Augmented reality and NUIs may seem like sci-fi, but in some schools, the future is here.
When is a simple field trip a glimpse into the future?
In San Diego, a busload of third graders arrived at the city’s famous zoo for a visit recently. In each child’s hand was a smartphone. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but these inner-city kids are part of a unique program that uses emerging technology to add layers of interactive content to their field trips.
The kids were excited simply to see the animals, but inside the zoo their smartphones turned into tools that made the invisible visible.
Each child’s Android phone was loaded with customized augmented reality apps. When a child pointed the phone’s camera at a special target—the condor’s cage, for example—it triggered a custom-made 3D video to layer over what the students were actually watching.
In the animation, designed by an illustrator to the school’s specifications, the bird stalks, kills, and eats a rattlesnake. The video is able to do what the zoo exhibit cannot: bring students into the condor’s habitat to watch it hunt for food.
“Our unit was about animals in their habitats,” says Kitty Gabriel, technology specialist for School in the Park, which designed the zoo’s AR project. “Condors are carnivores, but how do you get across how the birds eat?” The 3D animation does just that. “In the animation, the bird flew down and ripped off a carcass. The kids swiped in to focus on the beak or on the bird’s sense of smell.”
Layering in Learning
Even if you haven’t yet heard of augmented reality, more than likely you’ve seen it in action. When you’ve watched football on TV, you’ve probably noticed the yellow line overlaid on the field to show how far the offensive team has to go to make a first down. That’s a simple use of augmented reality. And if you’ve seen The Terminator, you’ll recall the enhanced vision that helps Arnold Schwarzenegger spot his prey is an imitation of AR—digital data layered over an image of the real world. With Google Glass on the horizon, we’ll all have access to Terminator-style augmented eyesight.
There’s plenty of “wow” in technology like Google's glasses and AR contact lenses. Similarly, natural user interfaces (NUIs), which most people have been introduced to via Wii games, are impressive. It would seem that the educational potential for these technologies are vast. But what do they offer that goes beyond “wow” to “that’s really useful”?
Researchers say AR is four to five years away from being adopted in schools on a wide scale. The New Media Consortium’s 2012 Horizon Report makes the same prediction for NUI. While AR is common in gaming and sports, it is still relatively rare in the field of education, living up to its reputation as a late adopter.
Proponents say AR and NUI have the potential to revolutionize the Internet—and education along with it—by bringing the real world into the classroom, and vice versa. The technology has the potential to put students in the driver’s seat and engage them deeply in subject matter that they may have struggled with or been bored by in the past.
“The Internet is moving out of our computers and into the natural world around us,” says Vicki Davis, a technology teacher at Westwood Schools in Camilla, Georgia, and cofounder of Flat Classroom Projects (see sidebar). “It used to be that the Internet was a place we went to. Soon it’ll be something we wear all around us.”
From “The Matrix” to Google Glass
Augmented reality is the most recent iteration of virtual reality technology. Think of the early Nintendo games that incorporated eyepieces and head-mounted displays. Next came multiuser environments like Second Life.
Rather than leaving the real world behind, augmented reality incorporates it and digitally enhances it. No big helmets or special goggles are required. As the San Diego third graders found on their zoo trip, all students need is a smartphone loaded with a special app.
Early research shows that using AR increases students’ learning and motivation. Chris Dede, a professor of technology, innovation, and education at Harvard, has studied immersive technology for two decades. He has found that tools like virtual reality and AR have the potential to shorten the transfer time between learning content and being able to recall that knowledge in a different context.
“Imagine you’re learning to play tennis,” Dede says. “One way is to sit down in a classroom and have someone diagram on a chalkboard where you should be to hit the ball.” This type of passive learning is called “far transfer.” In contrast, learning by doing, “where you really experience the distance between you and the net and perhaps even hit the ball,” would be “near transfer.”
A flight simulator is an example of near transfer. Augmented reality is even nearer. Dede’s research team has developed two digital resources, called EcoMUVE and EcoMOBILE, that work together to blend in-class learning about a virtual pond with fieldwork at a real pond to help students solve a mystery about the pond’s fish population.
Ripples in the Pond
Allison Kugler teaches life science to seventh graders at William Diamond Middle School in Lexington, Massachusetts. This year, her students participated in a pilot of EcoMUVE and EcoMOBILE. Dede’s team from Harvard provided the software, mobile phones, and wireless network access and trained Kugler and her students to use the system. For two weeks, the seventh graders worked on computers in class, using EcoMUVE’s gamelike interface to study a pond ecosystem simulation. They learned to collect data on the water, weather, and animal population. One day, they discovered that many fish in the pond had died.
“The science concepts in middle school can get tough,” Kugler says. “This experience brought a level of comfort to difficult content because the kids are so familiar with technology.”
For another two weeks, Kugler’s students worked outdoors, at a real pond, using phones loaded with EcoMOBILE software. As they walked around the pond, viewing it through their phones, they encountered hot spots—or wireless beacons—that triggered video, audio, or text to pop up on the screen.
One hot spot triggered a mini-tutorial that walked them through the process of testing the quality of the real pond water. A window popped up asking students for the range of dissolved oxygen in the sample.
“We could have walked around outside and talked about how the atoms that are a part of water flow up a tree,” Kugler says, “but when you hold up the smartphone you can see it. It makes it easier for kids to visualize the concept. I could tell by their engagement that they were understanding what they were seeing and doing.”
Teachers as Learners
Kids love electronic devices, and they can usually figure out how to use them quickly. The same may not always be true for teachers. Even teachers who are up for trying something new may find it hard if they’re working alone.
Math teacher Johnny Kissko enjoyed playing games on his Xbox, and it occurred to him that it might have some teaching applications. In 2010, Kissko set up an Xbox and a projector screen in his classroom at Frenship High School in Wolfforth, Texas. A Microsoft Kinect sensor at the front of the room picked up student movements. He pushed all the desks out of the way and asked his students to measure their legs with a measuring tape.
“We tried to determine if leg length and total distance traveled represented a linear relationship,” he says. “Kinect tracked the students’ motions, facilitating in an innovative way to engage students.”
When students are immersed in a virtual world, Kissko says, they forget that it’s a virtual world. “The kids questioned the data far more than they would have if I’d given them word problems.
Kissko has since started an online community, KinectEDucation, where teachers can share ways to use Kinect technology in classrooms.
“If we can use these tools consistently, students would be more engaged in teaching,” he says. “It’s a unique way to balance traditional instruction with innovative technology.”