The learning power of reality in K12 education

From art to geography and science, “augmented” and “virtual” tools encourage deeper engagement
By: | September 23, 2016

Using tablets, apps and YouTube videos, students at Greenwood Elementary School in the Wayzata Public Schools in Minnesota have added new virtual elements to paintings and other artwork, so their masterpieces include videos that not only get them engaged, but also help them better understand ideas behind the art itself.

It’s a technology called augmented reality, which overlays views of the real world with informative graphics, video, sound or even GPS data.

A few teachers at the K5 school are experimenting with augmented reality in lessons, says Greenwood Principal Brad Gustafson. He gave kudos to Greenwood art teacher Beth Joselyn for combining best practice in art instruction with innovation in augmented reality to deepen students’ learning.

Students will paint a picture on paper, for example, while also learning about elements of design such as shape, contrast and colors, as well as how they play a role in the finished product.

The teacher uses an iPad and Aurasma, (HP Autonomy’s augmented reality platform) to record students standing next to their art explaining the “design process” or metacognition behind it, such as why they chose various colors. This has them thinking like an artist, Gustafson says.

The recording is usually a minute or two long and is then uploaded to YouTube and becomes a “digital artifact” Gustafson says.

The teacher will then hang the student’s physical artwork in the school’s main hallway. The original artwork functions almost like a QR code, which triggers the additional digital content. Once a visitor uses an iPad to hover over the picture, the video springs to life.

“When you scan something, you can’t tell when reality stops and digital reality begins” Gustafson says. “It’s communicating in this relevant, literate, mind-blowing way.”

‘Learning that sticks’

Augmented reality uses images within applications that blend in with contents in the real world, and differs from virtual reality. Both have the potential to transform the learning experience by immersing students in virtual or real environments and layering in digital information about what they see.

While it will take time to develop and scale best practices, the basic technology needed is already built into mobile phones and tablets.

In Colorado, the Poudre School District uses various tools and software to engage more students in science and geography.

“We provide opportunities for augmented reality to support learning because it enhances it” says Kim McMonagle, Poudre’s director of educational technology. “As teachers refresh learning opportunities and incorporate more learning experiences for augmented reality, our learners will be exposed to a myriad of future career fields as well as creating learning that sticks.”

Mountains in a sandbox

Students in science classes in the Poudre Distrist, north of Denver, take virtual tours of the human heart as it pumps, cleans and circulates blood, McMonagle says. As students move around learning stations, they explore human body systems for a deeper understanding of how they function.

They use a combination of apps and software: Discovery VR, New York Times VR, and StreetView 360 are a few examples. Students can create, upload and share their own 360-degree images to ThingLink, which provides interactive images and supports virtual reality on premium teacher accounts, says Adam McBride, a member of the educational technology team.

The district uses various cameras set up on a 3D-printed rig that students and teachers can use to capture images and videos. Pourdre students view the images using a video and music player and a virtual reality headset available for checkout from the district’s ed tech team.

Some schools have purchased headsets and use game development software so students can create their own virtual worlds.

And when students create tours of, for example, the circulatory system, it forces them to understand how it works so they can create a convincing virtual space. “It connects learners to the content in a means that is relevant to them and the world as they know it” McMonagle says. “Learning is fun, engaging and interactive.”

Augmented reality vs. virtual reality

Augmented reality is the blending of virtual reality and real life, as developers can create images within applications that blend with contents in the world.

AR users can distinguish between virtual contents and the real world.

VR is creating a virtual world with which users can interact. This world should be designed in such a way that users would find it difficult to tell the difference from what is real and what is not. VR usually requires using a VR helmet or goggles.

Both VR and AR aim to immerse the user. But AR users continue to be in touch with the real world while interacting with virtual objects around them. VR users are isolated from the real world while immersed in a world that is completely fabricated.


In geography and social science classes at Lincoln Middle School in the Poudre district, students created an augmented reality sandbox that simulated 3D landforms and a watershed.

Students dig their hands into a real sandbox—but an overhead projector shows virtual areas for mountains, ponds and rivers on the sand, McMonagle says. The sandbox can be a tool for learning about the water cycle in science or about maps in geography. Instead of just learning the concepts of a watershed or how a swamp is created, students also can witness consequences of changes on the landscape.

Get out of the way

Technology facilitators in the Poudre district are collaborating with teachers to design learning opportunities, train on how to use the tools, and evaluate their effectiveness in achieving student success, McMonagle says.

The ed tech team works closely with IT to ensure apps and software adhere to the district’s student privacy policy, says McBride.

They also work together to evaluate new technology and software as well as best practices for rollout and implementation. A system called the “software center” allows teachers and students to download and install district-approved software without administrator passwords, he adds.

When students collaborate with their peers to create content, they learn not only the content for the project, but also the important communication, critical thinking and collaboration skills they need for success beyond the classroom, Davidson says.

“The key takeaway is that there is amazing innovation, personalization of learning and opportunities to interact with tools around relevant pedagogy” says Gustafson of Greenwood school. CIOs should be aware: “Kids can do amazing things when we believe in them ‚Ķ and get out of their way.”


4D Anatomy




Discovery VR

Google Cardboard

Google Glass




Occulus Rift


Powis Viewr





Angela Pascopella is managing editor. Bob Violino is a freelance writer in New York.

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