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Beacons beckon on campus

Place by place, Bluetooth-powered beacons can help students and visitors navigate college libraries, classes and more
University Business, December 2018
A PERSONAL GUIDE—In the seven-story Bizzell Memorial Library at the University of Oklahoma, students can use the NavApp beacon application to get turn-by-turn navigation guidance in finding resources, service desks, study spaces and event locations. The app integrates with OU‘s campus life app.
A PERSONAL GUIDE—In the seven-story Bizzell Memorial Library at the University of Oklahoma, students can use the NavApp beacon application to get turn-by-turn navigation guidance in finding resources, service desks, study spaces and event locations. The app integrates with OU‘s campus life app.

Strolling across a new campus, a student has little idea where they’re going. Then their phone dings. A beacon has sensed their location.

“The library is straight ahead,” the message says—and by the way, “here’s a coupon for a mocha in its café.”

A handful of colleges and universities are experimenting with beacon technology such as this to improve the student and visitor experience on campus.

Bluetooth low-energy beacons (initially introduced by Apple and called iBeacons) are wallet-sized, battery-operated devices that get placed on interior or exterior surfaces and emit their location.


SIDEBAR: Beacon facts and campus potential


Paired with a corresponding app, beacons can alert users to events, coupons or other nearby offerings on their smartphones. On the safety front, beacons can also let campus police know precisely where a user is located.

To date, higher ed beacon initiatives around the U.S. have been mostly pilots, but the ways they’ve been received and adapted demonstrate the technology’s potential for a range of functions.

Helping with wayfinding:
The University of Oklahoma

University Libraries at OU turned to beacons to help people find their way around the often-intimidating 400,000-square-foot main library building.


SIDEBAR: Shining a pilot light on beacon technology


Matt Cook, head of emerging technology, deployed beacons in 2015, after a year of preparation with provider Meridian (now Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company).

Through the university’s NavApp beacon application, library visitors can find nearby books, databases, staff, computer terminals and group study rooms.

Around 300 carefully placed beacons can sense a user’s location, even deep within the library building and beyond the reach of GPS.


ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Providers on beacon technology in higher ed


The beacons can deliver responses to student queries, for instance, by providing instructions through the app on how to use a scanner or book a room—explanations that may have previously required a staff member’s help.

The beacons, Cook says, “increase the usage of services associated with staff overhead or capital. That is going to offset any bottom line.”

The library leaders’ goal was to reach 10 percent of the university’s 30,000 students. They have accomplished that with 3,000 unique visits to date, an average of 16 unique page views per visitor, and semester-over-semester growth in app downloads.

“With how popular smartphones are,” Cook says, “the potential audience, as it continues to grow, is just huge.”

Maintenance has been easier than expected. As library staff update their website, the app pulls information from there (so the app doesn’t need separate updating).

For physical hardware, batteries need to be replaced about every two years, but with student workers’ help, that simple process takes a week.

“The hard part is the marketing—getting into a crowded app ecosystem,” Cook says. “People have a lot of apps on their phones.”

OU Libraries’ promotions so far have included digital signage, website mentions, physical banners, social media-promoted videos, and a contest that drew hundreds with the chance to win football tickets by downloading the app.

Taking class attendance:
Syracuse University (N.Y.)

Yun Huang, an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, has experimented with beacons to gauge student response and effectiveness.

A $38,000 Google Faculty Award grant supported development of the necessary software, mobile apps and server.

In a first trial, in winter 2017, Huang used beacons to track student attendance by sensing their location. Only 38 percent of the class adopted the app needed to do the tracking, which Huang attributed to student misunderstanding of the technology.

This past spring, researchers tried a version that included a manual check-in, which was validated by GPS technology. Students preferred this, Huang found.

“Based on the feedback so far, undergrads more quickly take to this tool than graduate students,” she says. “Graduate students feel like they should not be treated as a kid, having this as Big Brother.”

Huang and her team recently received a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which enabled them to conduct about 100 in-person interviews with representatives of public and private universities in four states and Washington, D.C.

Based on those discussions, she believes class-attendance tracking could help boost retention at certain institutions. “Some schools with lower retention rates want to use attendance tools to have early intervention,” she says.

Enhancing campus safety:
Columbus State University (Ga.)

Beacons can be a tool for pinpointing exact locations. Columbus State, an 8,000-student university along the Chattahoochee River, partnered with Piper Networks last year to place beacons around campus at no cost to the institution.

At first, administrators expected beacons to primarily offer promotions as people walked by the library or bagel shop. That grew into a user-driven tour with beacons providing information at about 100 points throughout the 132-acre main campus.

Finally, the trial morphed into the Safe Campus program, for which Piper installed an additional 1,250 beacons around the city. A corresponding app could provide police with a precise location when a student called or texted with a safety concern or suspicious-behavior report.

“Our partnership with Piper allowed us to be a testing ground for this,” says John Lester, chief of staff at CSU.

Now, however, Piper has moved toward focusing on location awareness solutions that are marketed to higher ed and clients in other industries.

Real-time asset tracking can be used to improve operational efficiencies for buses and other vehicles in campus fleets. With iBeacon messaging, riders can be notified of accurate arrival times, and passenger counts can be provided to the institution.

The company stopped supporting the Safe Campus program app for both the city and the university. Crime prevention is hard to track, so the cost of maintaining beacons and an app on its own would be hard to justify, Lester says.

Columbus State has no plans to seek another vendor or continue the trial.

Still, the exercise served a purpose, he says. “It hopefully sent a message that we are embracing technology, concerned about safety and trying to look at new ways to be creative.”


Lynn Freehill-Maye is a writer who lives in Beacon, New York.