Augmented Reality (AR) is technology that blurs the line between the digital and the real world. Using AR in education to replace a tabletop with a mountain range or the school hallway with the surface of the moon lets students interact with their surroundings in entirely new, immersive ways. Read on to go behind the scenes with the makers of Discovery Education’s AR experiences, Phil and Dan Birchinall!
Tell us a little bit about yourselves. How did your career lead you to working with Augmented Reality (AR)?
Phil: In the early 1990s, I started working in inner city schools in Manchester, teaching children from very diverse backgrounds as part of a technology project run by the UK government. Although at the time we were placing state of the art technology into the hands of teachers and students, it often failed to sustain engagement beyond the initial excitement. It was clear that a deeper understanding of engagement and newer ways to use the undeniable power of education technology to deliver it were needed. After developing projects that had technology-mediated storytelling at their heart, the students across the school district began to show a strong attachment to the subjects being taught, and an equally strong desire to go deeper into them. Teachers reported that student attention, attendance, and behavior were improving. From there I worked across the city, country, and the European Union developing projects and managing innovation before co-founding Inspyro with my son Dan, who is Discovery Education’s Head of Immersive Content.
Dan: I started working in the education content space when I left university. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by cutting-edge technology when I was growing up, and in my education work I was keen to integrate technology into the learning experience. Initially this took the form of video, animations, and audio, but as soon as I saw Augmented Reality in action for the first time, I knew it was an incredible tool to deploy in the classroom. 2023 is the 10th anniversary of launching my first Augmented Reality app and I haven’t looked back since.
What excited you the most about AR when it first began to emerge? How has it changed since then? Where is it going?
Phil: AR was, and still is, a misunderstood and misapplied technology in education. Too often it’s led by gadgets and gimmicks, with very little thought to the primary objective in the classroom—illuminating and inspiring learning. Technology, especially technology like AR, has a magical appeal and impact on those that use it. Any teaching and learning tool that can illicit gasps from teachers and students alike deserves a place in the classroom. We now weave these techniques into a broad range of content that we call “immersive,” based on how students and educators respond to it. Immersion is a feeling and happens on a scale; it can be purely instructional or can move you to tears of joy or sadness (and everything between).
Dan: The first time I saw Augmented Reality it felt like a glimpse of the sci-fi future Hollywood had been promising us for decades. Even in its early form, AR felt like magic. What excited me most was how AR could let us do things that no other medium could, and that’s why it’s so effective as a learning tool in the classroom. Looking ahead we’re going to see the merging of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality with headsets from leading tech companies, which will only further blend our physical and digital worlds. It’s important to note, however, that you don’t need expensive headsets to have great experiences in AR; your smartphones and tablets can deliver transformative AR experiences too (like Sandbox AR)!
Walk us through the process of creating AR from initial concept to a functioning application. How long does it usually take? What stages must you work through?
Phil: We have strong guiding principles that we adhere to when making immersive content. We need to be sure that it’s worth the effort and that there is a clear focus for the content. We start by asking, “will the concept engage students?” Once we have decided that we have a good concept, it’s about designing an experience. We want the technology to draw students into the narrative or journey we have designed. This could be a narrative that contains elements that hook the user in, like episodes (as in TimePod Adventures) or the opportunity for students to create content and express themselves and their learning (like Sandbox AR). But it’s equally important to provide the standards and curriculum context to produce a successful learning outcome.
Dan: We follow one important rule when developing an Augmented Reality experience: don’t do anything that can be done better in an alternative medium. This philosophy drives the design process and ensures that our final product uses AR to its full potential. Development itself almost always begins with creating a simple prototype that demonstrates the core experience. We then build on this prototype to enhance the visuals and ensure the user experience is smooth and intuitive. We are lucky to have a core group of educators who help refine the experience and ensure it will work well in a classroom environment!
What is the most interesting project you’ve ever worked on?
Phil: We’ve worked on some fascinating projects over the years, and it’s allowed us access to some amazing people and places. Historical exploration is a very natural application of immersive content, so we’ve found ourselves in some interesting places! We’ve been in a cold museum basement with 20 dead ancient Egyptians, crawled into small spaces to film fossilized remains of a 90-million-year-old plesiosaur, and have pushed the boundaries of photogrammetry with detailed 3D models of tiny microliths (stone tools) used 11,000 years ago that we brought back to life on Lunt Meadows, the site of one of Europe’s most important Mesolithic settlements. With Discovery Education, we’ve created simulations and models of Haul trucks the size of a house, with a full mine to explore, mapped the surface of the moon and Mars, and are currently modeling the Edge experience at Hudson Yards for DE’s first VR experience!
Dan: We‘ve been lucky enough to work on a great variety of projects using AR (and VR) from recreating ancient Mesolithic sites or transporting people to the trenches of World War I, to developing VR prototypes to improve the vision of people suffering from macular degeneration. The most exciting project for me is Sandbox AR—with Sandbox we built a toolbox for students and educators to see what amazing worlds they could create and share with each other. And they haven’t disappointed!
How do you imagine AR use in the classroom will continue to change?
Phil: Any technology like Augmented Reality is driven by powerful hype cycles that cause great interest in the media and huge speculation amongst users. The current hype is around wearable technology like AR glasses. Remember Google Glass? The concept never went away and there is continued speculation around what Apple is about to bring to market this year. We keep an extremely close eye on these trends. We expect that AI will be integrated very soon into our experiences in ways that we couldn’t have imagined even months ago. Our innovation is continually driven by our users in the classroom, which helps us focus on the right thing: positive outcomes for learners and educators.
Dan: I would love to see AR being used in a collaborative manner in the classroom, with students and educators working together to build and explore new digital worlds. It’s certainly something we have on our roadmap for Sandbox AR and the possibilities are incredibly exciting!
Do you have any stories about teachers’ or students’ reactions to using AR?
Phil: My favorite story (which I bet Dan will tell as well) of bringing AR to education happened in 2013, ancient history in AR years. I was demonstrating to a room full of teachers how their iPad and our app could make objects appear on top of the worksheet they were using. As they used the app there was absolute astonishment and gasps around the room. Out if the corner of my eye, I spotted one teacher look around to check if anyone was watching, and when she was sure they weren’t, she carefully looked underneath the iPad to check that the 1920 London Cenotaph hadn’t materialized on the floor right there. I found that quite profound! The author Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Dan: Yes, that story of demonstrating our very first AR app to educators at a conference was something I’ll never forget! I noticed one teacher looked under the iPad to check we hadn’t put an object underneath it, and at that moment I knew we had something magical.
What is your advice to young people interested in working with AR in the future?
Phil: Any technology like Augmented Reality is driven by cycles of interest in the media and speculation amongst users. For us, we keep an extremely close eye on trends. As I mentioned, we can expect that AI will be integrated into our experiences soon, and in incredible ways. We keep our management and exploitation of innovation driven by our users in the classroom, so we can stay focused on positive outcomes for learners and educators.
Dan: If you’re not familiar with Augmented Reality, play with some apps first. Sandbox AR is a great demonstrator of some core AR principles and it’s also free to use! AR works best when you play to its strengths, and you can only understand that when you’re familiar with the medium. On a technical level, our development team uses Unity to build our AR experiences and we do our programming in C#. Unity is free to use for students and is also an amazing tool for making all kinds of interactive content. To those who want to learn, my only advice is to start small and learn the basics—that’s what I did!
Augmented Reality (AR) is an evolving, exciting technology reaching classrooms thanks to makers like Phil and Dan! AR can help students have powerful, immersive learning experiences not possible through other media.