AR is one of those edtech products that has received a lot of hype — primarily from AR-based companies themselves. We all know edtech is a burgeoning market, and the media and communication landscape is awash with case studies and press releases promoting one or other form of technology as “the one” for education.
In other instances the technology is breathlessly promoted, without very much rigour by way of hard facts. It is of course easy to be impressed by AR — it makes for great visuals, literally — students interact with “real life” as well as a digital overlay that encourages interaction and notionally better learning outcomes. Bloggers the world over have jumped on the bandwagon, often repeating the same tired case studies or specific AR products. How often have you read about the molecule example, the dinosaur example or the anatomy example?
For an edtech blogger I’m surprisingly, yet to my mind, necessarily cynical about technology. Our role as researchers and writers in this field is to avail teachers and parents with guideposts towards the best research, opinion and case studies around emerging education technology so that they — as the experts — can make informed decisions about the efficacy of the tools.
I think it is essential to question whether a digital, 3D floating molecule actually teachers better than a good old-fashioned model or image. To remind and console teachers that it may not be their responsibility to entertain, capture, stimulate and engage students almost constantly. Is it too much to ask that students arrest their smartphone obsession for the brief period of a lesson?
Because the reality is that the real-world of real work, achievement and research is not an endless loop of entertaining visuals; learning something is in fact quite hard work, and often a bit boring.
The real state of AR in education today
Great teachers know that students learn by doing. So the key question must be: how does AR enhance the critical learning component of examination, exploration and trial? With that in mind, I’ve unearthed a few sober-minded studies that dig slightly below the promotional AR surface to find out what the real state of AR is in education today.
Some researchers have found that adding technology to the educational mix, can lead not to stimulation but a feeling of overload.
“While AR offers new learning opportunities, it also creates new challenges for educators… For example, students in AR environments may be cognitively overloaded by the large amount of information they encounter, the multiple technological devices they are required to use, and the complex tasks they have to complete.”
This finding makes the point that any technological lens that is overlaid over an educational process must be carefully considered: does it in fact add to the immersion of the student in his or her subject, or does it add a layer of complexity that could easily be resolved with a simpler intervention such as a model, video or image.
Other studies have acknowledged that AR is immensely powerful when it comes to describing, in particular, abstract concepts such as those found in mathematics and computational science. It also happens to be true that higher education has found greater traction with AR than K-12, where highly complex abstract concepts are more readily required to be described.
It was found that environments that did not necessarily require high instructor engagement, yet a high volumes of conceptual data transfer such as medicine-driven information, AR played a significant role in bringing the necessary data “to life” in a way that was accessible and valuable to students.
An unsung hero of the AR environment is certainly its application in the education of special needs students. Immobility, hearing impairment, learning difficulties and more are reasonably well addressed when using an AR or even VR interfaces.
Enhancing a students physical or sensory access to the information, and the experience of experimentation and engagement, when the physical opportunities are limited, through the use of AR is undoubtedly a huge stride forward for special needs students.
Technology, specifically in the sensitive educational environment, must be rigorously considered. Learning, as any person who “hated school” will tell you, is not necessarily the outcome of many educational processes and environments.
There is absolutely every reason to continue exploring new ways to make learning more accessible, more resonant and more effective. However, technology is not the panacea.
The fundamentals must be in place first. The content must be well designed, well paced, and well tested. The time-to-outcomes ration must be scrutinized (is designing a 3D solar system in an AR widget for 9 hours, really an optimal use of a teacher's time?) and finally the application of any edtech must be in response to an actual measurable, pedagogic need.