Augmented reality could rule the classrooms of the future

Today’s children and youth are very tech savvy and easily use tablets, laptops, and smartphones to access the Internet, play games and consume media. AR can put that on fast-forward.

We are all familiar with traditional classroom teaching methods from the years we spent in school. Information is presented by a teacher using blackboards, overhead projectors, Powerpoint or other software programs, textbooks, charts, videos and so forth. Of course, there are quizzes, tests, and sometimes breakouts into smaller groups for exercises. If you are of a certain age, you probably well recall ‘film strips’ and overhead projectors using clear plastic sheets with diagrams, drawings or facts on them.


AR technology has advanced greatly from those old learning aids. Today’s children and youth are very tech savvy and easily use tablets, laptops, and smartphones to access the Internet, play games and consume media. Many modern kids are more adept at using various forms of technology than their parents or grandparents.

In fact, there’s so much technology that there is sometimes heated debate about whether it’s having a negative impact on children and youth in terms of them having too much screen time and therefore spending far too much time sitting which is bad for physical and mental health. They also may not go outdoors enough or interact less in peer groups because overusing technology can be socially isolating.

However, some computer-based AR apps and games have demonstrated learning benefits as well.

AR learning research


Flickr user TurkleTom, CreativeCommons

An analysis of research study papers pertaining to the use of AR for learning found that: ….”most of the studies reported that AR in educational settings lead to better learning performance and promoting learning motivation, which was because AR supplies the authenticity graphical content and interaction. Also, deeper student engagement improved perceived enjoyment and positive attitudes of AR are reported as the effectiveness of using AR.”

Another study reached a similar conclusion: “Outcomes were consistent across all of the studies reviewed in that participants showed both an increase in conceptual knowledge and increases in topic interest and engagement.”

A UK charitable organization, The Wellcome Trust, echoed this view, “Our research shows that informal science learning may be particularly beneficial for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are more likely to find science subjects challenging and engaging at school.”

A study of the use of AR at a science center with middle school children identified some issues with informal science learning. First, is the ‘ping-pong’ effect where visitors to the center are allowed to freely go wherever they like within the center looking at various exhibits based on their personal choices and motivations. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but it can result in a superficial experience for students because they tend to not stay very long at each exhibit and therefore don’t engage as much as they could.

AR could be used to design a more engaging experience and one with some deliberate direction embedded into the visitor experience--particularly if it is customized for a target audience with a specific age range.

Another issue is that girls and boys may interact with AR in the form of science-related games in different ways. Boys may bring a competitive mindset to them trying to best another, while girls may have a preference for taking in new information and learning. Girls may also prefer to view their AR experience in a social context where bonding with others is more important to them than competition.

Science centers are different from traditional classroom settings. They are examples of informal learning sites, as are museums, and exhibitions. Some others are public programs or lectures and meet and greets with authors or scientists.

Another study, though of limited size, identified the role of emotion as a central one for science learning, “Despite the limitations, our findings provided additional support for the growing recognition that emotions play a key role in virtually all neural processes, including learning (Eagleman, 2015; Immordino-Yang, 2015). In particular, our findings illuminated the potential importance of negative valence and gender effects that should be attended to in future research on emotion and informal science learning.”

A survey of about 35 science teachers was able to distill a key insight. AR technology can’t be simply made available to students in a vague way to be very effective. A deliberate approach is required from the onset, “Thus, the principle of starting from the learning objectives and approaching the technology with a clear sense of what it aims to achieve for learners (Laurillard, 2004) seems to be widely acknowledged.”

In classrooms, contemporary augmented reality uses computers to generate information which is unique. For example, it is much more interactive than pictures or illustrations in textbooks.
AR has to be used to create multimedia 3D models of animals, plants, and landscapes. Obviously, three-dimensional images are more realistic, but within AR students can also move them to see different angles, and zoom closer and farther for different perspectives. Interactivity is a big advantage AR has over traditional learning aids. Engagement can be much greater, and as mentioned previously, modern children are comfortable with technology and sometimes enjoy it greatly. (If you are an adult reading this article, imagine if computer-based AR had been available when you were in school and how much more you might have paid attention.)

AR has also been used to teach chemistry by employing 3D models of molecules which are also constructed outside the AR using paper blocks. The AR component can show what happens when the molecules interact with each -- by forming bonds, for example.

Children can take photos and videos of these 3D AR experiences to refer to later for reinforcement. Tactile learning, touching with the hands, is also advantageous in learning because it stimulates another sense. Some aspects of the physical world cannot be seen with the naked eye, so AR can be used to visualize things like magnetic fields, the atoms and their movements and sub-components, microorganisms, cell division, anatomy, and so on. AR can be used to create a ‘fun’ or playful approach to learning by adding some gaming to lessons, like scavenger hunts, digital puzzles, or using AR for field trips where AR is activated at physical locations.

Another benefit of AR is that some apps are free, and many children, youth, and college students have their own hardware like smartphones and tablets. And a very obvious advantage is that technology is increasingly a part of modern life, and students need to know how to use these tools, and to learn how to use them as they develop during the coming decades.

The multimedia AR gets a lot of attention because its colorful and dynamic, but some classrooms are teaching kids how to use Google Docs too. This allows students to become familiar with word-processing in the cloud, along with the use of spreadsheets, and of equal importance, the collaboration that results from file sharing and shared access.

STEM issues

Wikicommons, Evan Amos

It’s too early to tell whether AR is more effective in classrooms or in informal learning sites for students who may or may not be interested in science. What we do know is that STEM fields are among the most important ones for our economic survival. There are very real and huge problems to solve like major diseases and physical ones like climate change. There are billions of people who are living in poverty and far too many who are starving or are chronically hungry. As a species we need more young people to be interested in STEM fields to help humanity, other species, and the environment.

Currently, there aren’t enough girls and women in STEM fields. If AR is intended to encourage more youth in embracing and enjoying STEM, it may be very beneficial to tailor it to the target audiences.

Most undergraduate students in computer science and physics in the US are males; only about 20% are females. In other STEM fields, like engineering, there is also a dearth of females. A University of Virginia professor summarized the problem succinctly, “This is especially important now, when unemployment is high and our economy is weak. We cannot afford to lose anyone with the technical skills to create a sustainable future, improve health, build our cyber and physical infrastructure, and enhance personal and societal security. A diverse set of minds needs to tackle those problems. But we are largely missing out on women's intelligence, creativity, and values in solving the problems we all face.”

The lack of women in STEM fields is not limited to the US though, it is a problem that can be found in many countries around the world, “ In countries that have a low proportion of female researchers in science, research, and innovation such as the Republic of Korea (17%) and Japan (14%), boys tend to outscore girls in these subjects in international assessments. However, a higher proportion of female researchers can be found in Malaysia (49%) and Thailand (51%) where girls tend to outscore boys (UIS, 2014; OECD 2014).”

In other words, the relative absence of women in STEM fields is perpetuating the problem.
The same is true of racial diversity in STEM fields, “Past studies have raised a number of possible reasons for this underrepresentation, including the need for racially and ethnically diverse mentors to attract more blacks and Hispanics to these jobs, limited access to advanced science courses, or socioeconomic factors that may disproportionately affect these communities.

Of course, there is also an underrepresentation of people who grew up in economically disadvantaged households in these fields, because they typically don’t have as many STEM role models, and their schools may not have had as much in the way of supporting resources. This situation is very unfortunate because young adults who pursue STEM fields in higher education can typically earn much more throughout their lives, than if they do not. Some may pull themselves out of financial poverty and experience far more opportunities than if they had accepted less technical or scientific work.

On a much broader scale, what is at stake for national economies is in some cases, is a lack of well-prepared young candidates for critical jobs in existing and emerging industries. STEM fields contribute very much economically--they also can constantly drive inventiveness and innovation.
So, can AR help solve such huge societal problems? No one knows at the point, but it should be noted that AR is still growing and appears to be poised to expand in ways that may very well contribute solutions to STEM underrepresentation issues.

One of the most popular AR games, Pokemon Go, reportedly has more female than male users. This trend obviously refutes the stereotype that most ‘techies’ are male, or almost entirely male.

Knowing this, educational institutions can keep in mind that there can be differences in the preferences and learning styles of students in general and in STEM fields.

Furthermore, AR technology and related ones like VR and AI are also emerging more and more to play roles in the workforce. Students who become adept at using AR now may have an advantage in their jobs and careers when they are adults. At the very least, they won’t be left behind.

At the moment, it isn’t clear how AR might be used in corporate training, but some companies are beginning to explore this option. 

Of course, AR has a few downsides too 

In fact, there’s so much technology that there is sometimes heated debate about whether it’s having a negative impact on children and youth in terms of excessive screen time which contributes to sedentariness. They also may not go outdoors enough or interact less with peer groups because overusing technology can be socially isolating.

There has also been some speculation that the instant gratification facilitated by some technologies might be somewhat addictive or feed compulsive behaviors. Such concerns are valid, and are part of the learning cycle.

AR using computers is still an emerging technology which means that when it is applied in educational settings, it isn't known yet exactly what the whole picture is. Today’s AR is still early-stage and experimental so it would be premature to say definitively what its value is.

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