As Australian classrooms adapt to the rapid growth in new technologies, our children are entering into a new age for education.

For many of us, the classroom was the home of little more than heavy textbooks and scribbled notes. Pencil cases thick with pens and glue sticks were pried open by rulers that struggled to squeeze in.

Some of us remember slides on projectors, and old CRT TVs where the picture wobbled and was frequently invaded by unwanted rainbows.

If you’re a bit younger, you will remember the emergence of VHS, as TVs were wheeled in to show off documentaries and deepen your learning. Perhaps there was the odd excursion, too: a long day out to a location of historical significance.

How times have changed.

Some modern classrooms are already connected, multiscreen environments where a huge portion of the world’s information is available at the press of a button. No matter the subject, detailed videos are on demand, giving children insights into the world around them.

Apps can turn once monotonous lessons into interactive games that inspire children to do better. While lesson notes, tests and even notes scribbled on smart whiteboards are saved to the cloud where they can be accessed and interacted with at any time by students out of hours. So what’s next?

Two of the most exciting emerging technologies in education are virtual reality and augmented reality. We’ve previously detailed the exciting possibilities of VR, but perhaps the more pertinent is AR.

It’s often more accessible, cheaper to setup, easier to develop for and already a widely known commodity thanks to the global phenomenon that was Pokémon Go. And it’s ready to change Australian classrooms in the near future.

Why AR is a good fit for the classroom

Augmented reality differs from VR in that it doesn’t take you out of the real world. The concept is simple: to place a computer somewhere between your eye and what you are seeing.

That computer is then able to augment what your eye is seeing with computer generated imagery and information. The simplest form is to use a mobile phone with a rear-facing camera. You point the camera at an object – like a text book – and then look at the screen on the phone.

The screen can then show that text book with anything the software has been designed to produce layered over the top. For example, a 2 could jump up like an animated character on the page, walk over to another 2, and together they could turn into a 4.

More advanced forms of the technology see computers taken off the mobile device and placed into a wearable, such as Google Glass. In this instance, you simply wear a headset, but the lens is in fact a screen connected to a computer and the internet. Information can be displayed in front of your eyes in real-time.

For example, the glasses might pick-up that a student has misspelled a word they are writing and show the correction for them to make the adjustment in real-time.

Another form of AR that is particularly exciting for classrooms is the use of visual cues to stimulate the software. In this instance, a program can use a graphic on a page as an anchor on which to show some animation. For example, imagine opening a history book on your desk.

When you turn to a page about a castle, the shape is recognised by software installed on the glasses you are wearing. Suddenly an entire holographic castle appears above the page, so you can see it in 3D and even spin it around to explore it from all angles.

You could even show how battles may have unfolded, with tiny troops storming the walls as bowmen defend from above.

For the most impactful application in education, however, AR should be interactive. This is where students physically engage with their learning material in ways never experienced in previous generations. The process uses a camera to capture not only the classroom, but the students in it – with the footage displayed on a TV screen.

The computer can then place objects in the world, while the camera can read the students movements. This allows, for example, a giant alphabet keyboard to be displayed on the ground, and for students to work as a team to stand on all the correct letters required to spell a certain word.

Maybe a teacher could summon a giant floating representation of Earth, complete with weather patterns and topographic information, and ask the students to stand around it and identify the countries.

Pretty awesome, right?

What are the experts saying?

Augmented reality is set for a huge couple of years. The industry is expected to grow more than six times its current size by 2020, to a global worth of US$90 billion.

It may very well be the encouragement investors need to produce a larger and more diverse portfolio of software, and the competition in the marketplace to drive down hardware costs. This can only increase their use in Australian classrooms.

The evidence is compelling, too. The University of Southern Mississippi released a paper following research into the use of AR in the classroom. It pinpointed six main ways AR can enhance the teaching process:

  1. Engage, stimulate and motivate students to explore class material from different angles
  2. Help teach subjects where students could not feasibly gain real-world first-hand experience
  3. Enhance collaboration between students and instructors
  4. Foster student creativity and imagination
  5. Help students take control of their learning at their own pace and on their own path
  6. Create an authentic learning environment suitable to various learning styles

Sadly, the uptake of AR into classrooms is proving slower than some may have hoped. But still, there are teachers actively getting ahead of the curve and pushing for its inclusion.

Drew Minock, the elementary teacher who heads up the popular Two Guys and some iPads podcast, put it well when he said, “in our elementary school classrooms, we use AR to create active learning experiences hitherto inconceivable, and in the process redefine the learning space!”

Augmented reality doesn't only have the potential to change classrooms. Check out these unexpected ways people are already using VR and AR.

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