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!


Digitisation and digital pedagogy


On a joint edtech project with a teacher recently, I was told ‘I am happy for you to choose the pictures.’ Whether or not this teacher was intentionally insulting is beside the point –  it is not the first time I have heard the digitisation debate seeming reduced to a largely irrelevant aesthetic choice. There seems to be this relatively common misconception about the purposes and processes of digital education. This could be addressed on two levels – resource design and teaching design.

This quote from the OU Innovating Pedagogy 2013 encapsulates the importance of pedagogy for educational technology.


Digitisation and digital pedagogy in edtech design

One of the best edtech tools from my point of view is Anki. Visually a hangover from the 1990’s, Anki is a flashcard app/website that uses spaced repetition to support language learning. Card collections are made by users (although these can be shared) with an apparently not very interactive interface. Where Anki shines as a resource is

  • The nuances of labelling your degree of confidence in a term – you can choose ‘again’, ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’ with each response tailoring the spacing of the repetition of the card.
  • The statistics option is quite sophisticated while being simply presented – you are given a series of graphs – a forecast of reviews due for the next month, an analysis of the review time taken to answer cards (whether young (new) or mature, average study time per session, number of times you have pressed the again/hard/good/easy buttons (and a time analysis – mine seem to be best between 9-10pm). So for metacognitive ‘study-skills’ then, Anki stands out.
  • For languages of more than one script (e.g. Japanese or Chinese), it creates a card for each script + the audio, so that you are testing, for example, hiragana and kanji recognition and listening skills and connecting this learning between the cards and to the English translation.


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None of these features need particularly innovative technology. There are no animations and few pictures. It doesn’t offer badges or leaderboards. It might not be the first example you might use to show someone the possibilities of the digital world. But, it serves as an excellent model for how digital tools can be designed to support learning. As a manifestation of a sound digital pedagogy approach, I think Anki is great.


Pedagogy is essentially a critical thinking exercise directed at learning and teaching.

Sean Morris

Designing edtech resources from a digital pedagogy approach is not about adding pictures, or animations or, God forbid, Word Art. It’s not even really about the digital technology. It’s certainly not about design aesthetics. Unless the digital tools, or the additions enhance, extend and inspire learning, they are at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction. I certainly add pictures and interactive layers to the content I develop. But as with any educational decision, this is based not on any aesthetic choice, but rather on how much educational value these layers provide.


This is where the critical thinking aspect of pedagogy comes in, both for tool and teaching design and practice. Does this interactive diagram clarify mitosis? If not, can it be made educationally relevant and useful? How can I develop this resource so that it helps students? How can I use it with students to help them learn and grow?



Digitisation and digital pedagogy in teaching design

What we must try, as schools, as educators, as learners, is not simply using tools, nor rolling out the whizz-bang jazz hands apps to impress students or observers.


If that means using a pen and paper because your students are revising something and you believe that memory and cognitive gains are promoted by written tasks, then you’re on the right lines for a digital pedagogy approach, just as much as if you choose to use some app in an innovative way to explore and extend learning. If, however, you are using pen and paper because you couldn’t be bothered with collecting in an Explain Everything task, or because you’ve always done this task with pen and paper, that is clearly not pedagogically sound. Equally, if you are using an iPad app just because they’re there, or in hopes of impressing an observer, without considering the aims, processes or consequences of using the app, that too is failing in digital pedagogy.


We need to systematically examine both tools and teaching for their learning value. In this way, teaching and learning drives the use of technology, rather than the converse.



Morris, S. (2014) What is digital pedagogy? [online] Available at: 

Textbooks and tech-books – Can there be only one winner?

Having taught Physics, I am aware that the use of textbooks in STEM lessons is the exception rather than the rule. Even before the advent of digital technology in the classroom, Lunzer and Gardner (1979) observed that less than 10% of an average STEM lesson was spent reading. Of this time, over 90% was in bursts of less than 10 seconds, primarily reading from the board, worksheets or posters and NOT from textbooks. Wellington and Osborne (2001) note a similar trend. In 2011, I decided to test this myself, and observed less than 9% of lesson time was spent in reading, with a average of 1 minute 9 seconds reading the textbook per 40 minute Sixth Form lesson, of the lessons in which the textbook was actually used at all. Now, this is clearly not generalisable even to other STEM lessons, let alone to other subjects. But I do seriously question the financial sense of buying textbooks that are virtually unused. I would love to be challenged on this point – I would love to find out that every other STEM teacher in the country integrates literacy more into their lessons. My whole doctoral research is predicated on the conviction that literacy and language is crucial to learning science. However, I do question that traditional textbooks are the way to promote literacy.

Textbooks are cheaper on a singular basis, are not subject to the whims of wifi access and battery and are more likely to survive a few splashes of hydrochloric acid and other classroom hazards. Certainly, textbooks have a longevity, a permanence, a physical presence. There are many contexts in which a paper-based textbook is more appropriate and supports learning more than an electronic resource, as electronic resources currently exist. However, the very permanence of textbooks renders them prone to rapid outdating (especially when the curriculum seems to change every time you turn around) and inflexibility. You can do many more things, learn many more things, with a tablet than you can with a textbook. Educational resource availability is increasing exponentially online, with a quaquaversal array of communities and individuals creating and communicating good practice, resources and insights.

Textbooks vs. Tech-books
Textbooks vs. Tech-books

However, educational research into edtech has an unfortunate lag time in many cases – several recent journal articles I have read define ebooks as any digital text, including pdf versions of paper textbooks (even scanned versions). So, I am distinguishing here the concept of tech-books, which use a digital pedagogy to promote and enhance learning through the educationally relevant integration of electronic resources. Rather than solely textual delivery, tech-books include audio, video and interactive elements, where and as appropriate, to support learning. Currently, there is little research that directly indicates gains in reading comprehension or content learning through ebooks. However, given that this research suffers from an outdated definition of ‘ebook’, it is unsurprising that no difference in reading comprehension between textbooks and ebooks has yet been formally reported. That does not mean that tech-books, with enriched content chosen for learning and not for novelty, do not offer gains unavailable through textbooks, as outlined in the table above. All it means is that we need to keep testing, keep trying, keep learning about the tech and about our teaching.

Edtech is not about pushing digital resources, or about jumping onto a bandwagon dictated by management. It is about trying to improve the learning experiences of teacher and student. But if we don’t learn, we can’t teach. Experiment, explore and evaluate the available tech-books and textbooks and make a decision based on the needs of your students for a specific lesson and context, rather than deciding that every lesson must (or must not) be digitally based. That said, to effectively teach is to effectively learn and that is why I try to constantly learn about new pedagogies, new tools, new contexts for learning; to be a digital experimentalist and explorer rather than a digital evangelist.

The centre of education must always be learning, and that is always what we try to promote, in the most effective ways available to us – textbooks, tech-books, whatever works for your learners, in your classroom, with your level of confidence and training. If there can be only one winner, it must be student learning.

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Lunzer, E., & Gardner, K. (1979). The effective use of reading.

Wellington, J., & Osborne, J. (2001). Language and literacy in science education. McGraw-Hill International.