Citizen Science & the Internet of Things

citizenscientists1Since the release of the book which, apart from occasional stock shortages, has gone really well I’ve been spending my time presenting findings from the project at various events around the world, mentoring a number of really interesting start-ups in Vietnam and the UK, developing ideas for my next book and working on a number of consulting engagements.


My next book, when I have figured out how to finance and publish it, will start where Learning {Re}imagined ended. It will consider some of the challenges that we as a society already know that our children and their children will encounter during this century. Rather than flying cars, interactive watches and an increasingly digital world the things I’m thinking of are population, climate change, antibiotic resistance, environment, ideology and increased urbanisation. But more than simply identifying the challenges I’m going to explore the kinds of projects and people that make me optimistic about our future chances as a species.


It was with this outlook I was introduced to a project lead by London’s former Deputy Mayor, Nicky Gavron. Nicky, it could be said, is a force of nature, a person who has made a career out of an obsession with grassroots community activism to improve the lives of Londoners and potentially the populations of other urban cities. Amongst many achievements Nicky has lead London’s response to climate change, she introduced policies and programmes to reduce C02 emissions across energy, water, waste and transport. Her initiatives include establishing the London Climate Change Agency and the C40: Large Cities Climate Leadership Group.


Nicky’s challenge to me was how can we encourage grassroots community awareness of key urban issues in the creation of smart cities. Specifically how could we empower communities to engage in the discourse around the design of their urban environment? How do we engage them in the policy discussions around transportation, energy, sustainability, health and well-being? If we’re going to design smart cities then surely it must be smart communities of smart citizens who build them.


It was with this in mind that I embarked on designing a learning experience that will be piloted during March and April this year in schools in Lambeth with a cohort of up to 50 children age 9-11, their parents/carers, their teachers and members of the local community.


citizenscientist2We hear a lot these days about STEM, STEAM and the importance of engaging young people in learning science. We also hear a lot about computer science and learning coding. We hear a lot about making. We hear a lot about parental engagement in their child’s learning. We hear a lot about flipped classrooms. You get the picture.


So in Lambeth this month and next I will be working with Nicky and colleagues to provide a cohort of children, parents and community members with a collection of internet connected sensors and activity trackers. The idea is that we will use these devices as part of the Internet of Things to conduct experiments that encourage conversations and deeper learning as a result of experiences and multi-generational participation. We also hope that it may embed some knowledge and thinking about some vital urban issues and we want to do this by co-discovery engaging all of the participants.


Over the course of the pilot we will be distributing 30 low cost, Arduino-based, air quality sensors to families in Lambeth with instructions on how to install them at home and connect them to the Internet. The sensors consist of a base station which connects to the household broadband router and a remote sensor that detects changes in air temperature, humidity, Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO). We chose Arduino because I’m familiar with the coding environment and I can perform any necessary calibration in situ by uploading sketches. These sensors will be used in tandem with a number of more expensive sensor devices provided by project partner, Intel Collaborative Research Institute (ICRI).


The installation of so many air quality sensors in a relatively small catchment area provides us with a unique opportunity for the children to consider and learn about the air quality around the school and the routes to and from it. The data from these sensors feeds a central website that will inform conversations that we will encourage with the children in school time. It provides a chance to think about and discuss possible reasons for different air quality readings from different locations and circumstances such as weather, temperature and traffic density. The quality and accuracy of the data from these sensors won’t be to the same standard of the devices that cost about the same as a small car but they will provide a contextual hub that will inform learning that travels across the curriculum effectively catalysing new conversation, explorations and learnings. More importantly the child and their family will own the device that provides open public data to the rest of the world.


Thus we are flipping the science laboratory where the experiment and measurements are occurring at home but monitored from anywhere over the internet and discussed at school with their co-learners.


Each child’s parent/carer will be provided with a wearable activity tracker that comes with free apps for Apple or Android smart phones owned by the parent. The data is anonymised and fed into another central website that can be studied at school. This will allow the child to study their parents walking activity and dietary impact against this activity then make comparisons and consider reasons. The objective of this experiment will be for the children to study their parents attitude and behaviour to walking when it is being quantified.


citizenscientist3It may be, for example, that air quality around their school might improve if more people walked rather than use their cars for short journeys of less than 1 mile. But might there be other benefits to walking? By flipping the science lab, we’re encouraging the children to become “Citizen Scientists”. We hope that they will engage with the design and creation of experiments with their parents to learn more about their environment and participate in decisions about it. We also think there’s a lot of fun to be had in this activity and that the experiential nature of it will embed the knowledge and understanding that they will discover together with their co-learners, parents and teachers. We wonder if this understanding will inform future behaviour and decision making at the community level.


Of course, all of this might not work but that’s the thing about science and innovation, failure is always an option. Besides, if we can encourage new conversations with the children around some of these important subjects whilst at the same time engage them in science practice, I’ll take that as a win!


If your school or city borough whether you are in London, New York or Beijing would like to get involved in this programme then please get in touch. It’s not a free programme but you will be part of a new movement that empowers communities to make smart decisions about their environment.


I’ll update this blog in a month or so and let you know how we get on but in the meantime please feel welcome to follow me on twitter via @GrahamBM and in the meantime you can follow my air quality sensor here.


gbm-faceGraham Brown-Martin is the founder of Learning Without Frontiers (LWF), a global think tank that brought together renowned educators, technologists and creatives to share provocative and challenging ideas about the future of learning. He left LWF in 2013 to pursue new programmes and ideas to transform the way we learn, teach and live. His book, Learning {Re}imagined was recently published by Bloomsbury/WISE and is available now.


Sugata Mitra – Education and Empire

Famed for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments with children and computers in slum districts in India, winner of the $1 million TED Prize, proponent of emergent learning theory and advocate of self organising learning environments (SOLE), Sugata Mitra has successfully challenged what many of us think we know about learning and technology. Not for him, the suggestion that we use technology to simply reinforce the teaching practices of the last century nor should it be used to simply replace the teaching profession. Mitra seeks a complete rebooting of our educational systems to reflect the information infrastructure that todays children are born into.


On the day of the launch of the Learning {Re}imagined book I wanted to share this excerpt from my interview with him where in 5 minutes he succinctly describes how we arrived at where we are and why we need nothing less than a total transformation in the way we approach learning, teaching and assessment.


He tells me:


Coming back to technology. Now paper becomes cheap, pencils become really cheap, so now you can have all that in the hands of children. Books become really cheap. You can give them to children. The teacher’s role starts to change. Then comes technology and to my surprise, technology was allowed inside the examination hall. You were allowed to use paper. You were allowed to use pencils. You were allowed to use rulers, straight edge, set squares, protractors, compass. Everything that the last generation used for solving real world problems were available to the person being examined.


Somewhere along the line, we seemed to have lost sight of it. We have come to this ridiculous situation of saying, only the past technology is allowed still, but nothing more than that. We went up to the point where we said, logarithm tables and slide rules are allowed, but then we stopped. We stopped at the calculator most of the time and when it came to the Internet, we said, not at all. I wonder sometimes if I were to go back a hundred years to the Victorians and show them our world, what if those same Victorians were to say, well why on earth aren’t you allowing all this inside the examination hall? How are you going to test them for their real world skills?”



Learning {Re}imagined is available via Amazon and good book stores from Oct 1st 2014

Find out more about Graham Brown-Martin


Learning {Re}imagined – the app

Ready to go? Get the App QuickStart Guide


Those who have been following the last 18 months of my Learning {Re}imagined journey will know that during our travels we were filming and recording documentary material that will augment the physical printed book, available from Oct 1st 2014.


Over the past months I have been busy working my way through more than 50 hours of recorded material to create short interviews and documentary material that is exclusively available to owners of the printed book via a free app. So in addition to the unique stories and interviews that you’ll find in the book itself it has been designed so that you can augment your journey through the pages using your smartphone or tablet device. Exclusive video interviews with Sir Ken Robinson, Noam Chomsky, Seth Godin and more plus documentary material on case studies from every country we visited can be discovered amongst the printed pages and brought to life via your mobile device by simply pointing it at the pictures.


Driving a digital experience from a physical analog book may seem perverse when some might have thought the days of the printed page were numbered, yet I believe the imminent death of the physical economy at the hands of the digital has been greatly exaggerated. The physical world is going through an analog reboot whether this is via, for example, 3D printing, or in this case book publishing reimagining itself so that information isn’t frozen in time. Neither did this take an army of video editors or software developers to construct. In addition to writing the book, I also edited all of the videos using Final Cut Pro on standard iMac computer and then scripted the digital augmentation using Aurasma.


The result is a living book that can be added to at any point in time and that, if you follow me on social media, will remind you long after you bought it that something new is available for you to discover.


It doesn’t stop there. After you’ve downloaded the Aurasma app you can create and share your own journeys through the book, adding your own materials and insights for the community of readers to explore. If you create an Aurasma journey then please share and tell the world by using the #LearningREimagined hashtag on Twitter.


I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did creating it. I’m now excited to see what you make!


To get started I recommend that you navigate to this page using your mobile device and download the free Aurasma app from either Apple’s App Store (iOS devices) or from Google Play (Android). Then all you need to do is use the apps search function to find and follow “Learning Reimagined“. Once you’ve done this you’re all set. Active images in the book at the time of publishing are marked with a red circle but more of the images will become active over time and don’t forget to look out for “Easter Eggs;)






When the tablets don’t work

One of the conclusions you’ll read about in my book is that the transformative impact of digital technology in teaching and learning is contextual. It is context rather than content that is king when we consider what is a truly transformative intervention.


In rural Ghana, where the cost of distributing printed books restricted availability, an intervention based around the most basic Kindle e-reader was a transformative experience for children as well as homes that had no access to books.


A journey to rural India in the state of Bihar, some 6 hours road trip from Patna, we visited a village where a gas fuelled generator to power a single electric light and charge the most basic mobile phone was a luxury. Yet here we found an example of one of the world’s largest deployments of mobile learning that has been implemented throughout Bihar by BBC Media Action to facilitate awareness and learning about maternal health to a population that is poor, illiterate and “media dark”.


To be honest it’s only when you’re there right in the middle of it that what had been an intellectualisation of a challenge became a reality made of real people in real circumstances, a reality that is normal for a substantial number of our population. It was here that the technosolutionist fantasy of low cost computing and click to fix apps designed in Palo Alto just aren’t going to do the job.


You can find out more in the book, of course, but I wanted to share with you an excerpt from an interview that I made with Sara Chamberlain, Head of Technology for BBC Media Action. I asked Sara why they weren’t using the kind of low cost tablets and smartphones that are now being suggested as solutions for digital access amongst the least affluent communities. She told me that:


What we’ve discovered in Bihar is that people don’t know how to use that technology. We did a very large piece of both quantitative and qualitative research in Bihar before we developed our services to understand people’s mobile usage habits, and what we discovered is that only 9% had ever sent an SMS. The reason that only 9% had ever sent an SMS is because the majority of the phones that they have are used second-hand, very poor quality, sort of brick phones, not even feature phones. Those phones are grey market. They’re copy cat. So Nokya and Simsung, that are coming in over the border and are in foreign languages. They don’t support the local Hindi font, so they might be in English or Chinese or Arabic, but they’re not in Hindi. Essentially people have a very basic piece of technology in their hands that’s in a foreign language, which is really limiting their ability to actually use it for anything other than a voice call.


It’s a really basic, old-school kind of technology. We decided to use that because it could be accessed from the most basic handset, and thus we got around the problem of people not being able to use their phones for anything other than a voice call. Essentially 70% of women in rural Bihar are illiterate anyway, so they can only understand audio information.


You see people inventing these apps in Silicon Valley and in other places and bringing those apps over, saying oh, let’s do a pilot or let’s launch a mobile education service here with these apps, with these videos, with this, that and the other, and then they discover, lo and behold, the target population doesn’t have the handsets to support the app, and couldn’t use the app anyway even if they had the handsets.



Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.

Also available via Amazon


Conrad Wolfram – Maths Reimagined

Conrad Wolfram, Founder of Wolfram Research Europe and Computer Based Maths, tells me that we spend around 21,000 average student lifetimes per year teaching the wrong thing in school and calling it mathematics. “Maths” he tells me, “is taught as if it were a dead language”, and I have to say from my own experience that I agree with him.


In my mind school maths, like its stablemate science, has what a marketeer might call “poor brand value”. When I was a kid, before health and safety were invented, science was something I did when grown-ups weren’t around, when I wasn’t supervised. They had something at my school called science but it wasn’t the kind of adventures that I was having making discoveries of my own. Unbeknownst to my parents I was experimenting with gunpowder, making fireworks, taking apart engines and electronics to see how they worked, making new ones, playing with all manner of chemical reactions. It was a childhood of self-directed discovery driven by my own curiosity and a boyhood fascination with how the world worked. The kind of things I called science as a child would probably get you arrested today.


Maths, I found out much later in life, is also something of beauty and of discovery rather than the kind of parroting of times tables and remembering of formulae to solve abstract questions that had made me and the majority of my peers disengage from the subject. I only re-engaged with maths as result of becoming inspired in the creation of digital music and art but even then I wasn’t really aware that I was “doing maths”.


The siloing of maths and other disciplines is what sucks the joy, discovery and relevance out of them. The lack of application to something that I had an interest in, that excited me or had relevance to a problem I wanted to solve meant that I missed out on the adventures that could be had within the world of maths.


Conrad, through initiatives like Computer Based Maths, seeks to transform the way in which our young people engage with mathematics. He suggests that kids in school spend 80% of their time concentrating, and more importantly being tested, on the wrong thing – calculating. Arguing that computers are much faster at calculating than people he proposes that we allow kids to develop more useful skills around defining and solving problems where computational tools are available to them.


It may be, of course, that we cling onto the notion of maths as calculating because it makes it easier to measure when it comes to testing but one has to ask whether such tests have any relevance to the real world or tell us anything useful about the student.


In my interview with Conrad he tells me:


I think what’s often happened in maths is they’ve used the technology to try and replace the teacher with the wrong subject, and it’s failed. Maths is a system. In fact, you could argue it’s the best system of logical problem solving that the humans have ever invented.


That hasn’t got across to people. They see these abstract procedures that they have to apply. They don’t relate to the real world. The abstraction, I think, makes them fearful of it. They don’t understand it in many cases. Therefore, they don’t like it. They don’t do well at it. In fact, indeed the teachers don’t understand why they’re teaching it either.




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Sir Ken Robinson – The Education Economy

It has often struck me that a conflict of interest exists across education systems, state or private, where the awarding bodies of high stakes examinations are also owned by the very same companies who sell the content, that must be learned, to pass the test.


Such an end to end business model would make a lot of sense for the entrepreneurially minded and quite possibly create very large enterprises as a consequence. The “big edu” of the learning sector, if you don’t mind indulging my conspiratorial whimsy for a moment longer.  Imagine if automotive companies were owned by the oil industry. We would still be driving around in cars that did 5 miles to the gallon with no sign of a real commitment to clean, sustainable energy in sight. End to end business models, cartels and monopolies tend to be bad for innovation and progress. Even Apple doesn’t own all the companies who make apps for it’s platforms.


A similar conflict in the education sector, if it existed, would surely mean that change would be slow coming and that our schools would be held in a kind of persistent groundhog day for, say, 200 years or more. Should there be a shift in technology then no doubt these advances would be deployed to maintain the status quo, whilst reducing cost and improving efficiency. Perhaps the content could be digitised and fed to children using advanced computer algorithms that search for patterns in the data trail of its usage so that there would be a feedback loop to ensure every kid past a standardised test. Teachers optional.


My musing on this subject may seem somewhat fanciful but we have undoubtedly entered a new age of “evidence based practice” where the data can not lie. I’ve often thought that “evidence based practice” was a clever slogan whose rhetorical effect was to discredit  opposition. After all, who could possibly argue with the evidence and the data or that practice could be based on intuition rather than “the facts.”?


Well that’s an argument for another day but whilst interviewing Sir Ken Robinson in Los Angeles for Learning {Re}imagined we discussed what we agreed was a “tyranny of testing“. The pre-occupation with high stakes testing at young ages, when kids are in high school or earlier, seems patently detrimental to learning and, of course, teaching, providing a false metric for the success of a school or indeed the nations that depend on them.


Here is an excerpt from my interview. Robinson draws parallels between “big education”, “big pharma” and even “big tobacco”, suggesting that there is gold in maintaining the status quo for those who stand to benefit financially. He says:


I do think we live under a tyranny of testing. I think there’s no question about that. It’s not totally benign. An interesting parallel to me is the drug industry. Depression is now a worldwide epidemic. It’s anticipated that within about 20 years, according to the World Health Organisation, I’m told, that depression will be the single largest cause of mortality among human populations. Depression.


Well, the drug companies profit hugely from depression and all that kind of related, ancillary commercial interests. It doesn’t seem to me that they’re very keen to cure depression. Why would they? It’s not that the people who produce acid reflux pills out trying to cure acid reflux. They want you to keep taking it, so you can keep buying their products.


Like cigarette manufacturers aren’t trying to wean you off cigarettes. There’s a kind of benign view of testing which is that it fulfils necessary purposes in relation to keeping track of standards, accountability in providing certification and qualifications for progress through the system. There’s a benign way of looking at them saying, well, it meets those important purposes in education, and there’s something to be said about that. What’s also true is it’s a massively profitable enterprise for all publishers. It’s one of the engines of the education economy.

Have a look and tell me what you think




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


11 billion reasons to learn STEM

Tomorrow I’m leaving London for New York where I will be participating in a number events during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) week. It is a week when the largest group of  world leaders, states people, lobbyists, leading thinkers and global opinion formers gather to discuss some of the most pressing global issues and, with hope, form some consensus that will lead to positive change. Amongst the global priorities that will take centre stage next week are education, environment and population, and these are the principal reasons that I will be there.


I will be at UNGA working with the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) to help launch the Global STEM Alliance, a collaboration between governments, companies, schools and NGOs to increase access to great STEM education for kids around the world. STEM, for those who aren’t familiar, stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. The majority of engaged parties in this movement  acknowledge that the arts and design disciplines form a vital component in the real world application of STEM so let’s not get into a playground debate around STEM vs STEAM as acronyms, you’d have to be myopic to not value the application of STEM through art and design without which global innovators such as Apple or Dyson wouldn’t exist.


But why is learning STEM so important? Didn’t we read somewhere that there were more than enough STEM graduates in the western world and besides, don’t our best minds end up working for Google figuring out how to sell more advertising or at the NSA reading your email?


Well it’s true that there are plenty of STEM graduates in the world but the reality is that they are not evenly distributed about the planet nor are we using anything like the right metrics to decide whether we, as a global society, are sufficiently equipped to face the very real challenges ahead that confront our species.


Take the continent of Africa, the 2nd largest continent on Earth, home to nearly 1.2 billion people and, depending upon whose map you believe, 47 countries. It is a continent of abundant natural resources; oil, gold, food, minerals and the birthplace of humanity. Yet Africa has not yet entered a single university into the global top 100. How can that be possible?


The result is that students from the African continent, who can afford it, will travel to foreign universities to gain their world class degrees and most often stay there, having been picked up by corporations and governments seeking advantage by hiring the worlds brightest minds. Some might argue that this brain drain is another example of an unfair exploitation of African resources that leaves a continent where many of it’s nations are poor or diseased or at least, without the skills to extract their own minerals or develop medicines, facing unfair competition from the west. Thus, this imbalance serves to concentrate global STEM expertise within specific global locations.


The metrics used, to consider whether we have a sufficient number of graduates to meet global workforce demands, by many respected organisations and international monitors are wrong. Without exception they focus on the role of graduates and education within national economic development plans and GDP, i.e. how many workers do we need, of what standard, to achieve the plan?


The problem is that these plans almost always never include, or only pay lip service to, the elephants in the room. These elephants are population, environment and resources. The rest, in my opinion, is simply commentary designed to distract everybody to the point of somnambulism. But it’s time to wake up.


Today it has been announced, something which many of us already suspected, that the powers that be got their calculations wrong and that far from plateauing out at 10 billion citizens our population will reach 11 billion by 2100 with a 70% chance of continuously rising thereafter. This places enormous strains on Earth’s “carrying capacity“, our planets ability to sustain us, and if we burst this limit we potentially face a bell curve population meltdown of Malthusian proportions driven by disease, famine, drought and warfare. Take into account rapidly dwindling water supplies, failure of antibiotics and climate change and we’re looking at a tough millennium. Children born today will be alive by 2100 and will face the consequences of our inaction.


So why will I be in New York?


Well, I’d say that I have 11 billion reasons to be there.




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.




Pasi Sahlberg

What’s special about Finland?

Since it implemented huge education reforms 40 years ago, Finland’s school system has consistently come at the top of the international rankings for education systems.


So how do they do it?


It’s simple — by going against the test-driven, centralised model that much of the Western world uses.


Pasi Sahlberg is a Finnish educator and scholar.  He is the former director general at the Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation (CIMO) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and is now Visiting Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. His book Finnish Lessons: What can the world learn from educational change in Finland won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award.


I met with Pasi Sahlberg as part of my research for Learning {Re}imagined and asked him what was so special about the education system in Finland. Here is an excerpt from our conversation.




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Julia Gillard – Education Activist

Julia Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and was the leader of the Australian Labor Party from 2010-2013 prior to which she was Minister for Education. An active reformer, Gillard oversaw the governments ”Building the Education Revolution” program, which allocated $16 billion to build new school accommodation including classrooms, libraries and assembly halls. As leader of the party Gillard stated “I will make education central to my economic agenda because of the role it plays in developing the skills that lead to rewarding and satisfying work – and that can build a high-productivity, high-participation economy.” Her government went on to extend tax cuts to parents to help pay for stationery, textbooks or computer equipment under the Australian Education Tax Refund scheme. In February 2014, Gillard was announced as chair of the Global Partnership for Education, an international organization focused on getting all children into school for a quality education in the world’s poorest countries.


I met Julia at last years WISE Summit and had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her inspirations for being an activist for education and how that translated into her achievements in office.




Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.


Technology as a “Sat Nav” for learning?

Digital learning entrepreneur Donald Clark is someone that I find myself often in complete agreement with, or in fierce opposition, but always entertained. On the board of numerous e-learning organisations he is a bonafide contrarian, regular speaker at conferences, and a prolific blogger.


I’ve known Donald for nearly 30 years as we both ran digital design companies that produced learning materials since the 1980s when “new media” was genuinely new and came in the form of 12″ Laserdiscs. It has to be said that he was a more shrewd businessman than I and by focusing his attentions on the corporate training market while I decided to go and disrupt the music industry he made a tidy return when he sold his company, Epic Group, in 2005. He has won numerous awards for the design and implementation of e-learning, winning the ‘Outstanding Achievement in e-learning Award’ at the World of Learning Conference (WOLCE).


I met with Donald at the WISE Summit last year and asked him why he thought digital platforms had not made as much progress within our educations systems compared to their impact in other sectors. His position is that higher education and schools are resting on their laurels and tradition rather than embracing the future. Here’s a short excerpt from our conversation:



Learning {Re}imagined is published by Bloomsbury/WISE on October 1st 2014 and is available for pre-order now.