these insights feeds into a research report which allows Prof. Smith to better understand student outcomes, improves his references and future lectures, and encourages participation from his students.

The next day, Chris walks into the university and takes out his phone to search for his working group room, when he gets a notification that the“Physics of the future” book is due to be returned by 16:00.

Within his working group’s chat, he is also notified that he needs to pick up a book from the library, so he enters the book section within the app and gets turn by turn directions within the library to the book.

Chris scans the book with his phone and it’s automatically added to his account with a set return date, before walking back to his working group.

Smart city technologies are already creating the future in education, but it’s unevenly distributed, meaning that the scenarios and technologies described above already exist and are possible but are yet to become an integral part of most campuses.

I was involved in a project last year at a respected technical college that struggled with student attrition.

Students who register, but drop out in the first few weeks of the semester.

The loss in revenue to a college can be circa £600k pa in student attrition, and this within a well run and managed college.

Onboarding and induction in any institution is important, equally so in enterprise. Attrition exists in both arenas.

Smart City technologies do make a difference, and will continue to help solve these problems, and improve user engagement in education.