With Augmented Reality, Students Developing a ‘New Way to Learn’

Posted: April 4, 2011 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: April 1, 2011 at 10:30 am

By Jason Jacks

Professor Brenda Bannan discusses team projects with her class. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“Augmented Reality” sounds like a pilot for a Syfy channel television series. But while the technology behind what is known in scientific circles as AR is certainly state of the art, its potential as a valuable tool for educators is far from science fiction.

In Brenda Bannan’s graduate-level classes, EDIT 732 (Analysis and Design of Technology-Based Learning Environments) and EDIT 752 (Design and Implementation of Technology-Based Learning Environments), students are learning and developing new teaching aids that incorporate computer and smartphone technology to layer information over views of the real world. The concept is known as augmented reality.

“It’s a fascinating technology,” says Bannan, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Instructional Technology Program. “And it’s very new to education and training.”

It also gets the students out of the classroom and into the field, according to Bannan.

Last fall, one team of her students worked with a seventh-grade history class in Richmond to design a prototype for a smartphone application that would allow users to point their phone at an historical structure to prompt a tutorial.

Two other groups designed AR teaching aids for science students. One uses “digital markers” to allow geometry students to view 3-D geometric images on a computer monitor. The other, which was designed with homeschoolers in mind, employs cameras and markers to mimic chemical experiments on a computer.

Augmented reality as a teaching and training tool is now only scratching the surface, according to Bannan. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Meanwhile, a fourth team designed an app that could be used by visitors to the Mount Vernon Estate. According to group member Jane Scharankov, a doctoral candidate studying educational and instructional technology, the idea arose when it was learned that classmate Debbie Baker, a fellow education doctoral student who works at Mount Vernon, would also be on the team.

“Within five minutes of finding out which group we were assigned to,” Scharankov explains, “we all thought of the same thing at nearly the same time, and looked across the classroom at Debbie…what a perfect app for the estate.”

Much like the group that developed the history class app, the Mount Vernon prototype would allow visitors to the estate to turn their smartphones or iPads into handheld tour guides by bringing up descriptions — resplendent with colorful graphics, photos and animations — of what they were seeing.

The reaction of Mount Vernon officials who have seen the design has been enthusiastic so far, according to the group. The team plans to reveal an enhanced version of their design this semester. If estate officials like what they see, a functional version of the app could be programmed in the future.

“AR’s potential for education is profound because it offers the ability to combine mobile multimedia information and communication streams that interact with your current physical environment,” says Scharankov, speaking for the group. She adds that development time, cost and complexity and design challenges of creating an interface that’s intuitive and fun to use still need to be addressed.

By infusing AR with education, Bannan says each of her groups’ designs give students — or tourists in Mount Vernon’s case — “a new way to learn.”

“The idea is to leverage the technology for the benefit of education and training,” she points out. “This has an amazing potential to promote different views for education.”

While much of the design work was done in the fall, students are now testing the practicality of their prototypes by getting feedback on their creations from potential users.

Widely used in other industries such as gaming and health care, AR as a teaching and training tool is now only scratching the surface, according to Bannan.

“I think we are in the midst of an interface revolution,” she says.

This summer, from June 7 to 9, Mason and the Instructional Technology Program will host the seventh annual Innovations in e-Learning Symposium, which will include lectures on AR technology.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu