iBeacon and Education
1-to-1 tablets are transformational devices within education, with unbounded capabilities to engage, interact, discover and learn. Take a student’s iPad – it knows who its owner is; it knows what apps are being used and the content that is being created and worked upon. All of this is stored in its digital, virtual space. Now imagine if the iPad could see who and what was nearby, and be aware of its surroundings and context in the real-world space. As people, we take all of this for granted – with iBeacon technology, so can the iPad.
What is an iBeacon?
A recent development by Apple, iBeacon is a simple technology allowing devices to signal their presence. Similar to a lighthouse beacon signalling the presence of a nearby coastline with a pulse of light every second, an iBeacon does exactly the same, but with a pulse of a bluetooth radio signal. Thankfully, it’s also on a much smaller scale to a lighthouse, with an iBeacon device being the size of a small pebble, and its signal reaching around 50m.
Most iPads and iPhones, together with recent Android devices, can pick up this bluetooth signal, and from this start to infer some knowledge about where it is within the physical world. As a ship would know it’s close to land, and hence adapt and change course, an iPad could know it’s close to a model of the heart in a classroom, for example, and could then adapt to present an iBooks section on William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood.
Discover, don’t navigate.
With such a simple link to the real world, each device can now pick up its context through its proximity to others. This context can be very useful – rather than navigating a hierarchy of folders and files to get to an animation of the solar system, for example, you could discover this by moving to the “Space and Planets” corner of the classroom. Take another example of context – rather than having to explicitly link a group of students and a teacher together (often by having everyone typing in the same random code), each iPad would know that it’s nearby to others in the group, and automatically link them together.
This is only the beginning of what’s possible. When you realise that each iPad or iPhone can also act as its own iBeacon, without the need for any other physical device, it opens up a complete new way of workflow and interaction. Want to share an Explain Everything video and an accompanying PDF to your students? Make your iPad a beacon linked to both, and the students nearby will instantly see it on their device. Since you can specify the range of the beacon, you could share these materials with everyone in a class, or just to those at a table, or even directly with one student.
With beacons, your iPad can be aware of its surroundings even when its screen is off as you’re carrying it in your bag. The iPad can use this to trigger a notification, a welcome message to parents when reaching the school, for example. You could combine this with a different message based on the time of day – so one beacon in room 4A could trigger a history themed notification at 9:35 and then a maths themed notification at 10:10, to follow the classroom timetable.
It’s also possible to target individual iPads, and to link the messages to when they can no longer see a beacon – so you could have a message appear at the end of the school day when students depart, for example, either reminding year 10 about tomorrow’s trip, or congratulating a pupil on their achievements that day.
One iBeacon, many uses.
When exploring the potential beacons give in an education setting, it’s important to remember that one beacon can have many uses, all at the same time. In the same way a large ship may see a lighthouse beacon and sail away, whist at the same time a smaller boat may use it to navigate to a cove, the same is true for an iBeacon. One student’s iPad may link to an iTunes U course, whilst another may show a Google Form with a quick survey – so you don’t need to buy and install lots of beacons for each case. Just dot them around a space and discover what’s possible.
The technical details
iBeacon technology works using low power Bluetooth 4.0. This is significantly more efficient than the old Bluetooth standard, which means the iPad battery doesn’t instantly get drained the moment you turn it on to listen for beacons. Each iBeacon has three unique parameters, which it uses to signify its presence by broadcasting them at a consistent rate per second. These are:
UUID : a 128-bit number, such as 123e4567-e89b-12d3-a456-426655440000
Major : a number from 0 to 65535
Minor : a number from 0 to 65535
The rate at which the beacons transmit can be set at different intervals, typically between 10 times a second to once every second. In addition, the power of the iBeacon can also be set, allowing it to work only within a few meters, to being a much stronger signal reaching 50m or more (some larger beacon devices can reach up to 200m).
There are many physical iBeacon devices that you can buy – they range from the colourful (e.g. Estimote) which work from a battery, to the powered such as USB beacons from Radius Networks. The costs are typically around £75 for three.
As well as physical iBeacon devices, you will also need an iBeacon aware App on your iPad. For this, you can either create your own App that you have written to work with iBeacon technology (and there are a growing number of iBeacon SDKs allowing you to do this), or you can make use of an iBeacon content platform that you and your students install on your devices. Creating beacon apps could be a great part of a programming course; for general iBeacon use we’d recommend one of the existing beacon platforms (e.g. Locly).
So, what can I do with iBeacon technology today?
Here’s a list of what you could do today with a beacon platform and a handful of physical iBeacon devices:
Bring up your lesson content on your iPad, and then turn it into an iBeacon. With just one tap you can instantly share content with students devices that are nearby. There are no codes to enter or folders to navigate.
Place beacons around your classroom or school to create learning zones. Students move around with their devices to engage with your content, making use of space to either link content or perhaps contrast – have two tables represent opposing viewpoints, for example.
Link iTunes U courses and iBooks, use polls, treasure hunt cards and interactive widgets like puzzles and games to challenge and stimulate students.
Over the course of the next few months, it will be apparent how beacons can expand beyond their use in the classroom. This can include iBeacons that are used by other institutions – think of a school trip to the museum, but with your own numeracy content linked to their iBeacons, for example. Or having a parent iBeacon-link their own phone to their child’s iPad when at home, and using this as a school’s notification channel.
For such a simple technology, beacons can have a profound effect. As people, we’re accustomed to the context given by our physical environment. It feels like a natural extension to give our devices the same awareness.