The silent conversation can seem like magic. If a beacon is addressing your mobile device, you won’t even know it’s there until your device responds, possibly offering up some information that you’re only just realizing you need. If you’re holding the beacon, personalized content might instantly appear as you approach a learning station. A beacon, working with an app on a smartphone or tablet device, can help you find your way, provide useful information, or track your progress.

Beacons are tiny, low-power devices that use Bluetooth to transmit a signal to any device within range that’s equipped with the right app. The app understands and responds to the signal in any of a number of ways.

Beacons got off on the wrong foot with many people: A common early use of beacons was to beam ads and special offers to potential retail customers who were in the vicinity of the store where the beacon was located. Many consumers were annoyed by the volume or intrusive feeling of these pushed promotional messages, and they disabled or deleted the apps, retaining only a negative impression of beacons.

Now, eLearning developers are trying to turn things around for beacons and deploy them in the service of eLearning. While some eLearning uses of beacons follow the push notification model, TorranceLearning has literally “flipped the typical use case for beacons,” according to CEO Megan Torrance. The company’s new product, Digitally Enhanced Exhibit Program, or DEEP, uses tablet computers that are in fixed locations to run the app and puts learners in charge by handing the beacons to them.

Potential eLearning uses of beacons include:

  • Beacon proximity readings can tell where people are; they can record when a learner arrives and leaves an office, a classroom, or a learning station at a museum, for example. An app can use this information to monitor attendance or direct people to where they want to go. Conversely, a beacon’s proximity reading, paired with information about the bearer’s identity, could prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing sensitive information.
  • By offering location- or context-specific information at specific stops along a route, beacons can facilitate guided tours of a workplace or learning space. Or beacons could deliver just-in-time context-specific information, such as product information or user manuals for sales or repair personnel on service calls.
  • Beacons can track a learner’s progress through course material, delivering content and supplemental materials as needed, and recording the amount of time spent, material covered, and performance on activities and assessments.
  • A beacon-based program can provide managers with big-picture data, showing when and where traffic is heavy on campus walkways or showing how and when learners or employees use a space, whether it is a cafeteria, a conference room, or a footpath between office buildings.

The DEEP approach of attaching the beacon to the learner, rather than relying on each learner to have the appropriate app installed and activated on a smartphone or tablet, reduces costs. Fewer expensive mobile devices are required; the tablets are at a limited number of learning stations, while inexpensive plastic beacons are issued to learners. And, since learners hold the beacon rather than the app, they are freed from any negative associations or worries about being inundated with push notifications.

However, some eLearning developers might implement the model of placing beacons at various locations and delivering content to learners’ mobile devices. This approach could be useful for navigational aids, providing highly accurate location information. For example, an app could show the learner’s location as a lighted dot on a map, and beacons at strategic locations could guide the learner to a specific room or area within a building.

To avoid inundating learners with unwanted notices, developers can take their cues from research conducted by Localytics, an app marketing and analytics company, which found that people will disable or even delete an app if they receive too many push notifications. But the Localytics research also found that people were evenly divided over whether push notices were a nuisance or a help; they were most receptive to targeted offers. In fact, 48 percent of Localytics’ respondents wanted offers based on their preferences, and more than a third were receptive to other types of personalized messages. Thus a beacon-based system could be well received if it delivers relevant, personalized eLearning content.

With any eLearning that includes some form of tracking or data-gathering, concerns are sure to arise around what data the app can access and how that information is used. But many corporate ID badges already include information about the bearer, track employees’ whereabouts, and enforce access privileges. The beacon-based program would add layers, linking existing information to eLearning activities, for example.

In addition to privacy concerns, any connected device raises issues of data security, susceptibility to viruses, and the chance of data falling into the wrong hands. Developers considering beacon-based solutions should weigh the potential concerns along with the tremendous benefits of delivering personalized, context- or location-specific information to learners.

For instance, developers may need to address employees’ worries about privacy and the potential for beacons to intrude on every aspect of their workday. That could mean navigating the fine line between pushing useful location-driven content to employees and creating in those employees a feeling of being “stalked” by an app that constantly interrupts with notifications. And if beacons are attached to employees’ ID badges, providing a way to opt out or leave the beacon behind sometimes can be essential to gaining learner buy-in.