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Augmented reality can be a powerful learning tool

By Maureen Yoder
January 6, 2020
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What do a skillet, a grand piano and a computer have in common? They are all types of tools, of course. Sitting idly, they just take up space. But a skillet in the hands of Emeril Lagasse or Wolfgang Puck becomes a vehicle for delicious meals. A piano played by Rachmaninoff or Elton John can provide beautiful music. A computer in the hands of you and your students can lead to adventures and learning opportunities never before possible.

Using a mobile device, augmented reality (AR) superimposes computer-generated images, videos and animation onto the real world. I like to think of AR as another tool for enhancing curricula and inspiring creativity. Yes, it can be engaging. Pointing your mobile device at an object that then comes to life can be downright enthralling. But if it does not support an educationally sound lesson or prompt young students to create their own original and thought-provoking auras, then I’m not interested.

There are many reasons to incorporate AR into classrooms. As AR is catching on, more content is being developed in all subject areas, for all grade levels and for all types of students. Large organizations, such as NASA and National Geographic, are adding value to their already robust educational resources with well-documented explorations and thought-provoking activities. Also, teachers and students are taking advantage of easy-to-use cameras and apps to create their own customized auras.

An aura consists of a trigger and an overlay. The trigger is what your mobile device is pointed at. It can be a two-dimensional image or a three-dimensional object. An overlay can be a video, still image, text or animation that is visible when your device is pointed at the trigger. Many people, not sure of what AR is, light up with recognition when told that Pokemon Go is an example.

The following examples demonstrate four AR efforts that will impact the way students learn.  

A corporation-supported STEM initiative

Many large organizations are committing resources to the development of AR apps that go beyond games and entertainment. The New York Times app T Brand Studio AR offers Outthink Hidden, inspired by the movie “Hidden Figures” about African-American women working at NASA in the 1960s. It includes a far-reaching collection of “unsung heroes of innovation in STEM fields.”

An example is Abraham Nemeth, a blind mathematician who developed a Braille-based numerical writing system to give the visually impaired a way to participate in the field of mathematics. The claim is that “overlooked heroes from technology’s early days inspire tomorrow’s STEM leaders.” Download the app, then visit to reveal photos, video and audio content. You can also visit over 150 statues, monuments and geofenced locations around the United States and learn about the individuals whom they honor.

A way to add experiential learning to literature

Traditional books, with hard or soft covers and pages to turn, can include target images prompting experiences related to the story. The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce began as a book, was produced as an Academy Award winning short film and, with a free app, explodes off the page with enchanting, action-packed images, animation and sound effects. It is a story of a man who loves books, and the books that love him back. With so many variants on the way the story is told, the experience will appeal to multiple learning styles and, hopefully, entice and engage young readers, encouraging their own love of reading.

For older children and adults, bestsellers like A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki offer media-rich enhancements, such as innovative book trailers and author commentaries.Christian Howard, a scholar of contemporary literature, used the term “hybrid literature” to describe what he refers to as a “pioneering work in terms of experimental publication.” A Tale for the Time Being’s paperback cover is interactive, transformed into a 15-second animation using a Blippar AR app. Other authors and publishers are adding AR features to appeal to younger, technology-savvy readers.

Exploring scientific concepts with AR

Scientific experiments are often too dangerous or difficult to perform in classrooms. The iScience: Elements, Forces and Explosive Experiments! is part of a series from Carlton Books, and another example of bringing traditional books to life with photographs, diagrams and illustrations that are triggers for AR. It covers scientific principles, such as sound waves, gravity, nuclear fission and reactants. With the AR app, you can split an atom in the palm of your hand or experiment with static electricity, complete with realistic animation and sound effects.

Teaching autistic students social interaction skills

As a special ed teacher, Jullia Suhyoung Lim wanted to help her autistic students understand abstract concepts and apply them to the their own lives. While researching different types of technology, she saw potential in AR to do just that.

Now, as a designer of AR apps for education at A.Project Lab, one of the areas she is working on is social transition for special needs students. She has developed a HoloLens simulation game to help these middle school students with social interaction outside the classroom.

In Lim's HoloLens game, students enter a virtual situation that is customized to meet their special need. When they put on the headset, they see a virtual layer with characters that look like humans. the purpose of the game is for the students to approach the characters, interpret the situation and initiate conversation that is relevant to what they are seeing. 

Watch the video below to hear Lim explain how the HoloLens has transformed learning for some special ed students.

AR and children’s learning

While fascinated and intrigued by these new realities, I also have questions. How does this hyper reality impact student learning? Will it inhibit or inspire creativity? Some AR apps merely display content in a different format, while other AR apps provide robust, interactive and realistic experiences that would not otherwise be possible in a classroom. As with any technology, teachers need to decide what will work best with their students. Many teachers have already seen the excitement in their students’ eyes as they make books come alive, meet inspiring people, split atoms and let their imaginations run wild.

Prioritize student learning with Learning First, Technology Second. Explore the book!

Maureen Brown Yoder, Ed.D., is a professor of educational technology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A former classroom teacher, she currently works with inservice educators and teaches an online course on emerging technologies. She coined the term electronic constructivism and has written extensively on how to thoughtfully and creatively integrate emerging technologies into existing curricula.

This is an updated version of an article that originally published on May 31, 2017.