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!


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.

iBeacons and the Great War

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Imagine walking in the trenches of world war one, constructed in a student library. As you touch the torn sandbags, from your iPad rings the rattle of gunfire interrupting soldiers singing. As the sound dies – ominously – away, crouch down and read letters written by soldiers and their families. Stained with the dirt and dust and desperation of the front, they appear on your screen, with even tear-stains reproduced.

Imagine moving over to an Edwardian fire-place, with the tin soldiers, newspapers and photographs of a typical family home surrounding you. Here you could settle down to explore recipes and patterns from World War 1, with all the privations of rationing and shortages, knit socks as if for a soldier with trench foot.

Imagine seeing the uniform of a soldier, decorated with images of family by a student who never knew her ancestor. And while you see and feel the rough uniform, imagine the loss of loved ones. From your iPad sounds the measured lines of Dulce et Decorum est, recorded and animated by our students, in memory of the sacrifices of a generation.

Just imagine what we can do to bring learning to life today. Just imagine what we can do tomorrow.

iTunes U – Distance Learning II

Several people have been asking about buying a tablet, for different reasons. There are many excellent tablets out there, of varying prices and capabilities. However, if you are at all interested in using the tablet for educational purposes, I would go for the iPad. While other tablets such as the Google Nexus or Samsung Galaxy may offer several of the same or similar apps that the iPad provides, there is no equivalent to the iTunes U app.

iTunes U is an app that offers free access to unlimited courses designed by educators. Some of the most prominent universities in the world are making content available on iTunes U, including Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and Oxford. The courses available cover the gamut of subjects, levels and perspectives. Schools are joining in around the world too, with outstanding courses available and more added every day.

These courses are not telling teachers what to use or how to teach – they know their classes, they know how to teach them. What they are doing, is providing a range of resources tailored to the curriculum all in one place, perhaps used individually as revision, as homework, or to support a struggling student. Alternatively, teachers can use them in class, picking the resources or tasks they think are most appropriate – if nothing else, the availability of worksheets, quizzes and other tasks can reduce the burden of  photocopying and/or marking.

The resources supported by the iTunes U platform include videos, podcasts, office documents, pdf’s, web links and so on. What makes this different from the sometimes excellent collections of resources on various websites it that each resource is tied to an instruction of not more than 200 characters. This is more than enough to say what the resource is and ask prompting questions to promote meaningful learning rather than passive consumption, while short and sweet enough to retain interest. You can also take notes that save into the course while watching a video or listening to a podcast. You can encourage students to link to a departmental twitter account to prompt succinct debate or connect them to socrative to quiz them with a report sent to your email account.

The possibilities of this platform are extraordinary. I’m making quite a few myself, but I have also watched English literature lectures from Oxford (I know, letting the side down), read textbooks from the OU, completed statistics exercises from Duke and learnt about the American Civil War from Texas Austin. At your fingertips is the collected (and importantly, directed) knowledge and learning from the brightest minds in the world. Teachers are essential to help navigate, discover and extend learning for each and every student. What iTunes U provides is a map for the teacher to use, rather than having to draft her own. Bon Voyage!