Museum field trips are about to get a lot more interesting—in a way that has important ramifications for corporate eLearning.

Picture this: As a child or small group approaches a cool exhibit, a nearby iPad tablet comes to life, welcoming the museum-goers and offering fun, interesting, and grade-appropriate content and activities. The children read content, play games, answer questions presented on the tablet, and enter free-text reactions to the exhibit. At the end of their visit, each child gets a personalized printout that summarizes his or her activities and learning. Best of all, this is all accomplished without sharing a shred of personal info about the schoolkids with the app or the museum.

Smoke and mirrors?

Nope. Beacons and badges.

DEEP, an acronym for Digitally Enhanced Exhibit Program, will roll out at the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum in spring 2017. The solution, created by TorranceLearning, is scalable and versatile with countless potential uses, offering tremendous potential to corporate eLearning developers and designers.

The secret? DEEP pairs an inexpensive beacon—a small plastic chip with Bluetooth signaling ability—with an ID badge for each learner.

Breaking down barriers

In developing DEEP, TorranceLearning has literally “flipped the typical use case for beacons,” according to CEO Megan Torrance.

An initial widespread use of beacons was to beam ads or coupon offers to retail customers. The beacons were located in stores, and they triggered an app in consumers’ smartphones, pushing a notice with an offer or ad to any device within range that had the appropriate app. Not only did this approach have the potential to annoy customers if too many ads were pushed to their devices, it relied on each potential customer to proactively download a compatible app onto a smartphone or tablet and allow push notifications.

DEEP turns that model on its head, securing the technology that runs the app—iPads—in place near selected exhibits, while the beacons, on lanyards with the badges, travel throughout the museum with the children.

In choosing to distribute beacons to learners, rather than require that each learner carry a smartphone or tablet with the appropriate app installed and activated, the program overcomes a significant obstacle to widespread beacon use. “In the museum’s situation, it’s completely untenable to hand out smartphones to hundreds of elementary students each day,” Torrance said. “By mounting the expensive technology securely to the wall and putting a $5 beacon on the student, the museum overcomes this barrier.”

The innovative app won Best in Show at The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn 2016 DemoFest competition, held in November in Las Vegas.

Groundhog and Brown Bat tour the museum

The museum will use themed sets of badges, such as Michigan mammals or native plants. A set will be used for each visiting class of elementary-school pupils; based on reservations made by classroom teachers, the beacons will be programmed with content tailored for the appropriate grade level. The content, prepared for each grade level, tracks specific state science curriculum standards.

Each child in the class will receive a badge with an attached beacon, becoming Groundhog, Brown Bat, or White-Tailed Deer for the day. Only the teacher will know which pupil has, say, the Groundhog badge (Figure 1). The blue chip is the beacon.

Figure 1: Badge with attached beacon

As the children wander through the museum, alone or in small clusters, the beacons use Bluetooth to “talk” to an app that is installed on iPads located at select exhibits (Figure 2). As the child approaches an iPad, the beacon causes the tablet to “wake up.” The app greets each child, using the name on the badge, and offers content, activities, and questions. Designed with fast-moving children in mind, the app can recognize multiple beacons at once, address an individual or small group, and be programmed to allow long-term logins or to log out a beacon once the bearer moves out of range. Up to six children can interact with an exhibit simultaneously. And, if the children are from more than one class, the app is programmed with rules that determine which curriculum appears on the iPad.

Figure 2: The app

Personalized eLearning that protects learners’ privacy

The beacon-and-badge combination, along with an xAPI interface in the app, creates a highly personalized experience for the children while simultaneously alleviating privacy concerns. The app asks questions, offers interactive activities, and records each child’s responses, using the names on the badges. The app creates xAPI statements describing the children’s activities; these are used to generate a printed summary of each child’s day. The children get their reports before leaving the museum (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The report

The xAPI data also allows the teacher to generate an aggregate report for the class, as well as more detailed reports for individual pupils. While the teacher can correlate individual responses with the children’s names, no one else—not the app, not the museum—has any personal information about the learners. “Absolutely no personal information about the students is collected,” Torrance said. “We know them as ‘Groundhog.’ The teacher knows who was Groundhog and who was Brown Bat, but the museum never does.”

DEEP is easily adaptable to a corporate eLearning environment, Torrance said. “In the corporate, healthcare, manufacturing, military, or education application, beacons, RFID tags, employee badges, or other technologies can be used to identify employees as they walk into a room, approach a piece of equipment, or move around a location. Beacon proximity readings can be used to determine how close the person is and who else is present. … Learning and performance support content can be displayed on an adjacent tablet, like [in] the museum, or embedded into software and screens already on a device. This allows for the immersion of content and experiences within the work environment and a seamless transition between working and learning.”

xAPI enhances data collection

Integration with xAPI enables detailed tracking and recording of learners’ location, activity, time spent per activity, and progress through an eLearning module. If learners complete a task or an assessment, scores are recorded. If they read an article, visit a location, or answer a question, xAPI statements record that activity. DEEP can record which learners are present, who answers a question, and whether the answer is correct.

And xAPI compatibility enables even greater customization and integration—beyond DEEP. “In the workplace learning environment, xAPI data from DEEP can be stored and reported along with data from other learning experiences, providing a rich picture of an employee’s activity,” Torrance said. “What’s more, xAPI activity recorded by other learning and performance applications could be used by DEEP to offer more personalized content and functionality.” The detailed data records are stored in a learning record store (LRS), an xAPI-compatible database.

The flexible design also supports a high level of engagement: Text and graphics, multiple-choice and multiple-response, free-text entry, drag-and-drop, and other interactive techniques are used to engage learners, Torrance said. Using xAPI increases that flexibility. “By using xAPI as the communication specification, DEEP is interoperable with other learning applications both now and into the future,” she said. “This means that the system can be expanded, or the data gathered from a DEEP experience can be tracked and compared with other data sets.”

In addition, it’s easy to add and update content and manage learners’ experience by setting interaction rules and ranges for beacon communication. For example, in the museum app, visitors who are not part of a group can use the iPads to select non-grade-specific content. And if multiple classes visit the museum on the same day, the app follows rules that govern which curriculum is displayed when children from more than one group are nearby.

“We identified very early on that this was an ideal situation for using the emerging xAPI specification for a number of reasons,” Torrance said. “While on its face this may look like just another fancy eLearning application, the complexity and variety of interactions far exceeds the SCORM standard’s capabilities. Whereas SCORM tracks a single logged-in LMS user at a time, DEEP needs to handle multiple visitors in and out of the experience on a question-by-question level.” For the museum app, it was important to make the interactions quick, so DEEP does not require that learners log in separately at each learning station.

The overarching objective is personalization and delivery of content that is appropriate for the individual learner, the location, and the context—even if that sometimes means denying access. “The goal is for the environment to seamlessly recognize the learner’s presence and enough of the right personal information in order to determine what to do next, whether it’s to offer up training and reminders, serve targeted goal-oriented messaging, or even to lock an unqualified individual out of the system,” Torrance said.