School buildings on autopilot

The internet of things starts with lighting and climate control, and it could soon transform classrooms
By: | February 21, 2017

When the central Connecticut town of Cheshire moved to reduce power use, it upgraded six of its eight public schools with the latest internet of things technology. The plan combined energy-efficient LED fixtures with sensors and cloud-based servers that automatically turn the lights off in an empty room or adjust brightness.

The district cut its electricity bill by 84 percent, saving about $390,000 out of an annual $65 million budget.

“Before, lights were turned on and often left on” says Jeffrey Solan, superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools. “Now, it’s all automatic. If you walk down a hallway, the lights turn on a section at a time and then turn off when you’re gone.”

At its root, the internet of things (IoT) starts with a piece of hardware that’s controlled locally but also connected to a server in the cloud. The device periodically “phones home” with data, and the online server makes remote changes accordingly. Let’s say it’s 8:15 a.m., and biology class is about to start in room 201.

As the first student or teacher enters, the room’s sensor detects movement and sends data through the school’s network to be analyzed on an internet server. The server sends a command back to the fixture to turn the lights on and set the level based on how much light is streaming through the windows.

About two seconds later, the lights are on. At 9 a.m., after the class is finished and the room empties, the lights dim to 20 percent. When the next class starts, the lights return to full capacity. After 5 p.m., when the room is vacated for the day, the lights shut off automatically.

The IoT’s impact on public school districts is only just emerging. “It might start with power savings” says Pete Koczera, senior manager for K12 education at CDW-G, a major supplier of school technology, “but automating anything that either takes care of the infrastructure or saves money is of obvious interest to school administrators.”

Connected classrooms

Today, internet of things technology available to schools ranges from lighting and climate control to automatic door locks that open a classroom on schedule and sensors that take attendance when students enter a room.

There are also web-controlled projectors, online surveillance cameras, parking lot sensors and GPS-based school-bus tracking systems.

For example, connected classroom web cameras can save on expenses by eliminating the need for local video recording equipment that monitors for intruders at night. These cameras also allow remote monitoring of classrooms by administrators, parents and sick students.

Potential stress points such as the anxious first days of school, and fire drills, can be made calmer by offering students interactive school maps that show the way to the next classroom or to the closest exit. Schools can analyze the air for pollutants and post results on a website alongside historical trends and maximum allowable limits.

Using internet-controlled devices can also enhance instruction, allowing “smart” schools to deliver truly personalized curriculum (see sidebar below). These systems can also make students’ tablets or chairs buzz to get them to pay attention to the lesson.

A school in Australia uses a sensor-filled glove to teach deaf students the motions needed to communicate through sign language.

Future is now

Some 4.9 billion IoT devices were sold in 2015, of which 9 million went into schools, according to international market analysts at the Gartner Group.

That’s a drop in the bucket compared to all those smart thermostats and voice-activated home hubs sold, but Gartner forecasts a nearly four-fold increase for IoT devices in education by 2018, to 35.2 million units.

While the era of the smart school may be coming, few administrators seem ready for the technology. Only 46 percent of the 630 education IT managers surveyed in 2016 by hardware-maker Extreme Networks found that the internet of things would have a major impact within two years.

One-third stated the technology would have only a minor or delayed impact.

The key to the technology is that once you start connecting school devices—whether they be light switches, thermostats or door locks—it’s hard to stop. “You start to see huge savings and synergies by connecting the whole school” says CDW-G’s Koczera.

The next generation of devices may seem more like science fiction, but could become reality with some time and innovation. In addition to robots helping to teach children, augmented reality in chemistry classrooms can show what electron orbitals look like from the perspective of the nucleus.

In gym class, sensor-filled bracelets track heart rate or blood pressure to help students achieve peak performance and prevent exhaustion. When the school day is over, sensors in trash cans will alert the staff when they need emptying.

There could even be large Roomba-like machines moving through the hallways and classrooms at night cleaning the floors without a janitor in sight.

Security snags

On the other hand, security—or a lack of it—can slow adoption of the internet of things. Thousands of connected devices can create an entry point for hackers to siphon off students’ personal data—or for students to change their grades.

There’s a subtler vulnerability here as well: targeting a school’s array of connected devices to turn them into online bots to disrupt the internet.

Such a scenario played out last year when malware surreptitiously loaded onto IoT devices mounted a “denial of service” attack on DynDNS, which supplies global routing information, bringing the network to its knees by flooding it with useless traffic. The result was mayhem, with many of the most popular sites disconnected.

“The key to keeping a school’s IoT devices secure is treating them as if they were computers in a network capable of being broken into” says Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of Deerfield School District 109, an hour’s drive north of Chicago.

The district, which has seven buildings, not only manages lights and climate over the internet but also tracks its school buses.

His advice applies to all connected devices: In addition to constant monitoring for intrusions, schools need to make sure each device’s software is current, that the passwords have been changed recently, and that antivirus software is active and the firewall is properly set up.

As school-bound IoT gizmos proliferate, the fact that there’s no single interface becomes a crucial limitation. For instance, when Lubelfeld wants to look at a room’s energy use or the reasons that a bus route runs late, he needs to use different apps and screens.

“It’s too scattered at the moment” Lubelfeld says. “If all this could be incorporated into a single dashboard, it would make IoT devices more useful at schools.”

Still, it’s a glimpse of a brave new world for school administrators. In the not-too-distant future, at 8:15 a.m., room 201’s door locks will click open for biology class and, as the teacher and students enter, room sensors will register the radio frequency identification chips in their ID cards to track attendance.

This will launch a coordinated ballet, with air conditioning and lights turning on while the window blinds descend and the projector with the day’s lessons picks up where the teacher left off the day before. In less than a minute, the class and digital lesson have started. It’s all in a day’s work for the internet of things.

Interested in edtech? Keep up with DA's Future of Education Technology Conference®.