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How Augmented Reality is Enhancing Higher Education

Pokémon GO was one of the largest technological and cultural events of the summer. It is the most downloaded app in the Apple App Store history, and the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. You’ve probably seen students playing it around campus, holding their phones in front of them intently while looking up every so often like they’re lost, or maybe you’ve downloaded the app yourself. Whether you’re familiar with the app through pop culture or you have first-hand experience with it, it is impossible to deny Pokémon GO’s influence.

For those unfamiliar with Pokémon GO, the game, developed by Niantic, Inc., takes the popular Pokémon card and video game franchise outside. The game utilizes “augmented reality”, which uses the camera and GPS to track a player’s location and create a virtual world through the camera lens, where Pokémon, cute monsters with amazing powers like fire, bubblebeams, or telekinesis, can appear. The goal is to capture the Pokémon and use them to battle to gain territory for your team. Players can also gather necessary items through visiting “PokeStops”, which are usually notable landmarks in the area such as churches, memorials, or pieces of art.

How does this relate to higher education? Well, as Pokémon GO began to take the world by storm (especially millennials who comprise roughly half of Pokémon GO’s 34 million+ users), educators began to ask, “how can we take the best qualities Pokémon GO and apply it to the classroom?”

Some educators have already started to use some of the best qualities of Pokémon GO in their classroom. Top Hat wrote earlier in the summer on the possibilities for gamifying the classroom through Pokémon GO. Another way educators are learning from the game is  through the most innovative part of Pokémon GO: augmented reality. Technology in higher education should be used to enhance learning and engage students and there seems to be a lot of potential with Pokémon GO, or even augmented reality by itself. Here are a few ways universities are staying cutting edge with augmented reality.

Helping students better understand abstract or difficult concepts

The idea behind augmented reality is not new. Research on its potential efficacy goes back to the mid-90s. However, with ever-increasing developments in technology and the popularity of Pokémon GO, this seems to be an apt moment to integrate AR into educational settings on a larger scale.

Augmented reality can render in 3D what was once not able to be easily visualized (on computers or in students’ minds). It encourages motivation, comprehension of difficult material, and higher engagement in course content. It does not necessarily require you to create entirely new learning objects either, but allows you to tweak what you might already have created.

AR can add 3D elements to books and presentations to help reach students who are visual learners and need a tangible image to better comprehend material. Even students who do not profess to be visual or kinesthetic learners can benefit from this differentiated instruction because it gives them a different way of integrating theoretical material into real contexts.

Coimbra et al. did research at the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria, incorporating AR into engineering classrooms, using augmented reality to enhance oral instruction and written material explaining math concepts to the students. Students found working with the 3D technology on tablets or mobile phones to be intuitive and interesting. One of the notable quotes from interviewed students was “I wish all math classes were like this!”

Although it was not required, some students even downloaded the application to their mobile phones so they could investigate the material and program outside of class time, thus encouraging self-directed learning.

Coimbra et al.’s experiment focused on AR in an engineering class, but the University of Maryland is embracing AR for multiple disciplines through their Augmentarium. This massive facility combines both augmented and virtual reality to amplify spatial perception and situational awareness for visualizing big data and stem cell colonies, surgery, and military intelligence. Students use AR headsets to receive information, such as patient vitals, in real time through the Augmentarium.

This kind of technology in higher education offers much more potential for students to get excited about and understand course material than poring over a textbook does!

Taking learning outside the classroom

One of the appealing parts of Pokémon GO is that, unlike most other video games and mobile apps, it actually encourages players to go outside and explore their communities. In fact, the original focus of AR for Pokémon GO’s creators was to use it for learning and general interest purposes. Ingress, the game they created prior to Pokémon GO involved visiting local landmarks, and another program they developed with Google called Field Trip was intended for users to learn about local cultural or historical locations.

University students become restless and uninspired when chained to a computer desk, so finding a way to get your students outside and exploring will definitely grab their attention. Even if you’re still wary about experimenting with AR, try out a scavenger hunt app like Goosechase, which would allow students to gather points based on doing certain events e.g. take a picture of a painting from the Barbizon School at the local art gallery for 150 points.

Depending on your subject, you could use scavenger hunts to encourage students to look at local landmarks or cultural artifacts, or even use it as a way to teach students about useful campus resources by having some of the tasks be to visit your university’s library, use the 3D printer, or find the student wellness centre.

Strengthening emotional engagement in course material

Most research you will encounter regarding AR in higher education focuses mainly on STEM or related fields. But could AR be relevant in the social sciences or humanities? Oleksy and Wnuk find that AR is able to help students create a more emotional connection to course material and places of cultural importance.

Oleksy and Wnuk used AR to recreate an embodied experience of a place’s past within a History class, by having students walk through an area of Warsaw, Poland and through an app on their mobile device allowed students to see past photos of the streets they were walking.

Students reported an increased emotional connection to the streets they walked and demonstrated deeper understanding of multicultural place meaning. This presents possibilities not only for history, but geography, visual arts, and political science to name a few. AR gives the opportunity for professors to create or modify an app that delivers cultural or historical context to artifacts students are viewing while they’re standing in front of those objects, rather than simply reading about it in a book or online.

How is this different from going on a museum tour or listening or reading information about an artifact in the exhibit? Providing that information with AR means all that historical context is connected to the student’s mobile device, to be saved and reflected upon later.

Infusing a sense of play and humour

The importance of building rapport with your students cannot be overstated. Although you don’t have to be your students’ best friend, being able to make a connection will help students feel more comfortable taking risks, asking for help, and just plain enjoy your class more.

Pokémon GO is a cultural force and making reference to it, even as a passing joke, will make you more relatable. Universities are embracing the trend, with campus librarians posting about encountering Pokémon in the library and campus police offering shuttle service and safety notices to students playing Pokémon GO late at night as they did at the University of Central Florida.

Even if you don’t use augmented reality or Pokémon GO directly, it can be a way to relate to students, or a way to sneakily encourage them to head to certain places on campus (such as the library so they can start working on that inquiry project you assigned). Ultimately, just have fun! Students will respond.

Final Word

Although widespread use of augmented reality and Pokémon GO (or games like it) is still fairly new in a university setting, there is both evidence-based research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that students will benefit from course materials enhanced through augmented reality. To recap, here are some of the benefits of using AR:

  1. Helps students better understand abstract or difficult concepts
  2. Facilitates learning outside and inside the classroom
  3. Creates an emotional connection with the material because it makes it “real”
  4. Makes university more fun and interesting
  5. Differentiates instruction for visual and kinesthetic learning styles
  6. Increases spatial perception

I’m sure even more benefits will emerge through continued experimentation and research.

If you are going to try augmented reality in any of your courses, do so because you think it will enhance student learning, not simply because it is generating buzz. Technology in higher education should be a tool. Ultimately, good teaching comes from you, but appropriately chosen edtech can keep your courses current and adaptive to student learning styles.

Further Reading

  • “Five Reasons Why Pokémon Go Will Change Education, and One Reason Why It Won’t.” Warner, John. Inside Higher Ed. (2016). Retrieved 18 September 2016, from
  • Coimbra, Teresa, Cardoso Teresa, and Mateus Artur. Augmented Reality: an Enhancer for Higher Education Students in Math’s Learning? (2015) Procedia Computer Science, 67, 332-339. Retrieved 18 September 2016 from
  • Martin-Gutierrez, Jorge, Fabiani, Pena, Benesova, Wanda, Meneses, Maria Dolores, and Mora, Carlos E. (2016) Augmented reality to promote collaborative and autonomous learning in higher education. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, 752-761. Retrieved 18 September 2016 from
  • Oleksy, Tomasz, and Wnuk, Anna. Augmented places: An impact of embodied historical experience on attitudes towards places. (2016) Computers in Human Behavior, 57, 11-16. Retrieved 18 September 2016 from

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