FireFlies: ClassBeacons

Visualizing teacher proximity through distributed IoT devices

FireFlies: ClassBeacons is a novel IoT (internet-of-things) system visualizing teachers’ proximity in the classroom. Nowadays secondary school teachers are increasingly expected to function as a facilitator who provides differentiated instructions or punctual guidance to each individual leaner. This requires them to be more mindful on their proximity distribution over students: how they wander in the classroom and how much time they spend with different students. However, given the busy and complex routines of teachers, it is difficult for them to always be reflective on it. This system means to support teachers’ reflection in teaching without causing focal or continuous attention.

The system uses FireFlies (originally developed by Saskia Bakker), a set of small wireless lamps placed on students’ desks, to indicate how much time the teacher has spent in different locations. This enables more ad-hoc and seamless perception of the information since the teacher does not have to read a screen every now and then during teaching. Through a smart garment, the system continuously senses the teacher’s location. Based on the data, each lamp subtly changes color ranging from yellow to green cumulatively: the more time the teacher has been around it, the more towards green it will turn over the course of one lesson. FireFlies: ClassBeacons is expected to facilitate teachers to create a learner-centered environment with abundant interactions between the teacher and individual learners.

An expert review involving four researchers from educational science background was conducted to explore potential values of showing real-time proximity information might be to educational practice. From the expert review it became clear that close teacher-student proximity is beneficial for individual support, and activating students. Knowing how much time teachers have spent in different areas could help them to more mindfully distribute proximity. However, in current practice, feedback on teacher proximity is only subjectively and sporadically provided by professional observers. The experts considered objective real-time feedback as a valuable addition, which could enable teachers to reflect more often and more directly on their time and attention distribution of time and attention over students. 

After this, a working prototype of FireFlies: ClassBeacons was developed to gather actual user experiences in the real classroom settings. We deployed our working prototype during multiple lessons of 11 secondary school teachers from four secondary schools in the Netherlands. Most of the participating teachers experienced that the immediate feedback given by the system could benefit them during teaching. They reported examples they experienced during the implementation of the system, in which the system helped them in decision-making (e.g. which students to help first) or reflection (e.g. to check if they were doing the right thing). Such reflective activities are considered important for teachers, especially in the context of learner-centered education. 

Regarding the fact that this display is available to both the teacher and the students, the participating teachers identified both benefits and risks of the design. On one hand, the perceived benefits of this system included that teacher choices could be justified by the display, that information about teacher proximity could encourage ‘reticent’ students to ask the teacher for support, and that the engagement of students could be increased as a result of knowing that the teacher is wandering more. This echoes some findings in educational science literature which show that a teacher’s physical proximity positively influences student engagement. On the other hand the perceived risks of this system included that some students might complain the teacher for receiving too much or too little attention, or misinterpret the display, and that the data from the system might be abused by schools or parents as a (mis-) judgement for teachers’ performances. Hence a careful consideration of possible social effects is needed when designing similar systems. Given that privacy concerns are appropriately dealt with, we believe to make this feedback also visible to the students is constructive for creating learner-centered dynamics in the classroom. Longer and more elaborate field evaluations would be needed to further examine such an effect. 

The participating teachers considered the distributed display of this system to be effortless and direct. One teacher mentioned that an understandable pattern emerged in the space through the colors. The display was not experienced as demanding: the lamps could be easily discarded when the teachers were busy. Because of the distributed nature, a location where a lamp is put and the information displayed by the lamp were co-located. Teachers indicated they could use the system sequentially or in quasi-parallel with student observation (which commonly exists in teacher routines as found by our previous research). As compared to centralized displays, FireFlies: ClassBeacons did not require teachers to go back and forth between their students and their computers, or read information from a screen with continuously focused attention. Therefore it seems less interrupting to the task flow of teaching. The teachers’ experiences of ClassBeacons confirmed our assumption that distributed tangible displays have the potential to seamlessly integrate relevant information into teachers’ everyday routines.


Eindhoven School of Education
Department of Experimental Psychology & Helmholtz Institute, Utrecht University
Theresialyceum, Tilburg
International School Eindhoven
Sint-Joriscollege, Eindhoven
Bisschoppelijk College Broekhin, Roermond

Related Publications

Pengcheng An, Saskia Bakker, Sara Ordanovski, Ruurd Taconis, Berry Eggen. 2018 (accepted at Oct 2017). ClassBeacons: designing distributed visualization of teachers’ physical proximity in the classroom. In Proceedings of Tangible and Embodied Interaction, TEI 2018, Mar 18-21, 2018, Stockholm. 8 pages.

Saskia Bakker, Elise van den Hoven, and Berry Eggen. 2013. FireFlies: physical peripheral interaction design for the everyday routine of primary school teachers. In Proceedings of Tangible and Embodied Interaction, TEI 2013, Feb 10-13, 2013, Barcelona. 8 pages.