Augmented Reality in the Classroom

What is augmented reality?

Digital technology gives us many opportunities today to envision and create experiences that are not possible in real life. Through computer graphics, Hollywood blockbusters give us avatars, aliens, and avengers who can use superpowers to save the planet. Video games take us to faraway lands to complete quests for gold and glory, or build expansive Minecraft villages. But what if you could bring those experiences into the real world?

Could you bring the virtual world to the classroom? What if the physical space of the classroom could be used to bring digitally created elements to a student’s experience? What if we could bring the endless opportunities for digital creativity into our everyday embodied experiences?

Augmented reality (AR) gives us tools to superimpose digital elements on the physical spaces in which we interact. Using a mobile phone or tablet as a “window” into the digital world, AR apps give people richer experiences by bringing digital objects to life. Humans can interact with them, change them, and learn from them. In short, by allowing objects to be in the same spaces as us, AR provides memorable experiences that are not normally doable via just a computer screen.

The term “augmented reality” often gets confused with “virtual reality.” Although they are both similar, today’s AR tools give you the capability of creating digital objects in the spaces where you interact everyday. On the other hand, virtual reality (VR) refers to completely digital environments, such as video games, that are not a part of our physical environment. In VR, you typically wear goggles and other devices. With AR, you just use the phone in your pocket or tablet in your bag!

For instance, while walking down a street, you could hold your phone up to a AR-enabled building or street and get details about where you’re at.

You could hold your phone up to an AR-infused statue or monument and access valuable information about it. And in some instances, you can play games where the imaginary and unreal become real. A great example of this is Google Ingress, in which you work through a city with other players to capture other teams’ “portals” of energy using actual physical locations for the context of play (which, of course, are displayed via AR on players’ phones).

For those who play or know anyone who play Minecraft (aka, any kid today), Microsoft’s new Hololens has some promising AR capabilities for interacting with Minecraft worlds. Imagine placing your creations in three dimensions in your living room or classroom!

Using the devices that are already in most students’ pockets, teachers can build AR experiences using free or low-cost tools. Most of the AR tools today are easy to use and can be deployed in most spaces with relative ease. Most of the heavy lifting on the technology side has been done by app providers. All that is required for classroom applications of AR are imaginative ways of thinking of the world and ideas for representing concepts that are being taught. AR even provides us with a new concept of what it means to “learn something in class” - when that something is IN CLASS, what new pedagogies can we imagine?

What you can do with it?

Instead of thinking what specifically we might teach with AR, it is sometimes helpful to first think about what types of activities AR lets us do. Below are a couple of the key advantages teachers can gain when thinking pedagogically about AR:

Can “give form to” phenomena.

Despite having the ability to model phenomena on computers and use language to describe it, we still use our primary senses of sight, sound, and touch. Although AR can’t yet make touch a reality, it can be used to create other sensory interactions as someone does activities in a room. AR makes things visible in our space by allowing digital objects to “be there” in the room with observers. As a result, AR can help represent complex things that are hard to understand from a static image in a textbook or website.

Imagine seeing molecules in your hands, or in the hands of one of your labmates. Imagine seeing weather patterns, other places, or priceless artifacts in the classroom. Imagine being able to draw networks between people objects to see relationships, in real life. Imagine being able to give any idea a shape with which students can interact in the classroom. AR presents a new way of thinking about complex ideas and how we interact with them by leveraging space and the embodied experiences of people to create new depths of understanding.

For example, IKEA has been doing this for the past few years by creating a virtual catalog in which you can place furniture in a room. This allows you to imagine how spaces may look with new furniture, but also can spark your imagination when objects interact in physical spaces.

Sometimes, place matters too. Meaningful distances between objects, or even just spacing things apart can help students to compare and contrast ideas. Couple this with the ability to represent phenomena as objects in the classroom via the nifty mobile phone AR viewfinder, and you give students some powerful tools for analyzing and discussing ideas. As classroom space is also inherently social, you also gain tools for collaborative work.

As someone who organizes a classroom, a teacher can also use space to orchestrate classroom activities. What if suddenly each corner of a room has a meaningful AR interaction? What if someone can interact with each desk or table or piece of furniture? Someone’s bodily movements around a classroom, building, school, or city may help them develop levels of understanding and meaning that are not possible from a website or textbook alone!

With AR, teachers can create richer experiences by making the most of embodied experiences!

Find Out More

Free tools to try out AR (many have easy editors - try them out!):

Some articles on ideas for implementing AR