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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.

HARP, an AR game designed to teach math and science literacy skills to middle school students, was developed with funding from the U.S. Department of Education by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the Teacher Education Program at MIT.

In HARP, students use Dell Axim handheld computers and GPS technology to correlate their real-world locations to their virtual locations in the game’s digital world.

As students move around their physical location, such as a school playground or sports field, a map on their handheld computer displays digital objects and virtual people who exist in the AR world that has been superimposed onto the physical world.

The School in the Park program lets students explore Asian art and folktales using AR experiences to enhance learning.

The program uses the Samsung Moment—a Google Android device—and its indoor component uses QR Code, a two-dimensional barcode, to trigger an AR event.

Outside, students use Layar, an AR reality browser that overlays data using the smart phone as a viewfinder—meaning that students see what is in front of them but can overlay virtual information on top of that physical world.

For instance, as a student approaches a sculpture or another work of art, information might pop up on the student’s smart phone that explains the history behind that piece.

“Of course, there’s a learning curve that goes along with any new technology, but the thing that’s really promising about this type of experience is how engaging it is for students,” O’Shea said. “Anything that engages students is a net benefit in the long run.”

And although the technology itself might seem intimidating, the real challenge is the availability of content.

“The barrier is not so much technology, but curriculum. There’s just not a lot of curriculum developed that can be widely used—it tends to be localized,” O’Shea said. For instance, students from Pennsylvania are unlikely to travel to San Diego to participate in this particular AR experience.

“There’s a policy issue involved as well: Schools tend to fear this technology, they fear cell phones, because they see the negative,” he said.

And while AR works well as an engaging tool, it doesn’t necessarily work as well for deep content learning, because students spent a large portion of time figuring out how to work the devices.

“A logical next step is to [have] multiple AR sites, so students can have more engaging experiences over time, eventually getting to the point where students are creating their own experiences,” he said. “That’s where I see this going.”

The School in the Park program lets teachers and students expand their learning opportunities, said Kitty Gabriel, of the San Diego City Heights Collaborative. Gabriel presented the AR project within the School in the Park program.

“We like to have authentic experiences in cultural learning opportunities that often our kids don’t have access to,” she said. Instead of simply reading about Siddhartha relief sculptures, she added, students must find them in the museum.

“Having handheld devices for our students is an opportunity that promises equitable access for students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience this,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said the AR experiences that students gain in the program contribute to critical thinking and problem-solving skills—two in-demand 21st century skills.


Augmented Reality Development Lab

School in the Park

Qualcomm Wireless Reach Initiative

Handheld Augmented Reality Project

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