Apr 11 2007

Tech Watch I

Investigating ways to include augmented reality in today's classrooms.

Education in Hand
Investigating ways to include augmented reality in today’s classrooms.

When the bell rings, the eager eighth-grade science students pour out of the building with their handheld computers and gather around their teacher. The teacher explains that the day's lesson will require them to investigate the causes of a beached whale. As the students exchange quizzical looks, one of them asks, “Are we going on a field trip to the beach?” “No,” the teacher responds, “the beach is coming to us.”

She instructs them to turn on their Global-Positioning-System-enabled cellphones to begin the lesson. As they do so, digital characters and items begin to appear on their computer screens. Wandering across the playground, the students meet marine biologists and fishermen who provide data and information that help them solve the mystery of the beached whale. Nearing the water fountain, a video file of Orca whales hunting begins to play on the computers. A captain's log of sonar tests in the surrounding waters is revealed behind the swing sets. Across the once-familiar playground, students rush to discover multiple data points leading them down the path of scientific inquiry.

While the scenario described above may seem fantastic, scholars at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, MIT and the University of Wisconsin at Madison are currently exploring the feasibility of just such an instructional model. Using handheld computers and GPS receivers, the researchers have designed middle school math and literacy curricula that use augmented reality (AR) to deliver instruction.

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The simulations or games are played in a real physical space, such as a school playground, which is augmented with a layer of superimposed digital items, creating a learning environment that the students explore to solve various mysteries and problems.

As the students explore the area, their location is tracked through the GPS receiver and represented on a map displayed on their handheld computers' screens. Digital characters and items are also displayed on the map.

When the students walk near the area in which an item is located, transmissions from the GPS receiver to the software on the handheld trigger files to open. These files can be audio, video or text files and can present any imaginable content from physics equations to Latin roots.

As the students encounter the digital content, they must solve various math, science and literacy challenges to successfully navigate the environment and complete the immersive, collaborative simulation.

Opportunities and Challenges

With funding from a U.S. Department of Education Star School Program grant, the research team at the three collaborating universities is exploring numerous theoretical and practical questions to determine the strengths and weaknesses of augmented reality for teaching and learning.

While researchers at Harvard are investigating a site-independent model where students and teachers can walk out their school's back door, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison are investigating a site-dependent model where the simulation is rooted in a specific location, such as a local landmark, park, river or wetland. Both models need further study to determine how best to leverage this technology for enhanced student motivation and learning.

The research team is developing a variety of AR curricula, ranging from the realistic marine biology scenario described above to a more fantastic space alien-landing scenario. Currently, the research team is piloting these AR curricula in a limited number of local schools.

A recent pilot implementation at a Boston high school provided several important findings, which highlight the affordances of using augmented reality for instruction.

First, teachers and students reported and observers documented that the interactive and experiential nature of the AR curriculum was highly engaging. According to one of the participating teachers, the students were “a lot more engaged, a lot more involved” than she had previously observed.

What remains to be determined is how much of this engagement is a result of the novelty of the activity and how much is caused by the effective integration of this learning tool.

Second, the technology encouraged a high degree of student collaboration and teamwork, as each student was given unique pieces of information via the handheld that had to be combined with teammates' data to successfully solve the problems.

Preliminary work with the paper-based control curriculum the team is implementing in tandem suggests that replicating this level of interaction, collaboration and differentiation without the technology is prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. While handheld augmented reality teaching provided unique and powerful affordances, the challenges presented are significant as well.

In its current iteration, the program requires a high degree of logistical support and personnel onsite to ensure a successful implementation.

A related challenge is the obvious fact that this teaching model is hardware-dependent, with an optimal ratio of one handheld and one GPS receiver per student. A classroom set of handhelds and GPS units costs about $12,000, which is reasonable, but still out of reach for many high-need and underserved schools that would benefit most from this technology.

Next Steps

The current program uses handheld computers; however, GPS-enabled cellphones are the most likely platform for this instructional model in the near future. While student cellphone use is currently discouraged in schools, it is likely that eventually that stand will be reversed; these powerful tools will be leveraged to deliver instruction that uses augmented reality.

As is always the case, the importance of this work is not the technology itself, but rather what added value the pedagogy and content enabled by the technology bring to the learning environment. Augmented reality holds great promise for enhancing student learning, but we have a lot to learn. It is our challenge to explore how best we can leverage this emerging technology to better prepare students for the 21st century.

MATT DUNLEAVY is the Handheld Augmented Reality Project project director at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.


  • 65% of cellphone users aged 18 to 29 text message with their phone
  • 28% access the Internet
  • 47% play games on their phones

SOURCEs: 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project, Associated Press, AOL cell phone survey

In a one-day surprise raid last year, police seized 129 cellphones from students at a high school in Brooklyn, N.Y.