The Rise of Augmented eLearning

Picture this: Apprentice workers out in the field, doing training exercises, as notes and images relevant to the specific tasks they perform are flashed to them, live, via mobile or wearable devices. That’s learning. Augmented.

Reality Check

It’s happening already, made possible by the principles and technologies of augmented reality. AR, as it’s also known, is all about introducing digital context, as an additional layer to the real world.

Headsets, earpieces, touchscreens, and recognition software are used to display text, images, movies, and sound. Motion tracking and haptic sensors can gauge and interpret reactions, as users touch and manipulate real and virtual objects.

Advertising, retail, and the entertainment industry have all benefited. And the technique is becoming more pervasive, as mobile devices increase in speed and power.

Situation Report

For learning purposes, the location and context (time of day, temperature etc.) of a student is taken into account, to bring about “situated learning”. Information specifically relevant to their task and circumstances can be relayed to them, by the eLearning platform.

Training can be conducted anywhere, and students can pace and control their own learning experiences. Learners can use any of a range of mobile instruments (phones, tablets, phablets), and an increasing number of wearable devices, to which relevant apps can be downloaded from the eLearning system, or pre-coded in.

Much of the augmented learning experience derives from “geo-tagging”. Here, a GPS co-ordinate or geo-tag becomes the vessel for associating certain bits of information with a specific locale. AR rebadges this information as a course prompt, note, or label, which can be layered over the student’s point of view.

Fresh Perspectives

AR can be applied to textbooks and webpages, adding a 3-dimensional element to their traditional 2D display. These “AR books” are usually situated in front of a webcam, and receive digital input that can literally make words come to life.

Third-party software platforms let users create their own augmented learning scenarios, using Web browsers, in conjunction with GPS information. Links can be made to content which invites learners to interact.

By allowing real-world situations to be put into a new light by context-specific digital information, learners can make links between abstract concepts and more concrete applications.

Changing Roles

With so much of the path being guided by the learners themselves, the relationship between student and teacher becomes more fluid.

Augmented learning is location and event-driven, with new knowledge being gained as processes are worked through. For any given procedure, each individual will tackle it in his or her own way – even if it’s a standardised process. With each variation, there’s scope for instructors and supervisors to learn new tricks, by comparing and contrasting the work of their trainees.

Nuts and Bolts

As mentioned, much of the technology is already here, and educational applications are being developed, for it.

AR books can be produced using ZooBurst, a software package that provides tools for designing 3D markers that can be made to pop up over elements in textbooks or webpages. A corresponding desktop or mobile app lets users see these markers. Applications include animated manuals for technical processes, illustrated guides, and maps.

Google’s WordLens software can scan text and recognise words, which can then be translated and replaced with corresponding content in the language of whoever is using the device on which the app is installed. So, travellers and language students can “read” local language documents, menus, street signs, and other text as they make their way through different countries.

Virtual reality and 3D headsets like Google Glass and the Oculus Rift can add context-specific information in the form of notes, images, and audio-visual elements to museum tours and exhibitions. Used in conjunction with remote photography or full-blown modelling programs, they can generate walking tours of any kind of environment imaginable.

Cases of Note

AR learning simulations are particularly appropriate in training for high-risk jobs, like vital medical surgery, emergency services, and work in hazardous environments. Training exercises can be designed to be highly realistic, but the risks to the learners and their subjects (patients, a nuclear reactor, or whatever) are only virtual. And lessons can be repeated, so that students perfect their techniques, and approach problems from a variety of angles.

In 2012, Chinese researchers Hou and Wang examined the effects of augmented learning in training factory workers. They used a LEGO simulation to test the reactions of novice workers at an assembly plant. Results were compared with a control group using more traditional methods. It was found that AR promoted faster learning, and a greater level of satisfaction, among the trainees.

Similar results were observed at South Staffordshire College in 2012, when AR technology was added to a course in practical Bricklaying. Using an augmented learning demo which allowed users to revisit the task as often as they liked, success rates in manually cutting a brick in two jumped from 50% to 100%, for novices.

Other institutions have introduced AR into their course prospectuses, and curricula, to increase engagement among learners.

And the Future?

AR Standards for Open and Interoperable Augmented Reality Experiences is an umbrella body, set up to develop a single quality standard for AR operations in education. Work is ongoing, but promises to radically alter the educational landscape, as we know it.

Augmented elearning looks set to grow, and grow.

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