Getting student heads in the cloud: Local ICT firm develops teaching tool to encourage digital literacy

Written by Oscar Baker

Oscar is an award-winning multimedia reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation and St. Augustine, Fla. Winner of the David Adams Richards award for non-fiction writing for The Violent Ones. Follow him on Twitter @oggycane4lyfe

November 28, 2017

Mike Leblanc is a tech sector veteran with literacy on his mind. Digital literacy to be exact.

Leblanc is the founder and CEO of Blue Spurs, a Fredericton-based information technologies (IT) consultancy that earlier this year created a classroom kit designed to introduce educators and students to the Internet of Things. His goal is to increase digital literacy in New Brunswick students. Digital literacy is the ability to use computers and mobile devices, to create and communicate using these devices and to understand the effects in order to make informed decisions about technology.

Blue Spurs founder and CEO Mike Leblanc

The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the technology embedded in household and personal items, such as lights, stoves, exercise trackers and security systems that enable constant monitoring and analysis via the Internet.

“Now it’s ever more important to make sure that we can get the next generation of workforce very familiar with this technology,” said Leblanc.

Blue Spurs’ response is the Blue Kit, which is designed for K-12 schools and provides teachers with a curriculum guide to enable students to build IoT projects, with things such as buzzers, touch sensors and lights, all of it connected and monitored via cloud computing.

“What we’re trying to do with the Blue Kit is help move the needle on digital literacy.” said Leblanc.

In June 2017 the Blue Kit won Amazon Web Services’ Partnership in Innovation Award, and the company has begun to introduce it to educators in New Brunswick, including giving away kits to 10 schools at the My/Mon NB Student Showcase at Harbour Station. My/Mon NB is a Canada 150 event that was co-presented by Wicked Ideas and the Pond-Deshpande Centre.

“It allows the students to experiment using real world Internet of Things technologies and a nice hands on intuitive collaborative environment,” said Leblanc. “We took the complexity out of it to focus on [students] getting an awareness of what the technology can do without having to have a [computer science] degree to hook it all up,”said Leblanc.

In addition to teaching students about IoT, the Blue Kit can also be used by teachers to engage students in a conversation about security online. For instance, teachers can pair students off into two groups with group one acting the role of ‘hackers’, trying to break into group two’s system, while group two uses technology to defend again attacks.

Leblanc said it’s important for parents to understand the IoT is a tool, and that it has to be used safely. But it also comes with vast possibilities. “We want the kids to get the foundation and then experiment on top of that. By adding to existing curriculum,” he said.

Adam Binet, a high school technology teacher at Moncton’s Harrison Trimble High School, is one of the Blue Kit’s early users and says students often don’t fully understand the scope of IoT.

“I think it is so critical to show them this new cutting edge technology as it is being used all around us today and around the globe. This is a continually emerging market and will be a permanent fixture in our personal and professional lives for years to come,” said Binet via email.

In Binet’s curriculum the Blue Kits allowed students to build items using micro controllers and sensors and were exposed to the Amazon Web Services, a secure cloud computing service, that stores data produced by the students using the kits. Binet hopes the students take it and run with it.

“Once students can understand the power that these IoT devices hold, they can then begin to understand its applications.”

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