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'Augmented reality isn't just faddy. It reaches the students that textbooks alone don't reach'

Judy Bloxham, e-learning adviser at Jisc Regional Support Centre Northwest, writes:

In education, caution is taken whenever a new technology is heralded, with educators carefully considering its pedagogical benefits over its futuristic capabilities.  Augmented reality is no different. But as one of the most talked about technologies of the moment, do tablets, smart phones and augmented reality truly enhance learning, or are they simply the latest distractions?

The repurposing of education in the flipped classroom stands to benefit the most from the inexorable rise in tablets and smart phones; with more computing power in today’s smart phones than the average satellite, institutions that can exploit their potential may find that they can offer students more, for less.

Discussions about the benefits of mobile devices have true impact when further education teachers do more than take them at face value. It isn’t just about the device in the class, it’s about what else is out there to extend the potential that they offer.

This is where developments such as augmented reality could prove to be game changers.  Augmented reality has great potential in education to create active learning experiences and redefine the innovative learning space. Allowing users to unlock or create layers of digital information on top of the real life physical world, enhancing their sensory perception of the virtual environment they are interacting with, isn’t just faddy. It’s the Heineken effect: it reaches the students that textbooks alone don’t reach.

The ultimate aim of augmented reality is to create a system whereby the user is unable to tell the difference between the real world and its virtual augmentation. Not in a blue-screen sci-fi film way, but in a way that leads to a deeper understanding of the topic in question. Augmented reality doesn’t replace the textbook, it augments it.

It can be used to recreate events in history, transform regular books into 3D images, or present structures of the galaxy. It provides a more effective way to enable learners to access content, making this experience more entertaining and rewarding. Augmented reality is well aligned with constructive learning notions - students are able to control their own learning and manipulate the augmented environment to derive understanding and acquire knowledge.

Mobile augmented reality is about augmenting experiences in real world environments, wherever the learner is. Using phones and tablets fosters students’ mobility, geographical position and the physical place where learning can occur. It enables learners to take advantage of augmented reality resources on the go, at a time and place of their convenience.

For example, since September 2012 South Staffordshire College has used augmented reality to improve engagement and learning in bricklaying. The college created an augmented reality poster that allowed students to revisit the technique of cutting a brick in half and saw a staggering increase in the success rate for getting this right first time - 50 per cent to 100 per cent.

Other UK colleges using augmented reality include Myerscough College in Lancashire, where photography students are using the technology to bring their photos to life and explain the inspiration behind their work. At Reaseheath College in Cheshire, augmented reality is used to aid learning of plant identification in horticulture. 

The use of augmented reality in education, and particularly mobile learning, is still in its early years. However, provided it is harnessed properly, it enables educators to provide immersive, compelling learning experiences so that students can make sense of the world around them.

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