Augmented Reality: Good for Schools?

Heidi Larson specializes in virtual education, online collaboration, educational technology, and professional development. For over 10 years, she has advanced the efforts of EDC initiatives in these and other key aspects of education reform. Heidi is the State Outreach and Cross-REL/Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands at EDC and the Ed Tech Community of Practice lead for the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund grantees. She is also part of a team that is developing online instructional modules about the use of social media in growing a business for EDC’s Social Technology Enabled Professional program. One of Heidi’s interests is how mobile technology and social media can benefit teaching and learning for educators and administrators, as well as students. In this post, she discusses the potential role of augmented reality in schools and shares findings from one of her investigations.

The group of adults walked up the street, cell phones in hand. A normal sight on a busy city sidewalk, yes, except that they weren’t just carrying these phones, or even talking on them. They were holding them in the air, rotating them in a circular fashion, and then setting off in one direction or another, talking excitedly. Why would these teachers, administrators, and nonprofit execs be acting so strangely in the heart of Washington, DC? They were participating in an Augmented Reality (AR) experience at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) Conference.

What is AR? Just like what it sounds: augmenting what you see in the “real world” with additional information, presented digitally. The point of mobile AR—using your mobile device to augment your experience—is not to immerse participants in a screen, as is the case with many video games, but to give them a heightened sense of their surroundings. Some AR experiences, like this one, use GPS locations to “trigger” the augmentation, yet others overlay AR over an image, word, or bar code.

With guidance from myself, Harvard’s Chris Dede, and Matt Dunleavy, CEO of FreshAIR—the AR platform donated for this use—Andrea Flores, Matt Riecken, and Andy Hyde, three Harvard Graduate School of Education students, developed the Washington AR experience. Together, the students and I explored the benefit and challenges of AR for teachers, chief technology officers (CTOs), and students. We sought to address the following questions:

  • How much time, effort, and support is needed to produce a quality AR experience?
  • Could creating a quality AR experience fit in with a busy teacher’s or CTO’s schedule?
  • Could AR provide an engaging, yet educational platform for students?
  • What types of content could be taught with AR?
  • Would this be a project that students themselves could create around a particular theme?

After the Washington AR experience, we gathered for a debriefing session with the participants. We learned that AR could most definitely be used in classrooms for a variety of topics in many ways, using complex to simple formats. Our experience was a history lesson, but we could have developed an AR experience for sciencesuch as the ecoMOBILE site on using AR to teach pond ecology—for reading comprehension or mathematics, or social studies. For reading or mathematics, imagine projecting a background or teacher’s supporting video over certain pages of a book. For social studies, how about augmenting the local town hall—or a town hall set—and having students take on the roles of voter, tax payer, mayor?

Historical GPS-Triggered Overlay in the Students' AR Pilot

The participants and our development team agreed that creating AR could be a truly engaging way for students to study a topic in depth, work in teams, and teach each other. As for teachers and CTOs? The challenge to creating an AR experience like ours is that it took many hours to conceive and build, test, and revise. However, once created, the experience could be re-used or modified from one year to the next. Teachers could work together, supported by a CTO, to build a collection of AR experiences. Also, not all AR takes this much time to produce. There are simple versions available, such as the Aurasma apps, that can make your vocabulary word wall, picture book, poster presentation, or pictures of your students talk and show images or video in minutes. The options are virtually limitless and well worth exploring. Questions? Feel free to contact me.