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THE PIPELINE: Next Up--Beacons!

By Stephen Abram - Posted May 1, 2015
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So, looking back on more than 50 columns, I see that I’ve usually written about technologies that were in the pipeline. This month, I’m going to change that up and write about some technology that is just entering the pipeline and has the potential to change everything… yes, again ... in libraries, in schools, in retail, and in every community engagement space, be they museums, art galleries, zoos, science centers, or anywhere else people learn.

I’m talking about beacons. “What,” you may ask, “is a beacon and what does it have to do with learning?”

Well, beacons are small and discreet—the size of a pebble. But let’s start with some definitions.


Beacons are wireless devices that use Bluetooth to broadcast to other Bluetooth objects around them. Much like wearable technologies such as fitness trackers or smartwatches, beacons communicate with your phone, allowing you to get updated information via your phone’s screen in your current context. A beacon is simply loaded with digital content and constantly broadcasts radio signals to smartphones and tablets that are nearby (tunable from 1 to 250 feet).

Beacon Bluetooth is special in that it uses very little battery power. Since it doesn’t drain the battery quickly, and because it uses radio waves, it can broadcast through just about anything (unlike Wi-Fi and cellular signals). This means it can be installed easily and remain out of sight, for instance, in a closet or behind an object such as a painting. It can be moved at will and reloaded with different content for any event. Mobile apps can listen for its signal and, when it is received, trigger a location-based action. And this location-based action is where the magic happens. (More on that later.)


My audiences of students, teachers, and users have access to what the beacons do, and the experiences they create, because beacons work with iPhones and Android phones—although a little differently with each. Apple’s iPhones sporting iOS 7 and later constantly scan for beacon signals, and wake up relevant apps when they’re in range—provided the user has “permissioned” using Apple’s iBeacon protocol. Android devices do not currently have a native beacon system at the operating-system level, so Android users must have the app running, at least in the background, when they want to engage with beacons in the classroom, library, retail location, or cultural institution. So, with at least one iPad, tablet, or smartphone in a classroom or library, you’re good to go.


As is good practice with any new technology, in order not to get distracted by the latest shiny thing, we have to ask the right questions. I think the right question is always, “What problems does this technology solve?” And concerning the problems it solves: Are they the problems of real users, or the problems of institutions, librarians, or teachers? Here’s a short list of some of the problems beacons have the potential to solve:

  • For schools where internet and Wi-Fi connectivity can be inconsistent in the classroom environment, beacon technology allows for easy delivery of targeted, curriculum-based content resources including ebooks, websites, assessments, graphics, video, and more, locally.
  • For those schools with issues about providing open access to the web, beacons allow for only that digital content chosen for the classroom to be available—with no access to the pathways or distractions of the open web.
  • For learners, beacons provide targeted content resources and experiences they need in the classroom environment as a shared learning experience facilitated by an educator.
  • For librarians, beacon technology provides the opportunity to move digital content and marketing strategies to the point of need—classrooms, sporting fields, cafeterias, study halls, and coffee shops—wherever your learners go. You can even imagine gamification strategies where the whole school can become an information literacy game with badges and rewards for grade 9 orientations or any learning challenge.
  • For those students who may not have web access at home, you can address this digital divide issue by lending them loaded beacons.
  • For everyone, beacons are very inexpensive and can be deployed with no installation or construction costs for wiring, etc. You can build them yourself using open-source components, or buy them ready-made for as little as a couple of dollars or less.

Of course, that’s not all they offer. Retailers are going gaga over beacons as point-of-sale information and coupon deliverers. More than half of U.S. retailers are piloting beacons this year. Museums and art galleries see the opportunity for better guided tours. Archives are already experimenting with increasing their relevance by providing their collections at the historic sites and walking tours of London and more. In the November 2014 issue of Library Journal, Matt Enis reported, “Library app developers Capira Technologies and BluuBeam have separately announced the launch of micro-location information services that will enable libraries to send highly targeted, location-relevant messages to Bluetooth-enabled Android and iOS smartphones. Fans of Apple may be familiar with the technology as iBeacons” ( It’s all quite exciting and clearly engagingly educational.


So, my second question is, “What is this technology’s unique and special magic?”

You can ask, “Doesn’t any smartphone or tablet allow you to search the web and find out stuff anywhere?” For the present, not really! Because free or low-cost web search from mobile devices is not pervasive, and coverage is quite Swiss cheese-like nearly everywhere … even in the most developed world. And even where it exists, its weakness is that you need to know to ask your question in the first place. If I am passing the bar where Dylan Thomas got into a big fight that inspired one of his poems, I would need to know that to even ask.

Enter beacons! Not only are beacons contextual push technologies that can alert me when I pass something of interest, they’re also “pull” technologies: I can interact with them and discover more. If I’m by that tavern Dylan Thomas frequented, and was “tipped off” to the fact, I can read the poem, learn more about the poet, and find more on the route from history. I can bring my walk alive and engage with my community in ways unheard of before. And I can turn it on or off depending on my day’s schedule. Push and pull together create a dynamic conversation, and community learning can happen. Awesome!

By allowing smartphones to interact with a library’s digital resources such as articles, maps, books, websites, graphics, video, and even other people on the same learning or discovery path according to parameters you define, you’ve got something magical. In addition, you can bring meaning to objects—whether it’s a statue, a model, a painting, or a primary-source document. For example, you could beaconize a copy of the Constitution and add videos scenes, biographies of the framers, and any discovery path relevant to your learning goals. One teacher I communicated with speculated that “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.”


Beacons support the educational theory that we learn best from discovery and engagement, not navigation or being talked at. Since any iPad or smartphone could become a beacon itself, and pebble-sized beacons can be implemented at low cost and refilled at will, we have the potential for infinite discovery experiences.

Here’s a partial list of what you could do today with a beacon platform and a handful of physical iBeacon devices, and it’s only limited by your imagination:

Share: 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.

Discover: 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.

Interact: Link iTunes U courses and iBooks, use polls, treasure hunt cards, and interactive widgets such as puzzles and games to challenge and stimulate students.

One of my U.K. library marketing gurus, Ned Potter, brainstormed these opportunities for beacons in libraries. Among Ned’s ideas are the following:

1. Locate items from my books list. Most library catalogs have a “favorite” function, where you can add items to a list. Imagine you make your list of books at home using this feature, then come into a library fully hooked up to the Internet of Things. As you walk in, you’re presented with a map and directions to each of the available items. You’d know before you got past the foyer if any books had already been borrowed, and you’d even be able to find them if they were misshelved … Wait, come back! I’ve got better ones, look …

2. A self-guided virtual tour. Set up beacons at key points around the library, and send users off on a tour. When they get to each location, their phone plays them videos or audio and gives them more information on how to get the most from that area. Combine this with augmented reality to really knock people’s socks off.

3. An enriched special collections experience. When you’re near the glass case displaying the rare and precious illuminated manuscript that you can’t touch, your phone or tablet can show you the whole document in digital format. It could even play you audio of expert analysis by the special collections librarian.

4. Contactless fine payment. The Internet of Things knows how much you owe, and has the capability to let you pay it without you having to queue for a till or a card-reader.

5. Availability of machines. Some library apps already show you which PCs are in use and which are actually free within the library building, which users find invaluable. Beacons could easily extend this to printers (and 3D printers), scanners, study rooms, Blu-ray Players etc. etc.—all quick to check from your phone as you enter the library.

6. More details on items. In the same way you can put a QR Code on a DVD box which takes the user to the IMDB entry on the film in question, or on a music score to take the user to an MP3 of the piece, you could give any manner of contextual information on items in your collection via the Internet of Things. If a user is in the vicinity of an item, she or he will be able to get information on it online via their phone.

So, I hope I’ve interested you in watching the developments in beacons. Hopefully you’ll notice when you see them in your local retail stores and in cultural hubs such as museums, galleries, and theme parks. Take the opportunity to play with them. And then look for the opportunities in your library and school. Buy a few and pilot them as a lesson or discovery game or exercise. Have fun!

Contact Stephen at

Further Reading

David Lee King and I have collected some links to extend your learning about beacons.

David Lee King’s Blog posts on iBeacons:

Library-related iBeacon articles:

Education and Beacons

More iBeacon Articles:


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