At Jisc we believe that education technology (edtech) can improve education, research and student life – and not just in the classroom or lecture theatre. However, most of us are consumers of technology rather than producers. What would it take to learn how to code, or get into hardware hacking?
This can be especially challenging if you are no longer in formal education, but a wide range of schools, colleges, libraries and hackspaces are throwing their doors open this week for National Coding Week (18-24 September), with the aim of helping adults to learn some digital skills.
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Ever wondered how to design a website, create an app, or maybe something shiny and new like augmented reality (AR) or artificial intelligence (AI)? Why not find a National Coding Week event near you and have a go?
I’ll pick out some examples of the sort of things you could be doing, drawn from Jisc’s Digi Lab, where we explore the potential of new and emerging technologies.
Build your own “seeing eye” AI
Imagine an AI that helps blind and partially sighted people to retain their independence, by recognising and speaking out loud the names of objects that were placed in front of it.
This might sound a bit like science fiction, but in fact it’s possible using a cheap (£25) Raspberry Pi computer and some free AI software from Google called TensorFlow. This “machine learning” software is open source, which means the source code is available to all, allowing developers to enhance and change it.
If you're a pupil or an adult learner who wants to get to grips with AI, there's lots you can do with a Raspberry Pi that won't break the bank. Perhaps you already have a keyboard or a mouse from an old PC? And you can plug it into any screen that has an HDMI input, like most modern TVs. What will you create? For more information, check out my blog and video on DIY AI.
Make your own Mycroft AI open source digital assistant
Wouldn’t it be great if you could make your own digital assistant – a bit like Siri or Alexa, except that you could also get under the hood and see what makes it tick. The Mycroft team has built a prototype open source AI that does just this. Now you can tinker with it to create new “skills” that extend its built-in capabilities, and make Mycroft do things that its creators never envisaged.
I’ve posted a blog and video that shows what Mycroft is capable of, using their prototype device - a clever combination of off-the-shelf hardware like Raspberry Pi and Arduino. However, you can also run the Mycroft software on your existing Raspberry Pi, or on a conventional PC or laptop. From an edtech perspective, it’s easy to see Mycroft being used as a hook for teaching advanced hardware and software concepts and project work.
Mycroft "skills" and the TensorFlow image classification code are both written in the Python programming language, which is becoming popular in schools as kids move from basic coding environments like MIT Scratch to more advanced coding concepts. There's nothing BASIC about Python, however, as it drives real-world software used by billions of people every day.
So, if you're a teacher, why not give Mycroft or TensorFlow a try to help get pupils engaged with coding in Python. Challenge them to think of new things that the AI could do, and have a go at implementing them.
There are lots of open source examples that they can learn from, like these Mycroft skills on GitHub. And if you’re an adult learner, there’s lots you can pick up online, and it’s also becoming increasingly common for further education colleges to offer introductory programming courses.
Explore augmented reality with Apple’s ARKit
ARKit is being released right now as part of iOS11, the latest version of the operating system software that drives iPads and iPhones. AR has been around for years, but in quite a limited way – point your phone/tablet camera at a picture that has special markers on it, and the AR app will typically do something like activate a video or show you a 3D model.
Until now, anyone wanting to develop an AR app has had to fend with a couple of big problems – firstly the hardware in phones and tablets hasn’t quite been up to the job and, secondly, there hasn’t been a standard way of adding AR capability to an app.
ARKit on Apple devices and the upcoming ARCore on Android devices provide that capability as standard, and now the hardware is much more powerful. I’ll stick my neck out and say that, by Christmas 2017, there will be hundreds of AR apps in the App Store. One catch, though, is that you need to have an Apple computer to develop ARKit apps.
I’m very excited about how people could use ARKit in research and education. Imagine holding your phone up to find that the equipment around you in the STEM lab is all tagged with names, documentation, “reserve me” buttons and the like – maybe with a graphical status indicating whether you have had the health and safety induction to use the kit.
Or imagine a prospective student visit where the would-be students can hold their phones up to see what happens in each building, and giant arrows appear directing them to the next activity, induction session, students union etc. The blog and videos on ARKit should give you some more inspiration.
So that’s a whistlestop tour through some interesting new technologies that you might want to explore if National Coding Week gets you all fired up.
I’d love to hear from you about what you discover, and what you plan to do next. Why not get in touch or leave a comment below?