Case study: Proximity-based edtech

Rebecca Marie-Smart

Rebecca-Marie Smart is a freelance education-technologist with experience working within both state and private education sectors spanning from the USA to Australia. Having worked closely with the DfE, Rebecca-Marie led development of software standards and procurement frameworks for UK education; she now pioneers innovation through her involvement providing strategic consultation to businesses that implement cutting-edge education solutions. Rebecca boasts a wealth of hands-on experience delivering edtech expertise to the entire education arena from K12 through to HE and FE. In her spare time, Rebecca-Marie supports charity through fundraising activity, she is a qualified yachtmaster, author and keen horsewoman.

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After the anticipated arrival of beacons into the (almost) mainstream the education world has a genuine opportunity to consider how in our modern age we can benefit from proximity-enabled learning solutions. Recent technical advances claim to give us the opportunity to enhance learning and collaboration, through on target content distribution that supports students by providing content that can enhance their learning journey through triggers, based on time, location and the students profile.

First off, lets have a recap of what beacon technology is, the following extract comes courtesy of ibeacon.com:

What is iBeacon? What are iBeacons?
The term iBeacon and Beacon are often used interchangeably. iBeacon is the name for Apple’s technology standard, which allows mobile apps (running on both iOS and Android devices) to listen for signals from beacons in the physical world and react accordingly. In essence, iBeacon technology allows mobile apps to to understand their position on a micro-local scale, and deliver hyper-contextual content to users based on location. The underlying communication technology is Bluetooth Low Energy.

What is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)?
Bluetooth Low Energy is a wireless personal area network technology used for transmitting data over short distances. As the name implies, it’s designed for low energy consumption and cost, while maintaining a communication range similar to that of its predecessor, Classic Bluetooth.

As a technologist with well over a decade working within the education space I am privileged enough to witness first hand the dawn of a brand new era in learning technology. This is an era that utilises the latest location-enabled tech with the very devices students have in the palm of their hands, the very devices that the digital generation of students are using as naturally as I did pen and paper. It is difficult to argue with the evidence that smartphone and tablet penetration is high among young adults, and that offering instant mobile connections gives students a significant advantage but what effect does contextualised, proximity triggers provide?

Whenever I am presented with latest technical innovation I immediately question how the solution fits with the pedagogy versus technology debate. As an advocate for pedagogy dictating technology I am keen to ensure we do not set ourselves up to fail through technology dictating learning.

I am well versed in the notion that beacons, combined with a Learning Management System (LMS) that delivers profiled, contextualised content, are capable of transforming the traditional learning experience. They also support the mobile preference evidenced. My question, however, was how did having devices forced upon students on arrival at their learning space impact the overall human connections and collaboration that we all know plays such an important role in teaching and learning? Could we ensure that by being at the cutting edge of technology we didn't by default depersonalise the experience and in turn reduce human interaction. My fear was the dumbing down of grass roots teaching that nobody in their right mind would argue is the key element of a learning journey.

What I want to share with you is a practical, real life example of just how I have seen the change emerging in the real world. Also, I want to explain to you why I think there is no time to waste for education teams to get on board with the simple-yet-transformative advantages of adopting proximity-enabled learning into school. Whether used primarily as a learning solution, a school marketing and events tool, or both, proximity-based solutions can greatly enhance the learning experience of every type of user whilst also accommodating the vast ranges of learning styles.
 
I recently had the opportunity to observe lessons delivered with support from beacons located in and around an International School space. The technology had been designed to enhance the experience of delivering personal, contextualised information to all types of students on-site during a ‘Discovery Day’.

The Discovery Day had been supported by proximity-enabled technology set-up to deliver relevant, contextualised content at key trigger points. Beacons had been set-up that worked with an intelligent learning management app, and were set-up as follows:

To welcome students: Following user registration and completion of a user-profiling questionnaire, the 'welcome zone' triggers automatically pushed relevant Discovery Day introductions to the users. Included in the primary content push was a school map, photos and biographies of the teaching staff and the agenda for the day. The information was sent to the user as they walked into reception, their device recognised their proximity to the reception beacon and all targeted information was provided via one tap of the screen.

To add context to classes: During the Discovery Day classes, students were pushed content relevant to their learning profile and their preferred learning style. For example, where students had indicated they were visual learners the content pushed was based on pictures with limited text, whereas students who had indicated they liked detail were presented with links to further reading as well as other media such as iTunesU and weblinks associated with the subject. At this stage, information was provided that added further context to the learning subject, including the bio and CV of the teacher, the learning objectives of the lesson, and links to further content such as audios and videos related to the topics presented. Simply by walking into the classroom, the information was pushed and could be accessed in real time or saved for review following the lesson.

To identify people: In addition to quick and relevant access to supplementary content that supported the lesson, all key staff present at the event had been provided with personal beacons. That meant that students and parents could quickly identify which relevant members of staff were close by at any point in the day. The identification was clean and simple, when staff were close-by their pictures and role summary popped on screen via the technology. One tap and further information could be viewed or saved for later.

To navigate and enable DISCOVERY: Later in the day, beacons facilitated the discovery of specialised zones. Students could locate the zone that most interested them, navigate to it and digest the content provided or save for later. Pop-up notifications alerted the student to learning zones close by so choices could be made at the point of discovery.

To encourage INTERACTION: The proximity-enabled technology supported the identification of key-staff during the event's social periods. Students and parents could approach teachers or support staff more casually and confidently over lunch or break times with the assurance they were asking the right question to the right person.
 
It was at this point that I delighted; I finally had the evidence to consider carefully how the technology had affected the interaction between teacher and student! I was delighted to have witnessed that the technology proved to not only support and facilitate, but, actually encourage the very human connection that I feared may be lost! By confidently knowing who was who, students and parents were encouraged to seek out the humans, those humans who could help them learn even more about the material provided through traditional learning methods and supported by tech.

Teaching staff enthusiastically confirmed that they had indeed been identified through the technology, and that it had led to increased interaction with students throughout the Discovery Day. My conclusion was that the proximity-enabled technology had delivered the opportunity for students to gain a greater depth of understanding through their preferred learning styles, while providing them with the confidence to explore more. Blended learning at it’s very best!

Allowing the technology to take care of relevant content delivery meant that the teachers could get on with the real job… the showcase of information and facilitation of collaboration, teaching and learning! The concept of beacon technology, combined with user profiling, alongside location triggers that understand your learning space and style is now a reality, a modern digital presence is no longer a luxury item but an essential part of the toolkit for learning teams the word over.

Give it a try, the only limitation is your imagination…

Do you use proximity-based technology in your school? Share your stories below!

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