Ambient Schools

If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way

Published: 18 June 2013

'In an ambient intelligent world, networked devices work in concert to support people in carrying out their everyday activities, tasks and rituals in an easy and natural way by using information and intelligence that is hidden in the network connecting these devices. As these devices grow smaller, more connected and more integrated into our environment, the technology disappears into our surroundings until only the user interface remains perceivable by users.' [1]

This extract from Wikipedia on ambient devices can serve as a useful reference point for many schools across the globe. It points to the way by which school leaders could design, formulate, manage and use networked devices and services in their schools.

A school with a ubiquitous computing model will address the educational needs and requirements of its students in a fundamentally different manner from a school which has a lower ratio of computing devices to pupils. The pervasiveness of new technology will mean that educational institutions will come to be shaped by ubiquitous computing. As schools begin to organise and make sense of recent technological developments they will be better placed to utilise these technological advances to take forward organisational change and to further improve the educational services that they offer to their communities.


A school with ubiquitous computing will address the educational agenda in a fundamentally different manner

Technology touches and changes everything it comes into contact with. When teachers start to use networked devices and services to support the delivery of their subjects they will do so in a very different manner than if they did without these devices and services around them. For instance, the teacher will spend less time disseminating information and content to his or her students and spend much more valuable time in asking questions that enable students to think more critically about the subjects that they are studying. Students will learn to be much more critical and selective about the information that they choose to underpin and support their studies. Teachers will have more time to support those students that require additional support in their classrooms because the majority of his or her students will learn to become more independent in their learning. It may appear paradoxical to state that students in a ubiquitous setting will learn more autonomously; especially in a world where the majority of online services are built on the premise that teachers and students favour and value the ability to interact socially online. The work of Prof. Sugata Mitra on self organised learning environments has proven insightful when describing how 'children can work in groups, access the internet and other software, follow up on a class activity or project or take them where their interests lead them'. [2]

Students in a ubiquitous setting learn more autonomously

A clear example of how ubiquitous technology benefits teachers and students is the shift from content to practice. From personal experience, the availability of technologies in our classrooms always leads to more engaging teaching practices and pedagogy. The adjacent video describes how ubiquitous technology moves the teacher away from focusing on content to focusing on how his or her students absorb and assimilate the main elements of the material being studied. Students will no longer write down or type classroom notes if their teachers post classroom notes online either before or after the class. Rather, the student will have more time to engage, participate, critique, evaluate and get to grib with the subject at hand. [3]

Technology changes when it comes into contact with teachers and students. The shape, form and function of technology in schools where networked devices and services are used extensively is very different from a normal school. For example, the use of a learning platform in a ubiquitous setting will be social by nature and schools will take advantage of safe and secure social media tools such as Edmodo, Yammer or Socialcast to enable teachers and students to work and communicate more effectively with one another. The variety and depth of digital resources will be much greater; with many of these resources created in-house and a large proportion of these resources will be created by students for their peers to use. End user devices such as the traditional laptop and desktop PC will be used for very different purposes. The use of these devices to produce evidence for assessed work will continue but they will be used to support activities and courses that are not common place in many schools across the globe. Obvious examples include the use of networked devices and services to produce software applications for handheld devices, the programming of peripheral devices such as robots and the use of crowd sourced applications.

Technology changes when it is touched by teachers and students

The participants in the adjacent video place the emphasis on the learning objectives of a ubiquitous computing model and attempt to explain the reason why schools need to step away from emphasising the device in their ubiquitous computing programmes. [4] We also need to reflect on the point that the Internet and its array of networked devices and services are new symbols and objects of desire; especially at the dawn of the always connected age. With that in mind, the video highlights the fact that many networked devices and services are rather distracting to learners and it will be a period of time before these new objects of desire become common place and everyday in our lives. After all, everyone of us is still trying to learn how to use and manipulate these devices and services in order to realise tangible education benefits.


If we consider ubiquitous computing as part of a much wider historical, technological and social context we soon discover that the education sector as a whole has only recently started to take advantage of networked devices and services to further teaching and learning; and there is still a long way to go. 'Ubiquitous computing names the third wave in computing, just now beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.' [5] This may come as a bit of a shock to educational leaders who are struggling to achieve a one to one device model in their schools; but one of the elements that defines ubiquitous computing in a school setting is a place where there are many devices for each student and teacher.

If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way

Whilst recognising the benefits that can be derived from ubiquitous computing we must acknowledge a number of concerns regarding ubiquitous computing for schools. Firstly, there is the constant bombardment of information; secondly, there is a call for constant attention from services that are delivered over these networked devices; and thirdly many teachers are concerned that networked devices and services detract students from deep learning.

The paper entitled 'The Coming Age of Calm Technology' by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown addresses these concerns around ubiquitous computing. 'The most potentially interesting, challenging, and profound change implied by the ubiquitous computing era is a focus on calm. If computers are everywhere they better stay out of the way, and that means designing them so that the people being shared by the computers remain serene and in control. Calmness is a new challenge that ubiquitous computing brings to computing. When computers are used behind closed doors by experts, calmness is relevant to only a few. Computers for personal use have focused on the excitement of interaction. But when computers are all around, so that we want to compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next fifty years.' [6]


  2. Self Organised Learning Environments:
  3. Practice to content:
  4. The One to One Laptop Classroom:
  5. Mark Weiser:
  6. Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown: