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!

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.