Ubiquitous computing and the future of the eportfolio

March 9, 2006 | Leave a comment

True wireless access to the Internet may be the next frontier in the information revolution. Until recently, wireless access has been purely for the home or business: the connection still ends up at a wireless router, which in turn is connected to the Internet via a wire. We keep ours in one of our bedrooms at home; here at work there’s one in the entrance hall. However, a number of companies are beginning to run the wireless routers for us; using a technology called Wi-Max, where a wireless network is set up over a large area, they can actually allow us to connect to the Internet through the airwaves. For example, here in Oxford a company called The Cloud is setting up a network to allow anyone with a laptop or palmtop to connect anywhere in the city at any time – for a price. Google, meanwhile, is planning on opening up wireless connectivity for free, based on an advertising-supported framework.

Previously, the Internet has really been a desk-based phenomenon, and as a result most services are those designed to run on a desktop PC: things like Flickr, Writely and Microsoft Live are all web-based extensions of what we do from our main machines. Wi-Max, however, opens the Internet up to a whole range of devices. It’s not just our Palms, Trios and iPaqs: imagine mobile phones that run purely on VoIP, cameras that upload their pictures directly to the network rather than storing them on a memory card, or televisions that receive all of their signal through the network. New devices can combine Internet and GPS to give us a full picture of available services near us (with a press of a button you could have a handheld pub detector, or know when and where the next and nearest screenings of Syriana are).

Potentially, real-world social networking can benefit. Rather than handing out business cards, which can go out of date and become useless, why not broadcast the address of your eportfolio? This would contain all the information you choose to make available, including the information you’d have on a card but also examples of work you’ve done, links to business partners and so on. With a lightweight data standard, contact details from that eportfolio could be imported into your address book so you could use that VoIP phone to keep in touch; work could be bookmarked to look over later; relevant information could be brought up with a touch of a button. If eportfolios are truly digital identities, this is what’s going to happen when the network becomes ubiquitous – I don’t think there’s any way to avoid it. The key, just as now with our more desktop-bound solutions, is to employ strong access controls. For example, Joe Bloggs who might be a potential customer can see examples of some work I’ve done and how to get in touch with me if they want to know more; David Tosh who I work with extensively can see some work in progress, some ideas I’m throwing about and maybe my personal calendar. Somewhere in between, I could make some work available to some people, I could let other people know when I’m available but not what I’m doing, etc. All the while, a search interface could let me find everyone in any area with an interest in a particular thing, all of their resources relating to it, and their availability to collaborate. Eportfolios shouldn’t be limited to people – organisations, buildings, abstract resources and services could all have them, with edit privileges granted to the people who maintain them in real life.

This isn’t limited to education: education is certainly one application for the eportfolio, but lifelong learning also means that they have to be carried off and used in other stages of our lives. Given a particularly wide definition of education, every experience is learning; I see no reason why people can’t reflect and build repositories for everything they do. Which isn’t to say that they will, but ubiquitous connectivity allows for a significant opening in our horizons. The way I see it, there are three main requirements:

  • It has to be flexible. Use it for learning, use it for business, use it for your personal life. It has to support all facets of what you do. That doesn’t mean you must use it for everything you do, but it’s your tool and the options must be open.
  • It has to be interoperable. Things change. You might start keeping a portfolio on your PC (with another interface for your ubiquitous information devices) but then upgrade after five years to your Microsoft Origami (for example), and five years after that to your Google Information Appliance. In thirty years you might be using a Gnarthon Infoplex 9, but your portfolio has to stick with you. It may have a ton of different capabilities to reflect technology and a changing world, but backwards compatability is important – therefore, the data formats involved must be very simple and very extensible.
  • It has to be cheap. Ubiquitous computing doesn’t just refer to computers all over the place; they have to be integrated into society for the system to work properly. This is fine for those of us in the blogging scene at the moment, we’re mostly middle class and relatively well off, but there are plenty of people out there who have far more pressing things on their mind than who’s writing what on which web service. We have to make these things available to people for whom money is a real issue, otherwise we get an underclass who find it even harder to break in and share their ideas and abilities. Democracy, of information and resources as well as in the truly political sense, has to include everyone for it to work.

For me, the only true future for this is in open source. Every other release would have profit rooted somewhere in its reason d’etre; an open protocol allowing for all kinds of different clients and applications working on the same data wouldn’t be possible – or if it would, it would be done with advertising. Grant-supported non-OSS educational developments wouldn’t necessarily be profit orientated, but they’d be more about collecting research than creating something for public use. And most importantly, because an eportfolio has to support such a wide range of tasks which are different for everyone, the more people involved in creating the system the better. Rather than something that has use in the classroom and little else, this could redefine how we live our lives and realise the promise that the Internet has shown.

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