The possibilities of iBeacons

Beacons are brilliant. I’ve said this before. But the new updates and physical hardware are absolutely phenomenal.

Previously, beacons could ping content to a device automatically dependent on location, so you walk into a classroom and gain all the materials necessary for the lesson. Or you could have a location/project set up for extension work and the same for extra support. Our last open day had a quiz in Google Forms near the skeleton in the biology lab, and the solutions elsewhere. The teacher was getting the responses in realtime, so could react appropriately. Sometimes I forget how incredibly useful this can be for learning and AfL. But now we can do even more.

We can ping content to anyone who was in classroom X16 during period 1 on say, June 9th 2015, hours, days, months later. This is equally useful for sending follow up information after open days, off-timetable events and other extracurricular applications, including embedded google forms to collect your own data. For example, students that come to a lunchtime revision session, which may be student across several classes and even year groups, could be sent an Explain Everything with annotated slides from the session, or notified of follow up sessions.

Notifications and messaging are now available, building upon our google login structures – so the head of year 8 could instantly send a message to parents of that year group, with a notification on the home screen of their device, potentially replacing the rather hopeful sending out of emails lost in the morass of seemingly endless emails received every day. The sender can also collect data on who reads what, and even what time at which most were read. So a further tailoring or follow-up is facilitated. It is clear that we need to exert considerable care to regulate this feature, as saturation risks parents and students switching off both literally and figuratively. However, the ease of this feature has the potential to significantly reduce various admin tasks for senior management, teachers and support staff.

We were beginning to see the nascent growth of student editing of beacon content when last I wrote. So collaboration, feedback, development are all possible, either location-based or entirely independent of the physical beacon system. We can even set a time limit for editing – 7A may be able to edit during period 2 on Tuesdays, but at no other time, and then 7B can edit during period 3. The seamless integration with google drive and the other google apps for education is not just the icing on the cake, but really extends, if not obliterates, many boundaries.

Aside from embedded google forms, docs etc., improved ‘cards’ can automatically play audio when you enter a space, even if the app is only running in the background, and can be sent to specific people. So a year 7 walks into the library and can hear an interview with Jacqueline Wilson, and a year 11 philosophy student in the same space may hear a soundbite from Kant. These are so quick and easy to change that the digital realm can change daily, transforming and tailoring an identical space for different students at different times.

Other great card plugins include 3D models and widgets. So we could almost build in a virtual reality with panorama and other widgets – the student walks physically around the history classroom but is able to move around Ostia Antica in 500BC, with associated sounds and other interactions. We could even make it a treasure hunt, where they need to find beacons in a specific order, so maybe they need to find a Roman coin before they can enter the arena, because they are charged to get in (maybe here they would answer a quick question about the role of money and finance in Ancient Rome), or they need to hear the Latin speech in the forum and translate a section before they can find the Saepta to vote on the next emperor (who will of course be a member of the class). How cool is that?

Ostia Antica, Image by Livioandronico2013.
Imagine exploring Ostia Antica as you move around the classroom, with different features based on which subject you are studying and further Easter Eggs to unlock. Image by Livioandronico2013.

New hardware includes the exciting SensorTag, which has 11 different sensors which can send data and graphs through the same Bluetooth route as normal beacons. So you can collect and analyse data regarding ambient temperature, IR temperature, humidity, linear and gyroscopic movement, air pressure, light and more.This on its own is great for science experiments, but wait!

There’s more – the beacon can respond to changes in any of these readings and push content through. So you could have content layered – at its simplest perhaps responding to a change in light, or movement as a cupboard is opened by a Year 3 and sending them a little video or quiz, so a treasure hunt of collecting information or completing tasks becomes still more fun. For safety, a teacher could have notifications sent through to them if any beacon reaches a certain temperature or pressure while doing a science experiment. Geography departments could have grouped beacons from different schools around the world, tracking climatic or even seismic changes. Or you could automatically send a grumpy cat meme to the rest of your class when the humidity level reaches a certain point. Returning to Ostia Antica, a change in temperature may unlock the summer quarters, or Latin phrases to discuss the weather.

Image by Christie Dutton
At humidity of 73% or upwards, out comes this image by Christie Dutton

I could happily sit here for hours thinking about the extended opportunities for learning provided by the iBeacons. Yes, some features are offered by other apps – messaging or datalogging, for example, and yes, there is a certain amount of front-loading your preparation. But the ease of use and the range of tools provided within this one tool, this one app? It blows my mind!


Handwriting and Exams

Exam season is (finally) starting to wind down. Actually, I had an exam myself this week for an English Literature module I’ve been doing with the OU. As with many people, it’s been some years since I have handwritten anything more than a sentence intended for eyes other than my own.  As I left the exam hall, with aching and inky fingers, I wondered why our methods of examination seem to be so disjointed, not only from the reality of everyday life but even from classroom experiences.


A large proportion of students do the greater part of their revision on computers or tablets, if not their actual classwork. This has been the case for many years – even 10 years ago I wrote most of my school essays on the computer.The use of technology in the classroom is advancing in exciting directions and constantly developing – assessment (formative and summative), videos, simulations, showcasing of student work, iBooks, MOOC’s – the possibilities are endless. So, if students hardly handwrite in the classroom, I am not convinced of the purpose of examination through this means. If nothing else, a typed essay is significantly quicker and easier to mark. A typed submission also enables easy editing – no more angrily crossed out misspellings or arrows squiggling across pages to insert further thoughts, no bringing five pens, a pencil, two rulers and a calculator just in case. And won’t somebody please think of the trees?


I am in no way against the value of handwriting, especially in Early Years. Handwriting has been demonstrated to assist in the development of fine motor skills, memory and other cognitive gains. Additionally, several studies have demonstrated higher levels of retention and comprehension when written notes are taken rather than typed notes. For recalling factual information, writing is a quick and easy way to solidify memories. So, for the sciences, handwriting may always have an important role, and not only because there is, to my knowledge, no quick way of noting equations digitally. However, for essay-heavy subjects such as English or Philosophy, where the emphasis is so much more subjective and interpretive, digital notes are quicker, easier and tick all the boxes.


Nonetheless, penmanship is an art – my grandfather creates calligraphy that is beautiful to behold. Not only is it an art, but it has vital cultural connotations. Different scripts with different languages or even accentual details communicate cultural and community identities. So, yes, handwriting is something to be preserved and valued. If handwriting is an art, or is deemed culturally significant, perhaps a debate regarding its place in the curriculum is in order.


However, it appears to me that we have two options – students continue to come out of exams in physical pain from the quantity of writing they have to do, or lose valuable lesson time teaching handwriting purely for the purposes of an arguably outdated form of examination. Not to mention the lost marks due to an indecipherable scrawl – some of the most able students are the most frustrating in terms of legibility.  It is also worth noting that the recent headlines about the importance of handwriting were evidenced primarily by a survey conducted by BIC, with a clear vested interest in promoting the declining art. Exams are hugely stressful and demanding experiences for students, teachers and examiners already, without insisting on an increasing outmoded form of notation. Exams should reflect and assess what is going on in the classroom. Handwriting is no longer an automatic part of the learning process and its use in the examination process therefore must be re-evaluated.