Augmented reality has not yet been broadly adopted into public education, despite its great potential of added benefits for students. But in showing their commitment to digitally transforming the teaching experience, schools are developing programs that add a new dimension of value to the educational experience.

Goldman Sachs, not particularly known for indulging in unrealistic tech fantasies, posits that augmented reality (AR) “has the potential to become a standard tool in education and could revolutionize the way in which students are taught, for both the K-12 segment and higher education.” The investment company projects that by 2025, 15 million users of educational AR will represent a $700 million market. Despite these promising numbers, however, AR is being adopted very slowly by perennially cash-strapped schools. A new survey by nonprofit group Project Tomorrow finds that only five percent of US teachers currently use augmented reality in education, although that figure is slightly higher with high school science teachers (nine percent) and computer science teachers (11 percent). While the combination of tight school budgets and untrained teachers are slowing the adoption of AR in the classroom, there are increasingly persuasive reasons to invest in the future of this nascent technology.

AR and Education: A Natural Partnership

Augmented reality, which creates a more detailed / virtually immersive experience of the real world, is naturally suited to the educational process. Providing interactive, three-dimensional information in response to the user’s inquiries, AR material reaches students regardless of personal learning style. It eliminates the confusion of translating information from two-dimensional formats into three-dimensional reality, and it provides simulation options that let students safely explore situations in which actual experimentation would be dangerous or impossible. The adaptable nature of this medium is as useful in a second-grade classroom as a medical school or an industrial training setting.

What is Augmented Reality in Education?

AR technology is new enough that educational researchers are only beginning to publish authoritative analyses of the specific benefits that the medium offers. One such analysis is presented by the University of Cologne, which conducted a systematic review of research to date on AR’s usefulness in education. These experts have identified some specific functions through which AR adds to the educational experience:

  • Discovery-based Learning: The user points a device at an object or setting that they want more information about.
  • Objects Modeling: Students can manipulate or create three-dimensional models and (in some cases) test out the models’ behavior under various circumstances.
  • AR Books: An extension of print media, AR books use special viewing devices to add interactive content and 3D media to enhance the text.
  • Skills Training: Augmented reality is already in place in many industrial and healthcare settings where real world skills must be acquired.
  • Gamification: Using the powerful attractant of video gaming technology, students can acquire knowledge through the rewards and excitement of game theory.

Given the conceptual benefits that AR has to offer, here are five current use cases in which those benefits are being realized:

1. Seeing Inside the Human Body

Education in health-related fields requires a clear understanding of the structure and function of the human body. No matter how good two-dimensional pictures are, they can’t convey the sensory experience of encountering the layered, three-dimensional anatomical reality of the human body. Up until now, students in healthcare fields have been relegated to learning from the occasional dissected cadaver, inert plastic 3-D models or direct interaction with patients. Each of these three methods has obvious drawbacks. Meanwhile, augmented reality technologies like Microsoft HoloLens allow a new, richly detailed immersive exploration of anatomical structures.

Making it Safe to Explore

“With HoloLens, you can see the muscles on top of the skeleton, all at the same time,” says Mark Griswold, a professor of radiology at Case Western Reserve University. The various anatomical systems can be made translucent with HoloLens, so that it’s easy to see where they fall within the body. “It’s a way of seeing it that you couldn’t do with an actual heart,” a student comments. He’s able to watch a 3D holograph of a beating heart and look inside it from all angles. The application even allows students to slice open a 3D model of a patient’s heart. The HoloLens “lets them have an experience where they can fail,” comments Dr. Neil Mehta, at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. “That would be the best way to learn, because we don’t allow people to fail too much in real-life medicine.”

2. Enhancing School Branding

One advantage to the fact that AR is still rare in college settings is that early adoption will demonstrate a commitment to being at the cutting edge of educational technology. AR can be used in a direct outreach to prospective students by creating an interactive experience when they visit the campus during their application process.

Times Higher Education highlights an example of students partnering with UK digital solutions provider Jisc to create an app that offers in-depth multi-media content when visitors to campus point their smartphones at a specific object.

Students’ Expectations Will Apply Pressure

Just as shopper expectations have become the major pressure point for retailers to streamline digital interactions, students who grow up immersed in technology will naturally expect to have that environment carry over into their schooling. In an era when students have become discerning consumers, schools can use augmented reality to remain competitive. The Speak Up Research Project for Digital Learning finds that 33 percent of students in grades six to eight see AR or VR as elements in their ideal school. Twenty-six percent of high school students expressed that same wish, while only 13 percent of teachers and 12 percent of principals currently agree. As younger cohorts of students spend more and more time wired up and connected, they will find it unnatural to spend an entire day without using digital learning options.

3. Creating Educational Materials

Organizations can use an authoring tool created by WorkLink and HoloLens to create holographic instructional materials without needing any prior coding knowledge. This opens up the opportunity for any school or training program to use AR. Whether students are in a workplace, laboratory or classroom setting, they can receive instruction that is animated, immersive and three-dimensional.

Other apps also offer educators the chance to create their own curriculum materials. Curated collections of AR apps are being shared on educational sites, and teachers are rapidly gaining the confidence to use them. Augment is one such educational app that works as a tool in the classroom. Teachers can create scannable handouts, and students can generate 3D models to show their understanding of a topic. The platform is used in 86 countries, and over 9000 student-created models have been uploaded so far. Aurasma is another example of a flexible AR teaching tool. The app enables users to easily create their own “auras” and then share them. Teachers report finding many uses for this app; one third-grade teacher writing on Edshelf reports that he is able to “overlay mini-lessons on homework and bring learning to life.”

4. Materializing Abstract Concepts

The field of engineering demands the translation of design concepts into real world objects. According to Engineering.com, AR holds enormous promise for the profession. The article notes, “One of the main advantages AR brings to CAD is the ability to show a design that exists solely inside of your computer’s design software, as it is meant to appear in the real world.” Alex Mackman, technical director of AR app developer Agylia, made this statement at a recent conference: “Imagine if you could look at a complex piece of equipment and information was then overlaid [on] that image… Many of our engineering clients are getting quite excited about AR.”

The “Smart Instructions” feature of HoloLens is ideally suited for training people in complex, multi-step tasks because it visually leads them through a context-based three-dimensional experience. Harvard Business Review profiles a GE technical worker as he uses an AR headset to learn how to rewire a wind turbine’s control box. The AR training allows him to complete the task 34% faster than traditional training methods. This technology enables first-time workers to confidently embark on building or repairing an item, and it saves organizations money by reducing the necessary training time needed.

5. Displaying Student Achievements

Particularly at the secondary and university levels, students experience the need to demonstrate the depth of their learning beyond what mere transcripts can convey. Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK has launched a pilot project in which graduate students create AR postcards as part of their CV for future employment applications. Using the Aurasma app, these students were able to highlight their skills as well as engage prospective students at an “Open Day” hosted by the university.

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology uses Augment’s AR platform to showcase student work at its Vietnam campus. One student in the education department created his own AR app, entitled “Historium,” to provide an engaging experience for school children to learn about their country’s history. Another student has developed AR-based flash cards to teach vocabulary and spelling to children with dyslexia. These projects show the quality of thought in these future educators, while also being useful tools for teaching children.

The German researchers who exhaustively analyzed AR in educational settings enumerated its benefits: student motivation, concentration, attention and satisfaction are increased; collaborative and student-centered learning opportunities are enhanced; the learning curve becomes shorter, spatial ability and creativity are deepened, memory is improved and instructional costs are decreased. Although most schools have yet to embrace the stunning promise of augmented reality technology, we are clearly about to witness a digital transformation in the fundamental nature of teaching and learning.