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The Immersive Future of Education Technology: Exploring Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality in the Classroom

The Immersive Future of Education Technology: Exploring Augmented, Virtual, and Mixed Reality in the Classroom

Have you read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline? I listened to the audio book on a long drive last winter. I ended up sitting in my car in the driveway listening to the ending, I was so engrossed. The story takes place in a not-too-distant future where video gaming and real life overlap. In the first few pages (no spoilers, I promise) the main character goes on a high school ‘field trip’ to see the pyramids being built and watches as centuries pass and time wears them down—all without leaving the confines of his virtual classroom. 

Ok, this is not the entirety of the story—in fact it was cut out of the movie version—but as a former educator, it was a mind-blowing paragraph in the book. Can you imagine the sheer potential for powerful, engaging experiences a future like this could bring? I was onboard with the idea of virtual reality right away, but with my eyes opened to the possibilities, I needed to understand more about where we’re actually at and what the timeline actually might be for exploring the pyramids without the crowds.

So, I began to explore with an eye toward classroom application. I quickly learned that extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term that encompasses all real and virtual environments, including augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR), all of which are terms that are beginning to play into our educational vocabulary. We’re still far from the world described in Ready Player One, where the gaming world acts as a parent, school, and moral compass (and that’s probably a good thing), but we are seeing more and more opportunity to engage students in immersive, technology-powered environments. Read on to learn more about what these technologies are and how they can be put to use in the classroom.

Where We’re At Now: Augmented Reality (AR)

Let’s talk augmented reality first (AR). In this medium, we see digital elements added to a live view. Oftentimes, this is done by using the camera on a smartphone, making the technology very accessible. AR let us see the real-life environment right in front of us—trees swaying in the park, dogs chasing balls, kids playing soccer—with a digital augmentation overlaid on it. For example, a pterodactyl might be seen landing in the trees, the dogs could be mingling with their cartoon counterparts, or the kids could be seen kicking the ball past an alien spacecraft on their way to score a goal. Of all the forms of XR, AR is probably the version you are most familiar with. It shows up frequently in our daily lives right now, including these examples:

  • Snapchat uses augmented reality to layer filters (like the ‘Puppy’ or ‘Bear’ faces) on selfies
  • Enhanced navigation systems use augmented reality to superimpose a route over the live view of the road.
  • During football games, broadcasters use AR to draw lines on the field to illustrate and analyze plays.
  • Furniture and housewares giant IKEA offers an AR app (called IKEA Place) that lets you see how a piece of furniture will look and fit in your space.
  • Military fighter pilots see an AR projection of their altitude, speed, and other data on their helmet visor, which means they don’t need to waste focus by glancing down to see them.
  • Neurosurgeons sometimes use an AR projection of a 3-D brain to aid them in surgeries.
  • At historical sites like Pompeii in Italy, AR can project views of ancient civilizations over today’s ruins, bringing the past to life.

These uses may not be quite on par with watching the pyramids built on an immersive virtual class fieldtrip, but they’re a start. So, how can the AR technology we currently have be applied in the classroom? There are several feasible approaches, but some are a bit more reasonable than others. 

Wearable AR glasses or ‘smart glasses’ are glasses that add information or digital content to the view the wearer sees. But, as cool as that sounds, these devices are beyond most classroom budgets at $1,000-$5,000 per pair. Maybe one day, but not as of right now. The good news is that smartphone-powered AR has been made accessible for mass consumption through apps. Use cases vary widely, but in essence, most of these apps rely on the user to simply direct the camera on their smartphone at an object in the real world environment and the AR app will overlay content such as an image, animation, or data that the user can see. Here are some examples of cool and free apps with classroom applications to get you started, but a Google search will yield a wealth of additional options:

  • Just a Line (Android, iOS: Free)—Imagine project-based assessments plus community- and peer-driven projects to engage students in their own learning
  • Google Lens (Android, iOS: Free)—This app can be used to easily build outstanding treasure hunt activities
  • GeoGuessr (Android, iOS: Free)—Become a world traveler and explore fascinating locations around the world with a fun guessing game
  • Civilisations AR (Android, iOS: Free)—An offshoot of the BBC’s Civilisations documentary series, this app brings iconic and obscure artifacts from historic civilizations to life

The Next Frontier: Virtual Reality (VR)

Virtual Reality, which is much closer to the world of Ready Player One, implies a complete immersion experience that shuts out the physical world. Users can be transported into a number of real and imagined environments, like the middle of a squawking penguin colony or even the back of a dragon. This is the stuff of movies—it’s not part of our day-to-day lives, but it’s closer than you might think. As of now, VR commonly takes one of three forms:

  • Tethered VR is the most popular format, and it is closest to that futuristic, immersive vision of VR books and movies have given us—powerful computer turned on, headset in place, and light saber at the ready. Today, this format finds applications for intensive (and expensive) gaming, but when it comes to instruction in the classroom, well, it might make sense to look at other tools.
  • Stand Alone Headsets are similar to tethered VR, but don’t require connection to a PC. These devices (like the Oculus) are generally more affordable than tethered set ups, but still, not necessarily a great classroom tool.
  • Smart Phone VR- Mobile virtual reality through smartphone headsets has allowed many users to have their first VR experience. Content and performance for these devices (especially in terms of screen resolution and battery life) has not caught up to offer meaningful classroom experiences yet. However, the variety of devices available and affordable price range, combined with the number of students who already own smartphones, means this category of VR has the most potential for the classroom.

With VR, we are truly talking next frontier. I can see a classroom with these tools in it—classroom sets of VR headsets or tethered lab stations so that students can take advantage of fully immersive experiences—but not yet. We still need to produce content that will be of true value in the classroom instead of being a gimmick.

Looking to the Future: Mixed Reality (MR)

In a mixed reality (MR) experience, which combines elements of both AR and VR, real-world and digital objects interact. Mixed reality technology is just now starting to take off with Microsoft’s HoloLens one of the most notable early mixed reality apparatuses.

With MR, we are talking about truly cutting-edge technology—an example of where human imagination is moving more quickly than technology development can keep up. The field is fascinating, and the possibilities are incredibly intriguing, but for now, this technology will remain closer to the world of sci fi than the reality of the classroom. 

Did you know that Edmentum has begun to explore augmented reality technology in our digital curriculum? I have had the chance to play with some of the AR Edmentum is developing for release in our English 9 course this fall and I’m just as on board as I was after finishing up Ready Player One. I am so excited for the students who will have the opportunity to hold priceless works of art and turn them over, as well as watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly, while it sits on their desk. It’s a pretty cool sci-fi future we’re creating, and I can’t wait to see where our learners take it.