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Beacons make us brighter

By Owen Williams / March 26, 2014


Beacons make us brighter

iBeacons have been the talk of the retail space ever since Apple first introduced them at last year’s WWDC, but these tiny Bluetooth sensors are looking to improve more than your shopping experience. In addition to the seemingly endless list of use cases for this versatile technology, there’s one industry where beacons could have a huge impact for generations to come—education.

If you’re not familiar with the technology, beacons are a new type of device that allows developers to disperse specific information to smartphones within a one to two-hundred foot radius through Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) signals. A number of solutions already exist for stores—like the Macy’s-supported Shopkick beacon—but companies have been slow to use these information transmitters for anything other than product descriptions. Fortunately, a few innovators have been smart enough to utilize the power of beacons for something other than profit.

STQRY

If there’s one technology that beacons are likely to replace, it’s QR codes, and a Wellington, New Zealand startup called STQRY knows it. STQRY may have gotten their start by plastering zoos and museums with those annoying pixelated squares, but their future rests in the discrete convenience of beacons.

Much like their QR codes, the STQRY beacons will allow museums, zoos and other intellectually stimulating destinations to offer their visitors an enhanced learning experience. For example, a beacon could be placed next to a famous sculpture in a modern art museum to show spectators how the art was created through a short video, audio or text file. By providing information directly to the user’s phone, it gives the museum the ability to quickly update the exhibit description and data about the art without needing to reprint the entire signage.

Beacons could enhance STQRY’s product even further, by allowing them to send push notifications to anyone who stands at an exhibit for longer than a few seconds, removing the need for a user to open their QR code reader and scan a code that could be easily tampered with or hard to see depending on the lighting. Although STQRY’s venture into beacon technology is still in its infancy, any journey leading away from QR codes is worth taking.

Proxima

Others, such as Australia-based Proxima, are skipping the QR code step and developing entire solutions based around beacons, allowing attractions to detect visitors nearby and send them relevant content about what they’re looking at once they linger for a few seconds. But Proxima isn’t stopping at tourist attractions. The case studies section of their website profiles a major project they undertook with South Australia’s new TAFE Tonsley Park campus.

When TAFE broke ground on the Tonsley Park campus, they envisioned a learning environment that was made for the 21st century. They wanted these new spaces to leverage mobile technology by allowing staff and students to control the physical space around them from their mobile or tablet. That’s where Proxima came in. According to their website:

“
[We] began by gaining a deep understanding of how the spaces were to be used by staff and students, looking at how they were to interact and control them. Proxima then designed and deployed an end-to-end solution that began with an Estimote iBeacon installed in every physical space around the campus (a total of over 200 iBeacons) and a tight integration with the ACA platform to enable control of the in-room lights, projectors and screens.”

As a result, 
lights and computer systems of individual classrooms are now controlled by the movements of staff and students across campus. Their smartphones and tablets detect the beacons in the room and immediately give them access to the electrical devices in the room, creating a futuristic environment where they can kick back and expand their minds.

EduBeacons

Controlling the lights and computers aren’t the only way beacons can enhance a learning institution. EduBeacons—developed by Minneapolis-based Vektor and two Australian tech enthusiasts named Paul Hamilton and Matthew Flinders—use technology to make learning exciting for grade-school students.

When a pupil enters a learning area with a smartphone or tablet, they are immediately engaged in a game of Hot and Cold to help them find the beacons. Their screen turns from blue to yellow as they near the corresponding beacon. Once they’re close enough, the beacon sends them directly to a multimedia lesson page containing video tutorials, practice problems and tons of other fun and engaging and educational activities.

Unfortunately for the US, EduBeacons are only being tested in Queensland, Australia schools at the moment. But you won’t have to wait for long. If the technology is as successful as the video below suggests, American adolescents will be enjoying this academic innovation in no time.

Battling distractions

Some critics of the EdTech movement try to claim that smartphones, tablets and beacons are more of a learning disturbance than an enhancement, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. As Endpoint Protector confirms, beacons can actually be used to keep students focused during class time by disabling the other functions of their mobile devices.

According to Endpoint Protector, if a teacher enters a classroom with an iBeacon in their pocket, the iBeacon can limit the student’s iPad access to only textbook apps and educational resources like Wikipedia. Likewise, when students enter the library, a beacon near the entrance can force their mobile devices to automatically switch to silent.

Beacons could also be used to reduce truancy by taking attendance not only as a student enters class, but as they enter the school as well. If a student is recorded as being in school, but not in their assigned classes, administrators and parents can quickly be alerted.

Apple and beyond

The beauty of the technology is that despite Apple’s iBeacon specifications, they’re entirely compatible with other devices that support BLE transmissions. Whether you’re an Apple addict, an Android user or a Windows loyalist, you can take advantage of beacons, assuming your operating system offers a compatible app.

Beacons can help turn smartphones and tablets into a second screen for the world—a sort of augmented experience with more information about the objects and experiences in surrounding environments, giving a backstory to almost any object, building or creature within the signal area. With enough beacons, we can turn the entire planet into one great-big classroom. Just remember to turn on your Bluetooth.


For more information on technology and education, view our presentation on the Classroom of the Future and follow us on Twitter for updates.