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Danger AR signs

Posted on: March 29, 2017

I read newspaper articles like Augmented Reality in the classroom: Move over, Pokemon Go, it’s time for science class, with an open mind and fingers crossed.

Unfortunately, I tend to arrive at the last paragraph with my head shaking and fists clenched. The newspaper seeks to inform, but it merely sells an old building coated with new paint instead.

If my rant below is TL;DR, then my objections to such news reports are simply that:

  • The rhetoric of technology inclusion rarely goes beyond engagement and consumption.
  • The focus is still the novelty and sporadic use, instead of its effectiveness and long-term integration.
  • There is no mention of how the teacher or teaching changes as a result.

The engagement rhetoric
Ask “Why use AR?” and a commonly sought answer from teachers is this: Students “are drawn in by the animation and sound effects”. This reinforces the rhetoric and practice of playing the engagement game.

This game can be summarised as follows:

  • The school or teacher provides something new and shiny to the students.
  • The students are interested and hopefully they learn something while the teacher or app has their attention.
  • The same curriculum is delivered in a different way.

To be fair, you must have a learner’s attention first. Basic cognitive science and research tells us that stimuli must register in the senses and that working memory must be activated.

However, engagement is insufficient for working memory to work with long-term memory. The video below summarises several chapters on introductory cognition.

Video source

A learner must take ownership and be empowered in order to make meaning of content in context.

It is not just what the teacher or school provides like a generous handout, it is more about what learners may already own, e.g., their phones. It is not just about trying to hook them with interesting phenomena, it is also about empowering them to solve problems that are real to them.

Novelty over efficacy
Meaningful and powerful technology integration is not driven by novelty nor is it used sporadically like the way most of the AR apps were described in the article, e.g., dinosaur layers over reality.

Ideally, the technologies are instruments that are used constantly, and when called upon, should be used to problem-seek, problem-solve, or create.

Far too many apps-mediated interventions focus on providing content as novelty to be consumed quickly. In 2011, I called this sort of consumption akin to eating Maggi mee: It is fast to cook, but it is not good to eat all the time.

Furthermore, developing such apps does not come cheap. The article reported this:

According to Mr Y.T. Ho, 52, director of local technology company Dante Technologies, the cost required to create augmented reality products can range from US$30,000 (S$42,000) to more than US$500,000, depending on the complexity of the effects.

The article did not highlight obvious costs like the AR devices or the hidden costs like maintenance and updates. The obvious costs are upfront and might be softened by BYOD; the latter are a long lizard tail that that leaders and administrators quickly drop when alarmed.

These early attempts and pilot programmes might not have any results to show. But any stakeholder should be asking for vendors and schools to justify the financial cost and learning efficacy.

No mention of pedagogy or context
One AR vendor made this claim:

Our apps are conceptualised with teachers and iterated multiple times to achieve the desired learning outcome.

The focus of such cooperation is largely on content. Why? The vendor typically has the technology expertise while the school has content experts.

Newspaper reports like the one I am critiquing and edtech vendors in general do not seem to focus on pedagogy and how it must change in tandem.

Perhaps the problem is that reporting how teachers change their behaviours is difficult or even boring. Who wants to read about how a teacher knows how to put into play the principles of constructionism in one context and social constructivism in another? You might have nodded off halfway through that last sentence, but look, here is a shiny and new AR toy. Whee!

It is easier for newspapers and vendors to focus on the technology and content than on the pedagogy and context. However, it is the latter two that are key drivers of change.

I would like to see newspapers tackle more critical messages in educational AR. For example:

  • Why do powerful and more meaningful integration lie in creation, not consumption? How might this link to coding and computational thinking?
  • The article also mentioned the Indian Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum, and Trick Eye Museum jumping on the AR bandwagon. Why do AR applications have impactful but limited use in contexts like museums or games?
  • What are the various forms of AR? How might they be incorporated in meaningful and powerful ways instead of relatively superficial ones?

One video journalists, vendors, and educators might draw inspiration and reflection on is this one.

Video source
The video is a simulation of possibilities. Some are AR, some are not. Some are already possible, others might be in development. While the video is a creative effort, it should be balanced with critical realities and educational principles.

AR is not new, but the timing might be right to try something new. By all means do that. If we are to try something different, let us also do something better. Let us not dwell on the rhetoric of engagement, the novelty of use, and focus on the technology. Instead we could focus on empowerment, efficacy, and changes in pedagogy.

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