It doesn’t take a lot of research to figure out that Daniel Bray, principal of Brookwood Middle School in Vance, Ala., thinks incorporating technology into his students’ academic life is important.
Bray talks about technology in his welcome letter on the Brookwood Middle School website, as well as in his biography. Bray also just completed his doctorate in instructional leadership with a focus on instructional technology at the University of Alabama.
And so, when Bray read an article in July about Google’s Eddystone beacon technology he immediately began to envision how Brookwood’s 800 sixth- through eighth-grade students—as well as their parents, and residents of Brookwood and surrounding Tuscaloosa County —could benefit from the mobile communication and messaging technology.
“Tuscaloosa County is a really big county and we have a very large footprint in the area,” Bray says. “We have three elementary schools that feed into us.” Brookwood alone spans 25 miles east to west, Bray says.
The size and geographical span of Brookwood Middle School can make it tough to keep parents and the community up to date on school news, accomplishments and events, Bray says. “One of our biggest challenges is communications about all we have going on,” Bray says.
Beacons, Bray thought, especially beacons using Google’s Eddystone protocol, could offer help. Beacons are small pieces of hardware that can be placed anywhere and that use Bluetooth technology to send messages to consumers’ smartphones when they pass by or are in the general vicinity.
Until recently, a smartphone owner had to have installed an app from a specific company, organization or brand to receive beacon messages. But what caught Bray’s eye with Google’s Eddystone beacon protocol is that it only requires a Brookwood parent, student or other community member have the Google Chrome app on their smartphone in order to receive messages from beacons. Google in July introduced support for beacons in its latest version of Chrome for iOS, and it is encouraging the companies behind such other mainstream browsers as Safari, Opera, Firefox and Microsoft’s new Edge browser to do the same.
Google’s Eddystone protocol sends messages to passersby via the Google Chrome browser, eliminating the need for the school to launch—and others to download—a specific app. Eddystone-URL broadcasts a URL, which is simply a web page. That means the school can use a beacon to link to any site on the Internet.
Working with beacon technology vendor BKON, Brookwood in Oct. 2015 began placing beacons throughout its school and the community, including Brookwood Town Hall and a local restaurant.
A student or parent walking by the school trophy case for example, can swipe down on her smartphone notifications and the Chrome browser will identify the beacon and show relevant content such as videos and news about recent academic and sports accomplishments.
“Our trophy case is a case like you can find at any school,” Bray says. “You walk by and think ‘Wow, that’s great, they won a bunch of stuff.’ But the beacons let us tell the stories behind those accomplishments.”
At the baseball field, beacons deliver information that might typically be found in a paper program, such as the team roster, season record and schedule.
Outside the school at the Brookwood Town Hall and the local restaurant, beacons deliver general news updates from the school. For example, the news might include a write-up of the annual spelling bee winner or the names of the students who received the bikes that Brookwood awards every nine weeks to a few lucky pupils with perfect attendance.
Bray says Brookwood paid less than $500 for its 15 beacons. The school has placed 13 beacons in and around the school and community. The other two are portable, traveling to events such as a recent fundraiser at a local Mercedes-Benz car dealership designed to build awareness for Brookwood school and raise money.
To set up the beacon messages, Brookwood assigns each beacon a URL to broadcast. All the beacons have unique six-digit Bluetooth codes that the school enters into a BKON maintenance website at Phy.net along with the URL it wants that specific beacon to broadcast, a short description of the content and broadcast proximity, which is how far the beacon will broadcast a message. There are three levels of proximity: close, five to eight feet or 20 yards. Bray says beacon batteries will last two to three years depending on how far they broadcast their signals. Beacons set up to send messages 20 yards away, for example, will use more battery power than those sending communications just a few feet.
Some teachers are also using beacons for their classes by uploading a PDF version of class notes that the beacons then can then disseminate to students passing by. Students can then save a PDF version of the notes to their smartphones.
A big part of the Brookwood beacon project involves educating students and the community on what beacons are and how to use them, Bray says. To help with this, Brookwood students designed signs that are placed next to each beacon explaining what they are and how to use them.
“It’s kind of like explaining how to use QR codes to someone who has never used them,” Bray says. “It is such a new technology that you really have to inform your users. A major hurdle is to get people to understand. We are starting by informing our students.”
Bray says the Brookwood school website attracted twice as many visits in 2015 compared to a year earlier. He attributes at least some of that additional traffic to the school site URLs displayed by the beacons. Several other local schools are now considering implementing beacons after watching Brookwood, Bray says.
“Beacons deepen our relationship with students, parents and the community.” Bray says. “We want others to know all we are doing, and beacons help us communicate that.”