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Augmented Reality Technology Brings Learning to Life

A study looks at the power of technology to recapture the attention of middle and high school students
woman wearing augmented reality glasses

When middle school students describe something they did in school as "cool," "exciting,"  and "fun," educators who are more accustomed to hearing "Why are we learning this?" tend to sit up and take notice. Over the past several years, Professor Chris Dede and postdoctoral fellow Patrick O'Shea have been pursuing the U.S. Department of Education Star Schools-funded research that, in its early stages, seems to be capturing the imaginations of teachers and students alike. The project  which was conducted in collaboration with research assistants Catherine "Sam" Johnston, Ed.M.'04, Ed.D.'09; Rebecca Mitchell, Ed.D.'09; and former postdoctoral associate Matt Dunleavy  leveraged the power and panache of handheld technologies to enhance middle schoolers' engagement in learning. For under-resourced schools, it also holds promise for addressing equity concerns when it comes to technology-based learning.

Dede has been studying immersive technology and issues at the juncture of science, education, and technology for more than three decades, working with students from public schools, the military, higher education, and the corporate world. O'Shea's doctorate is in urban studies, with an educational technology focus. Collaborating with colleagues from MIT and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the two are completing analysis of a learning exercise they designed to use augmented reality (AR)  real world activities with a superimposed virtual simulation  as an instructional tool both to build middle-schoolers' math and language arts skills and to spark excitement about learning.

"Most kids at this age tend to become disengaged from learning," Dede said. "Technology gives us a way to recapture their attention. Also, many of them think academic subjects are abstract and have little to do with the world around them. Giving them an assignment that takes them out in their own neighborhoods immediately establishes the relevance of their task."

The team developed two exercises for the purpose of formative evaluation. Alien Contact!, the first exercise, took place during the 2006-2007 academic year and involved students and teachers from two middle schools and one high school in the Boston area. Outfitted with cell phones and GPS-enabled, handheld computers, students at each school were directed to nearby locations to interview virtual characters and inspect digital items related to a mysterious alien invasion. Working through math and literacy problems enabled students to determine why the aliens had landed. Using the same technology, but incorporating lessons learned from Alien Contact!, the team tested a second curriculum in 2008. Gray Anatomy asked participants to solve the mystery of why a gray whale had beached itself nearby. In both exercises, students worked in groups, and each student in the group was assigned a unique role and received different clues or questions to answer. Assembling the pieces of the puzzle required not just factual knowledge, but also effective communication and collaboration.

Learning from Aliens

"In terms of designing an augmented reality curriculum," said O'Shea, "we were learning by doing. When you don't have a blueprint, some things work well, but you also get a few surprises." One unintended outcome in Alien Contact! was the extent to which the groups viewed the exercise as a race to finish first among the different student groups. "Competition isn't necessarily bad," said O'Shea, "but we had to choose whether we should leverage or short-circuit it." In Gray Anatomy, the team decided on a curriculum with a less linear path. "Gateway characters opened up many other characters that could be engaged in any order," O'Shea said, "so there was much less chance that students would be able to tell whether they were ahead or behind by looking at other groups' positions."

In a related issue, curriculum developers noticed that students in the first version of Alien Contact! were experiencing cognitive overload. "They were rushing through and accomplishing all the required interactions in the 50-minute timeframe, but they really didn't have time to process the information they received," said O'Shea. In a revised version of Alien Contact! and in Gray Anatomy, the team capped the number of interactions in each session at six.

Both Dede and O'Shea agreed that curriculum development — not technology  is the key to augmented reality's potential as a teaching tool. "If you don't design a sound curriculum, then it doesn't matter how good the technology is," O'Shea said. "The novelty will wear off eventually, and you're back to square one."

Dede said he tries to avoid thinking about technology "as a solution looking for a problem."

"I look at problems in education that are persistent and challenging," he said, "and work my way back to the kinds of pedagogy, content, assessment, teacher professional development, parental input, and other variables involved to see if there might be a way that technology could make a difference."

Determining AR's Potential

To see if AR can make a difference, Dede's team tested students' math and language-arts skills before and after they worked with the technology. Students were also tested with an affect survey instrument before and after the exercise, and results were compared with students who participated in a board game version of the AR assignment.

The testing revealed no statistically significant differences in subject mastery between participants in the AR exercise and those in a control group who completed a board game version of the assignment. However, videotapes of the exercise and student comments show that the technology is highly effective at capturing students' imaginations. Looking back on the experience, one student noted, "The handheld was cool. We got to learn math and English not in the classroom but outside with the handhelds. It made it more fun . . ." Another student remarked, "Using the handhelds was pretty fun. It was new . . . nothing (like) we really do in school . . . exciting."

"We've established that the technology is very good for engaging students and for encouraging collaboration, but I don't think we've shown learning gains that demonstrate this is clearly the way to go," said Dede, who emphasizes that he isn't surprised by the lack of measurable gains. "We're learning how to create this kind of curriculum, and the teachers are learning how to teach it. It's going to take a few more generations of design before we see the true potential for learning gains."

O'Shea underscored the challenge to teachers, who must master the technology themselves, trust students to use technology in a new way, and then manage the process. "That last piece isn't easy," he said. "For example, when we changed the format so that students in Gray Anatomy were following a more random trajectory than in Alien Contact!, it became much more difficult for teachers to gauge students' focus and progress."

The Future of Technology and Teaching

Dede believes that rapid improvements in technology will hasten teachers' ability to work with AR and other technologically based learning tools. "When we ran our AR exercises, the technology wasn't robust enough to support the curriculum without numerous glitches, especially with the GPS interface. Now, with iPhones, the Google Android, and other 'smart' phones, companies have already made this platform a more powerful tool." While the technology provides motivation, information, and experience, Dede said teachers belong "at the center" of AR learning, because "students will always need guidance from someone who is skilled at interpreting data and disentangling complicated situations."

Within five years, he predicted, "Every kid, even in underserved populations, will have a cell phone, and schools that are now asking parents to invest in laptops will be realizing there may be cheaper ways of accomplishing the same objectives." As funding for his current AR research winds down, Dede is talking to a number of cell phone and wireless companies to find a partner for a study using the next generation of this technology.

"We need to keep looking for ways to take advantage of this technology," Dede said. "One approach might be in school as part of an AR curriculum, but even more powerful would be outside of school. Kids could use cell phones to collect data from their communities for a social studies project, at the mall to understand something about economics, at a museum to get more background on an exhibit, or at a cemetery to get a better grasp on history."

O'Shea offered a scenario where students themselves might design an exercise that would require classmates to explore and answer questions about local historic sites, such as the Freedom Trail. "If you could reach kids who may be at high risk of dropping out and engage them in learning in the physical environment in a meaningful way, that would be using technology to serve an important purpose," he said. "We're not trying to replace learning with gaming. Our emphasis is on recognizing and leveraging the things that motivate students to make higher-level connections. If we don't, as technology advances around us, students in school will zone out very quickly."

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