Augmented reality is a buzzword at the moment and the commercial world is already running full steam ahead with the technology. With that in mind, Judy Bloxham, eLearning Advisor, Jisc RSC Northwest, explores how augmented reality is making a difference to the learning process.

Technology is used in the learning process as a way of enhancing existing materials and teaching methods, in a bid to engage learners and deepen understanding. Augmented reality provides an opportunity to present learning material in an entirely new and exciting way, enabling the creation of tasks that have previously been inconceivable.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality (AR) is all about combining the digital world with the physical one and therefore augmenting the real world experience. It brings the real and virtual worlds closer together by adding graphics and sound to what the user is experiencing.

The technology is already being used widely in the commercial world, from the automotive industry, gaming, retail and with wearable technology as demonstrated by the Google Glass project. While still in its early stages, AR is being increasingly used to bring learning to life. AR is becoming more sophisticated and is being applied to more diverse contexts.

Early examples of AR included quick reference (QR) codes, which include short pieces of information via digitised links. More recently, platforms that allow people to easily create their own AR experiences have been developed that make use of visual browsers, GPS, or a combination of the two. By using the camera on a smart device, it’s possible to retrieve AR content via images or by location.

How does this fit into learning?

The possibilities for learning are endless. By overlaying digitised information onto real-world situations, AR can help explain abstract concepts by linking tangible real-life environments. The proliferation of smart devices in universities and colleges means that students have ready access to tools that can harness and present learning content via AR. In learning situations, this is particularly useful when students don’t have first-hand experience: it’s the next best thing to the real experience.

For example, overlaying historical data on a particular site can bring key historic events, which may have happened hundreds of years ago, to life for students. It goes beyond showing students a video or a reconstruction; this data can be projected in relation to its real-world context, so the learning experience is integrated and seamless.

Tasks AR has enabled

The key benefit is that AR delivers learning at the point of need, so that learners don’t have to go and log onto a computer; the digital content is there when they want it. This is particularly useful for more vocational degrees such as medicine, geology and engineering or further education courses such as hairdressing, bricklaying or mechanical engineering.

It means that students can instantly access practical digital content from their devices, while they are learning.

AR is really gaining traction and universities and colleges are starting to use it to implement ground-breaking and innovative projects, aimed at improving the student experience.

At Manchester Metropolitan University, for example, it found that on open days, a lot of students were attending to get financial information. The university decided to record a message that they attached to a postcard, which they gave to students and parents.

It was an efficient way of coping with demand for the same sort of information and enabled students and parents to go home and watch the information in their own time before making a decision. Out of the 200 students who took away the postcard, only three complained that they didn’t have a device to view it. That small sample highlights how the prevalence of student devices means that AR is a viable technology across learning institutions.

Another example of AR use is the Jisc-sponsored SCARLET project, which was delivered by Mimas, based at the University of Manchester. The project enabled students to simultaneously experience original medieval manuscripts while enhancing the learning experience by surrounding the object with digitised content, images, texts, online learning and resources.

While viewing an object first-hand, students could use AR markers and/or location-specific triggers to access supporting materials via mobile devices to help them interpret and contextualise the object, to turn the page of a digital facsimile, zooming into details invisible to the naked eye and to hear a text spoken in Middle English.

Having access to original material coupled with digitally rich supporting material, really helps to inspire students and prepare them for solo research.

How viable is AR now?

AR is still in its infancy, but it won’t remain a fringe activity for long. More and more institutions are understanding the key learning benefits to implementing this in education. If it becomes embedded in the world around us the way QR codes have, then it will fit in more with education. The biggest drawback is the number of platforms available and identifying which platform you need to make use of.

However, there are now are at least three free and easy interfaces to choose from. This will make AR much more viable on the creation side, which in turn will see its use increase. The commercial world is already leading with AR and I think colleges and universities can already see the practical learning benefits of developments such as Google Glass.

For example, wearable technology can be used in automotive courses, providing step-by-step instructions on carrying out car repairs; almost a crib sheet approach. The biggest barrier at the moment is the cost. However, as with all new technology inventions, it will reach a point where cheaper imitations will enter the market and the overall cost of the technology will come down.

At that point I envisage AR becoming very much embedded in the teaching and learning process.