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Augmented Reality: Coming Soon to a School Near You?

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In “Dow Day,” an augmented reality game, middle school students walk the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus using mobile phones to view footage of Vietnam war protests that occurred in the same campus locations.
By Sarah Jackson

David Gagnon is talking to a group of educators about how to use mobile devices for learning. In his work as an instructional designer with the University of Wisconsin’s ENGAGE program, Gagnon has given this workshop many times. But these days, he says, things are starting to change.

“How many of you are currently using an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch?” Gagnon asks the teachers, who are participating in a webinar through ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education.

What happens next demonstrates how the availability of communications technology has grown exponentially in recent years: 89 percent of this group owns a mobile device, and they want to know how to use it in their classrooms.

“Two years ago, when we would do a workshop with 20 people, we would have to bring 10 devices. Now,” Gagnon says, “the 10 devices sit in the front of the room, and everyone pulls out their own. It’s just amazing.”

As schools’ acceptance of mobile tools such as smartphones and tablets becomes more widespread, educators are struggling with how to incorporate them into current teaching models. Experts say schools need to get beyond the technology cart—treating these tools as accessories that get wheeled in and wheeled out an hour later—and educators need guidance on how to change their teaching practices to take advantage of what mobile learning has to offer. Yet examples of what these new pedagogical models might look like are hard to come by.


Gagnon and his team may be able to help. As the minds behind Augmented Reality and Interactive Storytelling (ARIS), they’ve developed an open-source mobile learning platform educators can download onto an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to create place-based and narrative gaming activities that can be incorporated into classroom curriculum.

For example, Chris Holden, an assistant professor in the University Honors Program at the University of New Mexico, and Julie Sykes, an assistant professor of Hispanic linguistics, used ARIS to create the game “Mentira.” Designed to help Spanish-language students learn in a real-world context, players talk with real people and virtual characters while visiting the Los Griegos neighborhood in Albuquerque, where they must solve a fictional murder mystery based on current and historical events.

Playing "Dow Day."

In Oregon, Wisc., Heidi Pankratz and her students from the Oregon Middle School designed the “Henry Vilas Virus.” Using their phones, students go on a quest through the local zoo to help identify a mysterious virus that is plaguing the animals, while learning about local ecology and biology.

How is this possible? Thanks to technologies like GPS and QR codes, these games combine real-world experiences with virtual information. The games can capture geo-tagged audio recordings, for example, or photos and videos that student players can view when they reach a particular place or meet a particular character. Characters can talk with students, provide information, exchange items or respond to tasks. Authors can also create virtual items that players can retrieve and exchange.

The key is the ARIS platform, which enables teachers, designers, artists, and students to create place-based narratives. Game designers say the open-source platform is easy to use; educators don’t need a programming background to get started because the work is done with an online authoring tool.

When we first reported on ARIS in 2009, the developer community was small. Gagnon estimates that the number of users around the world has grown to more than 5,700 players and 2,000 authors. And he expects this number to double in the next six months.

The games that educators are developing, Gagnon says, have the potential to tell us a lot about the possibilities of mobile learning, and what works and what doesn’t when educators partner with technology. As he puts it, “We’re looking at this as a big distributed research question: ‘What in mobile learning might be amazing for education?’”

The Power of Place

Jim Mathews is a teacher at Middleton Alternative Senior High School in Middleton, Wisc., and a UW graduate student. As an ARIS designer, Mathews says he believes in the power of narrative and place to bring learning to life.

In 2009, Mathews created “Dow Day,” one of the first ARIS games. Players can walk the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus using iPhones to view footage of Vietnam War protests that occurred in the same campus locations. The students also learn how the press covered the war and how that colored the protests.

These location-based games, explains Matthews, allow kids to engage with their community in new and powerful ways.

Along with his high school colleagues, Mathews designed a game to teach students about the city of Middleton and urban planning principles. His students explored downtown Middleton using smartphones and tablets. They looked at photos of the downtown neighborhood from the past and “met” virtual characters from the city’s history. As part of the lesson, students were encouraged to gather images, videos and interviews to investigate elements of urban design, and learn how the city has changed over time in terms of density and housing. This also led them to examine the city’s transportation, architecture, and land use patterns.

Mathews said that placing students in a real-world community context helps them develop a broader understanding of the curriculum content—and create their own meaning.

Place-based learning, he said, leads game developers to ask: “How does this tool help us investigate place and help us tell stories about place? The value is not only in me telling my own personal story, but to understand what are the stories out there in the community, around ecological issues, contested issues, political issues.”

Mathews says he has seen how participation in the augmented reality game has changed how students view history and shifted their perspectives about their own community.

Of course, history teachers have known for a long time that real world experience can bring content to life. But what is it about the mobile tool makes this experience different? How does it change how teachers can teach?

Game designers say that as a narrative tool, ARIS is especially primed for helping educators create structures that allow students to go out into new environments, collect information, and then to aggregate, find patterns, and make meaning of that information.

Designed experiences, says Matthews, provide an “entry point” into neighborhoods. The games invite users to visit places they may not otherwise go, such as shopping at a local bodega without advanced Spanish language skills, or examining a neighborhood’s vacant lot for historical context, or interviewing residents they’ve never met.

“Mobile is, in that way, scaffolding,” he says. “The narrative helps students understand why they should care about collecting these data points. And hopefully that encourages them to do other stuff, to get a microscope and collect more data on their own.”

A middle school student in Wisconsin tests his new game.

Students As Designers

But there’s another, perhaps even more important way that this mobile design platform can facilitate complex learning. And that’s when students step into the role of designer.

Alice Leung, a teacher at Merrylands High School in Sydney, Australia, recently used ARIS with a group of students to design a tour of the school’s main landmarks for student orientation day. Leung divided students into teams—programmers, narrative writers, and media collectors—to take on different roles in the game’s development process. The students designed several quests, each containing items that players had to collect by scanning QR codes. The players exchanged the found items with a series of “guardians” in order to collect badges and win the game.

“For me, this experience is much more than making a game and playing a game on iPhones,” Leung wrote in a post on her blog. “Watching the students create the game has shown me how much young people can thrive when given a challenging task in a stimulating environment. Something that traditional classroom experiences can’t offer.”

The students, she adds, “had to constantly communicate with each other (face-to-face and on Edmodo) and complete their tasks according to a timeline, which was created by the students.”

Students developed literacy and teamwork skills, she writes, along with learning project management and problem solving.

Design Thinking, A 21st Century Skill

ARIS designers in Madison have held several “game design jams.” Game makers from around the world gather in-person and online for three-day game-making sessions to try out ARIS and to create their own games. At the 2011 ARIS Global Game Jam, middle and high school students joined in along with their teachers. More than 100 participants,  from four countries and 11 states, created 127 games. The team held a smaller event this past October, and more events are planned for later this year.

Matthews notes that students gain a lot from taking part in the process. “The rich area for kids is really designing,” he says. “Being part of community, play testing, learning about content, science, civics, social studies. It’s a really rich space where people move from players to designers and back. People are rallying around them and commenting on each other’s work.”

Games and learning scholar James Paul Gee has pointed to the collaborative skills students gain when they play and design their own online games. These skills are considered by many to be crucial for success in 21st-century work spaces.

“In the world of high-tech work, this is called a ‘cross-functional’ team,” Gee said recently. “If you go look at the new capitalism and the high-tech workplaces, they are almost all organized in cross-functional teams, which means every member of the team has to be an absolute expert but able to understand everybody else’s role, so they can integrate with it and even replace them if they’re gone.”

Similarly, in order to build a successful game using ARIS, Leong, the teacher from Sydney, and other educators say students must understand the testing phase, during which they solve problems and tackle debugging—isolating the issue causing the problem and figuring out how to solve it. This kind of systems-based thinking is hard to teach and yet crucial for today’s students to understand.

“There is so much learning that takes place in design,” Gagnon says, citing media editing, HTML coding, archival research, interviewing, and learning how to work with Arduino (an open-source tool that makes using electronics easier). Then there are the softer but no less important skills, like project management, teamwork,  and learning how to ask for and receive feedback from peers and mentors.

“Games design does not allow you to do one-draft wonders,” says Gagnon.


Feeling intimidated about using an augmented reality tool like ARIS? Don’t be! The ARIS team has a dynamic and active Google group, and designers make themselves available to answer questions. ARIS developers recommend starting small and not being afraid to jump right in and experiment. For more information, read this helpful intro by Jim Matthews: “How to Get Started Designing Mobile Games For Your Classroom.”

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