Augmented reality takes hold in classrooms

Augmented reality overlays digital images and information on real world settings.
Augmented reality overlays digital images and information on real-world settings.

A small but growing number of schools across the nation are turning classroom lessons into engaging experiences with augmented reality (AR), a technology that overlays digital information on top of real-world surroundings as viewed through a smart phone or other handheld, GPS-enabled device.

Proponents of the technology in education say augmented reality differs from virtual reality in that while virtual reality aims to replace a person’s perception of the world with an artificial world, augmented reality enhances a person’s perception of his or her surroundings.

The Augmented Reality Development Lab (ARDL), from virtual reality developer Digital Tech Frontier, lets users display relevant information at the appropriate time and location during an AR experience, which results in virtual 3-D objects appearing in the real world.

Students and teachers look through a viewing device or at a monitor to see virtual objects such as planets, volcanoes, the human heart, or dinosaurs embedded within their real-world environment—and they can interact with and manipulate those objects to receive associated information.

Debra Sloan, an educator with Forest Heights Middle School’s Eagle Environmental and Spatial Technology (EAST) program in Little Rock, Ark., uses the ARDL in the school’s project-based service learning class.

“AR raises the level of interaction for the students,” Sloan said. Students in the EAST program have created a virtual tour of the Clinton Library and are working to integrate AR technology into the tour. Also in the works are a map of the school for new students and a local hospital tour, both using AR.

The ARDL interface has pre-built education modules for science, math, art, and social studies, as well as a module builder for building new software. The software, which can be used in K-12 and higher education, lets students and teachers build programs, examples, and curricula using augmented reality. Students and teachers also can network together and share the modules they’ve created with other students and schools.

“ARDL is such a nice direction to go … in incorporating technology in the classroom, because it makes [learning] more interactive,” Sloan said. “The kids love it because they are active. … They love more than just sitting and watching things happen.”

Education technology advocates say AR can help students with spatial and temporal concepts, can facilitate interaction, appeals to kinesthetic learners, and offers engaging and self-paced interaction.

“The nice thing about augmented reality is that it can bring anything to life,” said Scott Jochim, creative director at Digital Tech Frontier. “All you need is a simple Google SketchUp model, or a more complex 3ds Max model if you so desire. Attach simple attributes, and presto—you and your students are engaged in an augmented reality educational experience.” (3ds Max is three-dimensional modeling, animation, and rendering software from Autodesk Inc.; SketchUp is a free 3D modeling program from Google Inc.)

Jochim said the ARDL was created in part to respond to the challenge that lecture-based learning does not affect students in the same way that technology-infused learning experiences can.

“This … is clearly going to revolutionize education,” he said.

Using Google SketchUp or Google’s 3D Warehouse—a collection of free 3D models that users are adding to daily—educators can locate 3D images of any item for classroom use and manipulation.

The ARDL retails for $2,100, which includes a 20-seat license. Jochim said additional fee-based curriculum tools will be available soon as well, but purchasing those will not be necessary to operate the ARDL; educators can continue using free resources in their lessons.

“It’s not just about throwing technology in these classrooms, it’s about empowering the teachers to understand the technology,” Jochim said. “Grasping the capability behind it gives teachers tools that are easy to use.”

In April, Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach Initiative, together with San Diego’s School in the Park program and the San Diego Museum of Art, launched a project that gives San Diego elementary school students the opportunity to learn about art with AR.

“In its simplest form, augmented reality is an effort to merge the physical and virtual worlds,” said Patrick O’Shea, director of the Handheld Augmented Reality Project (HARP) at Harvard University. O’Shea collaborated on the School in the Park program with San Diego officials.

Laura Ascione

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