Several companies and research institutions have been developing a vision of the future known as pervasive–or ubiquitous–computing, in which computer processors and networks are embedded into everyday objects, allowing people and devices to interact seamlessly.

The fundamental concept has been around since the 1980s. But now, one company, a research and development division of Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), is taking its specific manifestation of this vision–called HP Cooltown–to school.

HP Cooltown is based on the concept that millions of mobile and stationary devices will one day be able to interact with each other, using the web as a secure, always-on network system. It envisions a place where everybody and everything–from a wristwatch to a mirror to a car–is connected to the web, so people can get information and eServices from wherever they might be. Every person, place, and item would have a web presence.

Imagine your alarm clock waking you up an hour earlier than usual, because it checked the weather and traffic reports and calculated that you needed extra time to get to a meeting with your board president and the head of the chamber of commerce. Imagine driving to that meeting and having your car break down. Now, suppose your car’s on-board computer were able immediately to locate the nearest service station, book an appointment for you, then call a taxi cab to pick you up at the service station so you still could get to your meeting on time.

That’s the idea of pervasive computing. Cooltown aims to improve customer service by pushing content and services to each person based on his or her likes, dislikes, behavior, and needs, instead of having people go find these services.

Every time you’d access a web-enabled device, it would give you personalized content, similar to certain web services and internet portals–such as Yahoo and Netscape–that already let users customize the content they want to access readily.

A device “may share information with me that may be very different than the information it shares with you,” said Trina Wolfgram, business development and marketing of e-Eduation, an umbrella organization of HP.

“It enables a much richer, more personalized set of experiences,” Wolfgram said of the technology in development. “This is what Cooltown is about.”

In a school setting, this kind of personalized delivery of information and services could help ensure that each child’s learning needs are met. That’s why HP is working with the Vancouver Public Schools in Washington to develop Cooltown@School over the next five years.

“Our superintendent and board have recognized for years that we really need to personalize learning for each student,” said Terry Allan, information technology manager for the Vancouver Public Schools. “Cooltown offers the same kind of personalization that we’re interested in.”

“We really look at personalized learning as the answer to education for the future,” said Linda Turner, the district’s director of information services. “You have such high-end and low-end students in the same class, and you can’t take the time to reach them both.”

Because it takes so much time for teachers to prepare personalized learning programs for each student, not many teachers are able to do this. “We have some [who] are trying to do this without the correct tools. Now we are giving them the correct tools,” Turner said.

These tools include a laptop for each student, a handheld device for each teacher, and a web portal that combines a number of pre-existing products, such as a teacher planner, a student planner, and a lesson creator aligned to state standards.

The student planner will let students send and receive eMail, check their assignments, read a quote of the day, keep a journal, submit their work, and archive their work in a digital portfolio.

Parents also can access the student planner. They could keep track of their child’s activities–such as a dentist appointment–and have the option to notify the teacher and the school automatically.

This month, three at-risk fifth-grade classes at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School will begin using these tools. In addition to training the teachers, the district will bring in parents, explain the vision, and train them to use the web portal.

The James Parsley Center, a new administrative building and community facility, will house the district’s technology department, as well as some HP staff. In addition, a group of 100 high-school students will attend school part-time in a digital, media-infused classroom at the center and participate in the Cooltown@School project.

“They won’t all get a computer, but they’ll get a portal and an individual plan for success,” Allan said.

HP’s role is that of facilitator, providing the infrastructure to make the technology possible and delivering services and applications provided by its content partners. So far, only NetSchools Corp. has been confirmed as a partner, but HP said it is looking to team up with other companies as well.

The first step toward realizing the Cooltown vision is to have all the software applications work together seamlessly. This will enable teachers to create personalized lessons for each student, because they won’t have to waste time re-entering data and because all student information will be available at the click of a button.

Currently, most schools use a number of software applications that don’t “talk” to each other, Wolfgram said. Cooltown@ School capitalizes on the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) standard, which enables different education software programs to share data so that all programs are updated instantly and no information has to be retyped.

SIF has not been widely deployed in schools to date, because the standard was officially announced only last year. Many technology companies are still developing SIF-compliant applications.

The second step is to bring access to school data out into the community. The James Parsley Center will provide this access initially, and HP also is developing relationships throughout the community.

“Just like we have SIF, there’s been discussion that there should be a community interoperability framework (CIF),” Allan said.

With Cooltown@School, when students walk into the school building, the library, or log on to the internet, they’ll be able to receive personalized information.

“Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. We’re building up the opportunity for students to learn on the bus or at home,” Wolfgram said.

Once pervasive computing becomes a reality, a student could download English-to-Spanish translation software to his or her wristwatch or handheld computer. Once the translation program is downloaded, the student could access information stored in English in everyday objects and have it translated into Spanish–or vice versa.

But before the Cooltown concept can be fully realized, computer infrastructure–including the internet, web appliances, and networking–must be ubiquitous. “When you think of pervasive computing, there [are] infrastructure and applications that have to be in place first,” Wolfgram said.

The Vancouver Public Schools already have a robust fiber-optic network, but to reach beyond the school district’s boundaries, the concept has to be expanded.

Several other companies and research institutions are working on pervasive computing projects as well, but so far none has been applied directly to the classroom.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a research project that aims to banish computers into thin air by making computers as ubiquitous and invisible as oxygen. Computers embedded in various objects would be able to hear, see, and respond to a wide array of needs.

The MIT project began with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and was expanded to include HP, Acer, Delta Electronics, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, Nokia Research, and Philips Research.

HP was especially interested in Project Oxygen, company representatives said, because it has the same objectives as Cooltown.

In addition, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center has been working on the concept of ubiquitous computing since 1988, and IBM is spending $180 million on Planet Blue, a four-year pervasive computing project.

As for privacy concerns raised by the concept, Allan said, “We’re not collecting and archiving any data that a school district doesn’t ordinarily collect. It’s not like we’re going to make [these] data available to anyone. We’re still going to follow the regulations set by the state.”

Links:

HP Cooltown
http://cooltown.hp.com

Vancouver Public Schools
http://www.vannet.k12.wa.us