AR, VR and MR are abbreviations that are making their way into our everyday lives, like so many technical terms before them, which are now household terms, like TV, WWW and GPS. However, the borders between the three terms they represent are not always clear cut. They all share some common characteristics, like involving technological artefacts that are interactive in real-time and registered in 3D. One easy way to distinguish Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) is that AR combines real and virtual content whereas VR involves a total immersion of its user in simulated worlds, completely masking the real-world environment. Mixed Reality (MR) can be seen as an umbrella term covering everything in the reality-virtuality continuum, including AR and VR.
MR is used in many sectors, including education, entertainment and healthcare. Furthermore, the flexibility and affordability of the established AR tools makes it more conducive to educational uses than VR, which entails costly equipment. Nevertheless, we noticed that despite the increasing production of AR educational applications (AREAs), their actual usage in primary and secondary schools remains low, limiting the opportunity to unleash potential benefits of this burgeoning educational technology.
Another intriguing observation we made when looking deeper into the existing research (by performing a systematic literature review on AREAs) in the context of the ARETE project is that most existing studies focused on the quality and impact of AREAs from the learner perspective while neglecting the teacher one. We deem such an unbalanced approach puzzling, given that teachers play a crucial role in determining whether, which and how innovative educational technologies will be utilized in their teaching activities. Teachers can be key gatekeepers for introducing new technologies to learning environments; their related perceptions, experiences and opinions need to be identified, heeded and valued.
To address this identified shortcoming we were motivated to find out what teachers think about relevant aspects of deploying AR for education purposes based on their actual AR experience, enabling implications for future development of AREAs that meet their needs and preferences to be drawn. Consequently, we conducted a web-based survey with teachers in different European countries. From the responses different types of requirements for AREAs were identified, for example: AR apps should be flexible and allow customization; AR apps should be usable and learnable; School management should care about providing the appropriate infrastructure and hardware/equipment, including the Internet and mobile devices to run AR apps (tablets, smartphones), and ease regulatory constraints. Our findings also revealed several factors for the low uptake of AREAs. First, a critical obstacle is the unavailability of computing equipment and infrastructure owing to financial constraints. Second, a key bottlenecking hurdle is inadequate support for teachers, who are provided very little training on skills required to operate AREAs effectively or to adapt or create AR content to address specific pedagogical goals. Third, the lack of requisite knowledge and skills and thus confidence makes primary and secondary school teachers reluctant to introduce AREAs in their teaching.
Overall, the recent rapid and varied advances of AR renders it very challenging for people to keep abreast of its development. Specifically, it is necessary for teachers to analyse the educational values of AR in order to develop pedagogically robust use scenarios. For instance, holographic AR holds high promises for education and training, thanks to its ability to create a very strong immersive AR experience by producing a 3D stereoscopic viewpoint through a headset or head-mounted device (HMD). Holographic AR also supports hand-based gestural interaction, enabling natural user interface interactions and thus positive user experience. Nonetheless, none of the teacher participants in our survey mentioned that they had used holographic AR with HMD or intended to do so. A plausible explanation is that HMD and holographic equipment such as Hololens or smart glass is too expensive for regular schools to purchase. The vision about the widespread use of the emerging AR technologies in general education seems only realisable when the affordability issue can be resolved effectively, for instance, by private-public partnership between big technology companies and ministries of education. Optimistically speaking, with strong motivation of teachers to provide high-quality learning experiences for students and the coordinated efforts among the stakeholders in education sector, the vision can be fulfilled in the near future.
Effie Lai-Chong Law, Department of Computer Science, Durham University, UK
Matthias Heintz, School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences, University of Leicester, UK