Augmented and Virtual Realities as Learning Spaces

Augmented Reality and Learning

The Horizon Report,is a yearly publication that highlights, analyzes and predicts the ways in which technological advances will change "teaching, learning and creative inquiry. The 2011 report describes how and why augmented reality will play an important role in teaching and learning over the next two to three years. Below is an introduction to Augmented Reality from a presentation by professor Karen Hamilton at the 2011 SXSWedu conference:

As Hamilton points out, augmented reality is related to all of the technologies projected to be in greater use in the next five years, including digital books, mobile devices, game-based learning and gesture-based learning. For more background on AR, see Hamilton's wiki.


Augmented reality (AR), according to the PC Magazine definition, is a virtual reality that combines real and virtual images in real-time. As opposed to virtual realities (see below) most of the information in an AR setting is real. Milgram and Kishino (1994) describe a continuum from reality to virtual worlds, with the real environment gradually being replaced by a virtual environment.

The Horizon Report highlights key ways in which AR will effect teaching and learning:
  • AR can be used for visual and highly-interactive forms of learning.
  • AR can respond to user input, creating an interactive learning environment, even with objects and places too big or cumbersome to work with in a real environment.
  • AR creates situated learning.
  • AR facilitates applying learning and knowledge over a wide array of contexts.
  • With mobile devices playing a big part in AR, learning becomes ubiquitous and just-in-time.

The videos below show how AR can be used in a traditional classroom and outside of the classroom:

Virtual Reality and Learning

Active, critical learning takes place in environments that would be impossible to have in the real world

If students create and interact as avatars in virtual environments, the learning can be enhanced by the students interacting in collaborative ways that they might not have done in real life - from shyness, embarrassment, or established social structures in the classroom, for example. Gee (2007) calls this the "psychosocial moratorium" in a learning space where real-world consequences are lowered, not just in the affective domain. In virtual worlds
  • students can carry out tasks that are difficult in the real world,
  • students can experience "virtual world persistence," and develop ongoing relationships with collaborators and experiences within in the learning environment, and
  • virtual worlds can adapt and grow to meet learners' goals and needs.

Students as avatars can select the appropriate level, can choose what problem they solve, and can save and restart a game when they want. In addition, students can learn in virtual environments that mimic real environments, and thus can be immersed in the learning to a higher degree. They can personally experience choices and situations, and they can therefore connect with the situation at a deeper level.

Avatars are currently being used by online learning institutions and other more innovative traditional institutions as a compliment and/or supplement to traditional learning. Avatars most often are associated with multi-user video environments (MVUEs) such as Second Life. Citing other research, Gilly Salmon (2009) notes that when student, teachers and avatars interact, specific types of learning can take place.
  • Greeting, playing, signalling group affiliation, conveying opinions or feelings, creating closeness and dealing with conflict
  • Creating a strong sense of presence or ‘being there’ with others
  • Importing and exporting of shared norms into and out of virtual worlds and exploring alternatives roles
  • The possibilities and constraints for small groups of avatars learning together
  • Developing trust and a sense of belonging, prerequisites for successful learning in groups
  • Evaluating the impact of the nature and mode of communication used.

Virtual learning environments also allow for immersive learning that is contextually based and can take place in non-traditional classroom settings. This video from Stacy Williams, and Assistant Professor at Case Western Reserve University, describes some ways in which virtual environments and avatars can be used to allow students to have real-world experiences.

The Future of Online Identities in Education

In their book Infinite Reality, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson (2011) outline studies that show that the brain doesn't distinguish very well between virtual environments and real environments. Below is a rather low-quality video in which Bailenson nicely summarizes some of the work on avatars and behavior.

In one study, Bailenson describes how people who see their avatars in a mirror and then interact with someone in a virtual world change the way they interact based on what they think they look like. For example, if your avatar is attractive, you are more likely to stand closer, look someone in the eye, and speak with confidence. In another study, people were shown their avatars performing a task that they had never done before and seeing results of that action. That caused them to behave differently, and the "learning" lasted for at least an hour after the person had left the avatar.

The 2011 Horizon Report predicts that gesture-based learning will become prevalent in four to five years. Instead of students interacting in virtual worlds with type, they will be able to actually move and interact with information in a physical way. This might imply that instead of merely communicating in a virtual world, students will actually be physically moving around virtual worlds, thus allowing them to make, for example, the physical cut in a patient, or maybe even to ride in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail.

Combined with the advent of gesture-based technology, the implications of avatars for the future of education seem to be tremendous. A teacher avatar could be manipulated to gaze upon and mimic the students, thus increasing the potential learning from direct instruction. In addition, students could actually embody avatars and could have the feeling of physically completing tasks even if they weren't actually doing them. Student avatars could be manipulated to succeed in a difficult task, and the actual student would experience the feeling of success. This could lead to a higher identity of the self as a potential learner, and could influence how the student learns outside of the virtual environment. Because this technology is so new, more empirical research is needed to connect learning through creating and using avatars and online identities. [1]

Next: Ubiquitous Learning

Sections of this from this author's previous work Identities and Avatars from the Learning and Gaming wiki.