‘Augmented reality’ helps kids learn

A research project that uses wireless handheld devices to engage students in an augmented reality-based educational environment could have a big impact on future learning, its creators say.

The Handheld Augmented Reality Project (HARP), a collaboration among Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, uses wireless handheld computers to enhance teaching and learning through a series of activities that draw on the attributes of students’ surroundings.

“Augmented reality” is an environment in which virtual images have been layered on top of those in the real world. In other words, augmented reality is the ability to use a computer program to superimpose a layer of virtual characters or other sensory information onto any location.

Augmented reality uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to track a person’s movement, and when that person reaches a designated point, he or she is confronted with a computer-generated image or situation pertaining to the scenario. (For more information, see “‘Augmented reality’ soon could enhance learning’: ‘Augmented reality’ soon could enhance learning.)

A sample HARP activity, dubbed “Alien Contact,” assumes that aliens have landed on Earth, and students must work through math and literacy problems to figure out why the aliens have landed. Students use GPS-enabled handheld computers and form theories based on evidence they collect at certain GPS “hot spots.” As students get within 20 to 30 feet of each designated hot spot, they can complete the assigned activity.

Chris Dede, the Timothy E. Wirth Professor of Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, along with postdoctoral fellow and colleague Matt Dunleavy, discussed the HARP initiative and its implications for education at this year’s Florida Educational Technology Conference in Orlando Jan. 26.

The project arose from “trying to think about where society is going, what students will need, what the educational properties of these devices are, and how we can design something interesting with these devices,” Dede said. These discussions led the researchers to develop a project based on augmented reality.

HARP is supported by a three-year U.S. Department of Education grant aimed at enhancing math and literacy skills in urban school populations. In addition to the three research universities, the program draws on the opinions of teachers as co-researchers.

“The feedback from teachers is incredibly vital and important,” said Dunleavy.

There are two kinds of augmented reality: place-dependent and place-independent. Dede and his colleagues are working with place-independent augmented reality, which is useful for several reasons, he explained.

One application of augmented reality that already exists is “based on a Revolutionary War battlefield–and you actually see the distances and the topography during the activity, and that’s a strong form of augmented reality,” Dede said. “But you have to get there [first]. For schools to take field trips is expensive, complicated, and often impractical. To make it place-independent is more practical, because you don’t have to arrange multiple field trips.”

“Alien Contact!” is played on a Dell Axim handheld computer and uses GPS technology to correlate the students’ real-world location with their virtual location in the game’s digital world. As the students move around a physical location, such as their school playground or sports field, a map on their handheld computer displays digital objects and virtual people who exist in an augmented-reality world superimposed on real space.

Students are presented with the following scenario: Aliens have landed on Earth and seem to be preparing for one of several possible actions, including peaceful contact, invasion, plundering, or simply returning to their home planet. Working in teams of four, the students must explore the augmented-reality world, “interviewing” virtual characters, collecting digital items, and solving math and literacy puzzles to figure out what the aliens are planning.

Each team has four roles: chemist, linguist, computer expert, and FBI agent. Depending on his or her role, each student will see different pieces of evidence. To successfully navigate the augmented-reality environment and solve various puzzles, the students must share information and collaborate within and among the teams. Then, they must form hypotheses based on the data they collect. At the end of the unit, the students must present their findings to the class and support these with data collected in the field.

“Alien Contact!” was recently piloted with a Boston high school class over a period of a week and a half. The activity, Dunleavy said, produced high student engagement and a great deal of competition among student teams. However, it was not without its weak points.

For one thing, students expressed frustration because there was no one solid answer as to why the aliens had landed on Earth, Dunleavy said. The project also was beset by some of the same challenges that exist in any group project: Some students were too shy to fully participate in the activity, while others were so independent that they took total control of their group. Adjustments would need to be made to ensure that all students participate in the future, he said.

MIT provided the GPS-enabled handhelds for the pilot program. Most schools typically wouldn’t own an off-the-shelf hardware set such as the one used for the pilot, said Dede, but in the coming years he and fellow researchers expect that the same technology students used to complete the activities will have found its way onto cell phones.

“Over time, we’re anticipating that services that are premium today become standard,” Dede said.

Some observers might say “Alien Contact!” is more like a video game than a school lesson. “It is more game-like,” Dede acknowledged. “We’re trying to tap into that pop culture and what students will be interested in.”

He added: “Imagine another scenario with a beached whale, where students will take on the role of scientists and use real scientific data. Eventually, we want a teacher to be able to embed his or her own content or simulations.”

When asked a question about safety, and whether the perils of unrestricted internet access might preclude schools from allowing their students to use to use web-enabled cell phones for augmented-reality activities, Dunleavy said that, for now, the system is a closed one.

“If school is completely disconnected from the personal lives students have outside of school, as well as their work lives, we have bigger worries than if they’ll pull up something inappropriate online. That’s the way people learn responsibility,” Dede added.

Dede said the researchers are developing an augmented-reality editor that will allow educators to design their own augment-reality projects–but the system is still being perfected.

“The end goal is that we develop this thing and hand it over to the teachers, and the teachers do what they want,” he said.


Handheld Augmented Reality Project


Laura Ascione

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