Friday 2 March 2012

JeeNode, Raspberry Pi, NodeJS and "conduits of meaning"

Something is happening in the world of physical computing. In the last week or two I've been soldering components onto PCBs, uploading software, programming behaviours, etc, etc. That's with JeeNode - a wireless Arduino microcontroller clone which promises very portable and adaptable connected sensors in the environment. JeeNodes are cheap (about £15). But then so is Raspberry Pi - which is a whole computer on tiny board with all the inputs and outputs you need to boot into Linux. You plug it into your telly and stare at the Linux bootloader (I have to say that bit filled me with less enthusiasm). But it has lots of IO capabilities apart from booting into Linux, and it's small enough for someone to put a battery on it, and a cool array of sensors, wireless comms, etc... and then (for a very small price), once again there is something pretty cool. And very cheap.

Why is this stuff important?

My JeeNode experiments have been driven by a desire for devices that 'just work'  within an educational context where people are together and don't want to be bothered browsing to web pages, downloading apps, or anything else in order to do anything that gets online. But it's not just JeeNode that makes things exciting. It's the organisational transformation of web technology which is surrounding it.

We've always been able to do cool stuff. But it has often taken a long time to set up, administrator rights overcome, usernames created, software installed, hair torn out, etc. The AppStore metaphor has removed some of the pain of installing software (admittedly at the expense of openness and flexibility). Wookie and W3C widgets are probably the best open attempt to create an appstore type architecture. That means that stuff can be downloaded and installed easily (and with wookie, embedded in a users learning environment).

But to do control stuff, you need speed of communications. And there, until recently, we've only had AJAX polling. But both the emerging Real Time Web standard and the WebSockets protocol are changing things. And supported by super-fast javascript compilation engines like the V8 in NodeJS, we are increasingly able to harness the real-time speed of the web with physical devices.

All this means is that real-time controllers and sensors can be built in hardware with instant effects on the environment without complex set-up, negotiating protocols, firewalls, administrator rights, etc. That means anyone can do it. Easily.

Interestingly, the things that learners do with each other in the physical space of the classroom has been somewhat overlooked in the e-learning world as we were all seduced by Social Software. The move was to integrate social software with the classroom. I have argued this is a mistake ( The ability to do cool things with devices that do not demand learners are sucked into online worlds in the classroom in preference to looking at each other presents new options for teachers for coordinating new types of learning activity where the technology is in the background.

But because the technology is in the background, something can be transferred from the convivial situation of the classroom to the online space. It is in this way that I think a 'conduit' between the meaningfulness of the classroom activity and the online (and ultimately personal) world may be established.

But more on these experiments later!

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