Planning Learning Environment with Augmented Reality (AR)

John Dewey, an American philosopher theorized that learning should be relevant and practical, not just passive and theoretical. Modern day school has often been criticized as being an island outside of society, educating theoretical knowledge with a little contextual connections in real world. While in recent years advances in educational technology have produced e.g. simulations and virtual worlds that have narrowed the gap between the ”two worlds”, so far the use of these technologies have required hardware that is not usually commonly available in schools.

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Today, things are changing. According to Wikipedia, Augmented Reality (AR) is an interactive experience of a real-world environment whereby the objects that reside in the real world are “augmented” by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple sensory modalities. Augmented reality combined with the use of smart phones or mobile devices enables users to combine 3D modeled objects into a physical world with an augmented reality application. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which creates a totally artificial environment, AR integrates digital information with the user’s environment in real time.

There is a huge potential of combining AR and smartphones for education and some of it has already been realized into applications: you can e.g. interact with 3D modeled human organs, perform a virtual practice, combine different chemical elements to see how they react or turn mathematical concepts into 3D models for easier understanding.

Even though AR is making its way into education, AR applications that offer pedagogical framework in addition to the actual application are rare. The city of Kaarina in Finland applied and received funding from the Finnish National Board of Education to a project called PLEAR (Planning Learning Environment with Augmented Reality) in which students and teachers start designing their new school’s learning environment in augmented reality and then 3D print the best improvements. The project will be carried out in cooperation with 3DBear, a Finnish company that brings AR to classrooms with an app and desires to help educators create an environment in which students can learn life-skills that will make them successful in the 21st century. The background of PLEAR lies partially in the fact that Kaarina – as many other Finnish municipalities – are currently struggling with older school buildings that have poor ventilation, have suffered from water damages or are otherwise out of date and need to be replaced with new buildings.

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It is imperative to involve users to design process right from the start. This in Kaarina includes the process of producing a pedagogical framework with the staff, but with PLEAR we are also going to make the design process more student-driven. The design process should be ground-up and involve all of the stakeholders. Architects in time can take it from there, designing a building which matches teaching and learning processes that educators and students etc. have hoped for and which today are common for modern learning spaces: e.g. open and transparent spaces; flexible seating; adjustable space dividers to enable both private and group work; encourage student and colleague collaboration; and easy-to-move furniture to allow adaptability etc.

Planning environment itself is of course not a school subject, but project PLEAR embraces many of the goals set by the Finnish National Curriculum e.g. empowering students to become active innovators, encourage creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration. The goals of the project are to get students acquainted with the thinking process of design and project-based learning, learn to use AR technology with their mobile devices and unite real-life/open-ended problems with curriculum. AR is helpul in visualizing design ideas and learning through iteration and design thinking.

PLEAR will make it possible to commit the actual users of the final product (new school building) in a way that their ideas and visions will be taken into the actual architectural and building compositions. The project will stand out also because for the first time, all of the Finnish school interior design companies are taking part, as their school furniture products will be imported into 3DBear’s application in a format that enables students to add a multitude of real school furniture products and artifacts into their designs.

As the project continues and evolves, we are hoping to be able to create a model from the design process that can later be replicated and taken into use in any other school design process. I will be posting future advances from the project in this blog.

by Dr. Keijo Sipilä Chief Digital Officer, Department of Education (Kaarina, Finland)