The Latest Classroom Tech Still Needs a Teacher’s Creative Touch

Tech companies like Google and HP are working to bring the immersive worlds of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality 

External link  (AR) into the classroom.

While these new technologies are certainly impressive to behold, they do not produce authentic, standards-driven learning experiences on their own. It takes skilled educators to look beyond the flash to turn virtual experiences into actual learning opportunities.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a demonstration of Google’s latest Expeditions AR External link  offerings and left with some key takeaways about the future of immersive technology in the classroom.

Beware the pitfalls of showy tech

Oftentimes, educational technology is heralded as a futuristic panacea that will cure today’s classroom ills - a magical hybrid of student engagement, authenticity, and opportunity.

In reality, getting the most out of classroom technology so that it surpasses analog alternatives can be a tall order. Google’s Expeditions AR seems to be no exception.

Augmented reality uses camera-enabled digital devices to create the illusion of 3-D images appearing in the physical space. When students aim their devices at a QR code, they can see objects and animations appear on their screen that look as if they are in the physical space. Students must then physically move their devices (and themselves) to get different viewpoints and angles.

In the demonstrations I saw, students had the opportunity to explore a virtual model of the Roman colosseum, the planets in our solar system, a cross-section view of a tsunami, an erupting volcano, a swirling tornado, and even a giant flipping quarter(!?).

With a quick scan of a QR code, all of the models sprung to life on the students’ devices (Google-provided phones on selfie-sticks). There was no change in the actual room, but on the screens, these objects appeared to exist right in front of the students on their tables and desks.

There is no doubt students were impressed - the unmistakable laughter, “oohing” and ahhing” filled the rooms each session. However, within a few minutes, students were doing what you would expect. Some posed for mock pictures with the 3-D objects. Others tried to hide themselves perfectly inside the models. Still others wandered away from the devices altogether.

To be fair, in this demo teachers were only given a short introduction to the tech and the available options before putting the experience in front of students. That said, the experience exposed one of the major hurdles facing educational technology: teachers need the training and time to develop meaningful use cases.

So often schools budget for the exciting new tech, but neglect to budget for the training and planning that goes into using it. As a result, the technology gets misused in predictable ways:

Using tech to meet a nonexistent need

When teachers give into the temptation to use their tech tools as the solution to every pedagogical dilemma, it can quickly devolve into a “hammer searching for a nail.” Technology can do a lot of things; that doesn’t mean it is always the best option.

In the case of AR, giving students access to three-dimensional models of things they could not ordinarily see is powerful – identifying the retractable awnings of the Roman colosseum or witnessing cell division. However, the giant flipping quarter demonstration I saw brought nothing to the table that an actual coin wouldn’t have done better (and cheaper!).

More fiddling, less learning

Using technology effectively typically requires teachers to spend their own preparation time setting up, testing, and maintaining their digital tools. When, instead, this setup work happens during class, it eats into valuable instructional time and leads to disengaged students. Hiccups happen, but educators must be prepared to do everything they can to keep them behind the curtain. This requires training, willingness, and patience.

The Google AR demo went off largely without any technological hitches, but that was with a district tech coach and Google facilitator in the room. Teachers typically do not have such a luxury in their classrooms. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a teacher didn’t know the shortcuts and quick fixes to switch between models or solve app glitches on the spot.

Unequal student experiences

When students are in whole-group situations where they outnumber the available technology, the students who are hands-on have a much more engaging experience that those who are hands-off.

With the Google AR demonstration, there was definitely more student participation and on-task behavior from those with the devices in their hands than those being asked to look over a peer’s shoulder.

Move beyond the “wow” factor

To avoid these common classroom tech snares, technology must be paired with creative pedagogy. Based upon the demonstrations I saw, AR could be used to such ends.

Purposeful observation and descriptive writing

There is certain information that teachers have to provide for students because there are limited authentic alternatives. AR can allow students opportunities to get closer looks at animals, sculptures, architecture, and historical artifacts than would be possible otherwise. Teachers can turn these explorations into opportunities to hone observational skills or into the prompts for written reflections.

For instance, rather than telling students there are 23 pairs of chromosomes in a DNA strand, students can come to the conclusion on their own by observing a 3-D AR model. Instead of reading about Leonardo DaVinci’s inventions, students can make descriptive observations (in three dimensions) for themselves.

AR Scavenger hunts

Instead of students simply looking at model after model, teachers can provide purposeful exploration opportunities. For instance, instead of just looking at the planets one at a time, QR codes could be lined up on the floor reflecting the relative positions and distances of the planets from the sun. Students could then be given specific of features and examples to find and record (a planet with rings, the largest/smallest planet, planets that neighbor the asteroid belt, etc.). As an introductory lesson, the AR approach adds an extra layer of kinesthetic and visual-spatial learning that a reading or video can’t match.

Interactive classroom reference materials

Rather than making AR the focus of a lesson, incorporate it as a purposeful component of the classroom environment. Teachers can embed AR codes into classroom resources like posters External link , centers, and bulletin boards External link  as a way to create interactive supplemental material External link . When students approach these items with the appropriate app, the otherwise flat and static resource springs to life. This can be a great way to encourage students to interact with classroom references that might otherwise go untapped.

In each of these cases, AR isn’t the lesson in and of itself, but the technology allows students to have increased agency and perspective.

Augmented reality is definitely one of the next big things in classroom tech. As it becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it falls to teachers to grab the reigns to ensure it is used creatively, responsibly, and to maximum student benefit.