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William Johnson

Asked what the technological tools in university classrooms will look and feel like by 2020, Matt Ratto admits he's no futurist. But the assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information is helping shape the future – by changing students' relationship with technology.

"When people think about classroom technology, they think about things that you might buy to put in the classroom, like big monitors or touch interfaces," says Ratto, who directs the ThingTank Lab at U of T. "[But] the really innovative classroom technologies that we'll see coming up in the next few years, they're not technologies that turn students into passive users. They're technologies that provide the possibility for them to be active creators."

The professor and a group of students are working on a project called Pet Rock. With help from Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping toolkit, Ratto has built two pocket-sized devices that he describes as a physical form of Facebook. He made the enclosures himself using a 3-D printer.

Like Facebook, the Pet Rock lets two users "friend" each other. But to unfriend, they must be in proximity and agree to hit a button at the same time. Ratto, who plans to use the device in a graduate course where students will build and program it, says it spurs critical thinking about social relations and technology. "One of the things I'm trying to get the students to do is see themselves as empowered to make decisions about their technology environment."

High-tech tools for school

By 2020, it's likely that emerging technologies ranging from smart objects to game-based learning will be commonplace in universities. In some cases, they may make the traditional classroom less important. But how much these technologies will disrupt the age-old university model is unclear.

Ratto's research focuses on the Internet of Things, which he defines as the movement of digital technologies off screens and into the physical environment. "We're increasingly interacting with digital content not just through screens and keyboards but through various types of tactile and other interfaces," Ratto says, giving the Microsoft Kinect as
an example.

The Internet of Things will probably become mainstream in higher education within four to five years, according to a recent report by the New Media Consortium, an
Austin, Texas-based non-profit whose members consist of international experts in educational technology. Larry Johnson, chief executive officer of the consortium, thinks the ability to assign an IP address to micro sensors has great potential. "I could see biologists and zoologists out in the field planting these sensors around and allowing long-term study of animal populations, for example," he says.

In two to three years, many universities will have adopted game-based learning, the consortium reckons. At the University of Toronto Mississauga's Institute of Communication, Culture and Information Technology, researchers are building a gamelike Android app for a criminology course. The app resembles CSI meets Clue, says U of T Mississauga assistant professor Rhonda McEwen: It presents students with a dead body and evidence so they can analyze the crime scene.

"I could easily predict a lot more Android apps, in particular, being given to students to use within their classes," McEwen says. "The big shift here is that we don't need to create the devices," she explains, referring to laptops and other mobile gadgets. "If [students] already have a technology that they can leverage into the learning environment, that's where I think it's headed."

At ICCIT, McEwen teaches a course in virtual worlds. For at least two classes, she has students get together through their avatars. "They really appreciate us having a different space to exchange ideas in," she says.

Video and other technologies being developed today can strike time and geography from the list of concerns around getting an education, says Janna Anderson, an associate professor in the School of Communications at Elon University in North Carolina. "A lot of the restrictions that we've had on education are being lifted, and we're able to offer more to people throughout their lives and to more people," Anderson notes.

There's a possible downside, Anderson adds: By 2020, massive online video courses could be the norm, while only the privileged few might enjoy access to a private university education. If so, the number of university campuses may dwindle. But having a so-called super-teacher instruct via video could benefit students across the economic spectrum,
Anderson says.

The New Media Consortium's Johnson doesn't expect emerging technologies to fundamentally change university education: the overhead projector and the Internet caught on, but television had little impact on the classroom. "These technologies are assimilated and they become part of the toolkit," Dr. Johnson says. "Where they gain traction, they become very common."

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