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New experiences but with old tech

5 min read

 On a wall at our local church hangs a public telephone.  It is exactly as you remember phones from 20 years ago:  fastened to the wall, a long twisty cord, and buttons in the headset that you use to dial the number.  While standing there in the hall after our meetings allowing my better half to visit with each member individually, my 13-year-old daughter asks me, “Dad, can this phone do anything other than just call people?” I said, “No, besides people you can call a machine that will give you voice recording of up to the minute time and temperature for our area.”  To which she replied, “You mean like Siri?”.  Needless to say that really got me thinking about how we do things like call people on telephones, look up weather and time differently today than we did 20 years ago.  And while we have new technology like smartphones and Siri to accomplish those same things, underneath it all in many respects the infrastructure isn’t too much different now than it was then.

I had a similar realization this past week as I replaced an old sprinkler controller box at my home.  For the past few years we had problems with our sprinklers and I knew that the problem would need to be fixed at some point.  That point came last weekend and I decided to fix the problem once and for all.  The problem was that sprinkler heads in certain zones would only work intermittently.  I began trouble shooting by first replacing solenoids, then valve diaphragms, and then re-wiring the electrical connections.  Nothing worked and I was stumped and frustrated.  Finally, I decided to look at the controller box and discovered that certain ports were not producing enough voltage to properly run the valves.

 I bought a new sprinkler controller and proceeded to wire it and get it set up.  I knew I was in for a completely different experience when step #2 asked you to download the associated mobile app and connect it to my wireless network.  What?!  Setting up the individual zones was easy to do and the app asked me for nozzle types, soil types, sun/shade exposure, slope of yard, etc.  Next it asked me to connect to a local weather station so that it could monitor rainfall in the area and adjust watering amounts as necessary.  What?!  After specifying a watering schedule, it informed me that it would break up watering times for each zone automatically so that the water had time to soak in.  Lastly, I informed my Amazon Alexa of this new device so that I could activate watering using only my voice.  I was truly blown away.

 Like the example with the phone, the underlying infrastructure of the sprinkler system was essentially the same.  Same valves, same zones, same sprinkler heads, wiring, etc.  But, my experience with that system was somehow completely different.  What enabled my experience to be profoundly different?  For one, I was not required to be physically located at the sprinkler box and could activate it remotely from either my smartphone, or my Alexa.  Second, the application itself was adaptive in that it customized a watering schedule based on inputs about sun exposure, soil, nozzle types and even weather data.  Lastly, my sprinkler system—like my smartphone—is personalized to me and my own situation.  My neighbor could purchase the exact same device and have a completely different experience even though underneath it all the systems are pretty much alike.

 I share these examples to illustrate the similarities in the work we are doing at BYU to improve academic technologies.  The use of APIs, personal domains, and mobile devices allows educators to create new learning experiences for students that are adaptive and personalized.  It moves the control and motivation for learning from a central system to the individual learner.  The underlying systems (Student Information Systems (SIS), Learning Record Stores (LRS) and Learning Management Systems (LMS)) that are necessary to run a university are still there, but by building new interfaces that focus on individual learners allows you to focus on adaptive and personalized learning that can lead to increased student motivation and engagement.  This approach, just like the example of my sprinkler box, allows users (teachers and learners) to have exciting new experiences in the teaching and learning process.

Future blog posts will focus on specific areas that we are working on such as student learning dashboards, university APIs, personal APIs, personal Domains, experience APIs (xAPI) and learning record stores, and many more.  Thanks for reading!