Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Embedded Phenomena, Augmented Reality, and Education

I love it when something so simple is so effective. Tom Moher's 2006 paper [ACM, CiteSeer] describing his work on what he calls Embedded Phenomena was a case of "why didn't I think of that?" for me for sure. He offers an affordable way to integrate digital information into standard classroom practice, and while he doesn't use the term augmented reality, I think the systems created definitely are.

The abstract of the paper goes like this:
‘Embedded phenomena’ is a learning technology framework in which simulated scientific phenomena are mapped onto the physical space of classrooms. Students monitor and control the local state of the simulation through distributed media positioned around the room, gathering and aggregating evidence to solve problems or answer questions related to those phenomena. Embedded phenomena are persistent, running continuously over weeks and months, creating information channels that are temporally and physically interleaved with, but asynchronous with respect to, the regular flow of instruction. In this paper, we describe the motivations for the framework, describe classroom experiences with three embedded phenomena in the domains of seismology, insect ecology, and astronomy, and situate embedded phenomena within the context of human-computer interaction research in co-located group interfaces and learning technologies.
As mentioned in the abstract, the paper reports on three different projects. In each, simple tablet computers act as windows into another world. Their placement in the classroom matters. For example, the solar system project, HelioRoom, has the tablets positioned so that the centre of the classroom becomes the sun, and planets orbit around it in a proportionally correct small scale. As the planets orbit around, they appear in the tablet windows at exactly the time they would had they actually been travelling around the entire room. This makes the digital information location-dependent, and this is what makes it an instance of augmented reality.

One of the things that struck me about this use of technology in the classroom is how easily the teacher could continue working how he or she always has. I remember another educational games author pointing out that we can't bring all kinds of new and exciting technology to the classroom and expect teachers to be able to learn how to teach in a whole new way as well as learn the new technology. Instead, we need to first bring technology that supports the way the classroom already works, and in the future begin slowly transitioning to new ways of teaching. If you look at the pictures included in the paper, you'll see students working on charts, in groups, with teacher direction -- heck, you'll even see those traditional Styrofoam model planets hanging from the ceiling! Everything teachers did before they still do; they just have a new way to visualize things in a spatially and temporally aware way.

I'd really like to see more projects that use simple technology like this in education. Sure, it'll be great when we all have our own augmented reality glasses and can recreate detailed simulations right in front of our eyes, but those days are a long way away. Let's use what we have now to create engaging learning environments without having to drastically shift our way of teaching quite yet.


Tia said...

I was mildly surprised to see this because I work in Tom's lab. :D The embedded phenomena stuff is still really active, but it's not the subgroup I'm with so I can't provide any more information. But Tom is a cool fellow. Who still hasn't given me back my plate. XD

Gail Carmichael said...

Too cool! I'll have to keep an eye on his website. ;)

Eugenia said...

Really interesting post, hadn't read about this! I really like your thoughts about bringing in complementary technology first, and then expanding. I think it's important to point out that the current generation of elementary students probably doesn't remember 56k modems, landline phones, etc. As a few technologically savvy generations get older and become teachers themselves, it will be interesting to see how these technologies end up in the classroom.

Gail Carmichael said...

Definitely! I think it was Eric Klopfer in his book Augmented Learning who talked about introducing technology in this way, if I remember correctly. Great book.

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