4 Reasons to Try Augmented Reality in Your Classroom

By Guest Contributor Patrick Merchant, Senior Digital Strategist, McGraw Hill School

Much like voice recognition technology and even artificial intelligence, Augmented reality (AR) is increasingly making its way into PreK-12 classrooms. With the potential to make way for learning experiences that we couldn’t have even dreamed of a decade ago, the implications of this new technology are exciting.

AR screen grab math problem

What is AR?

Augmented reality (AR) superimposes digital images, text, or animation onto the real world. AR apps typically use a camera on a tablet or smartphone to capture the real world on the camera screen. Then, using digital overlays, the apps “augment” reality by depicting both the real world and the superimposed objects for an interactive experience. This differs from virtual reality, which is a fully immersive experience that replaces the real-world environment and requires a special headset.

Are Educators Using AR?

As with all new technology, there are plenty of misconceptions surrounding AR — what it’s for, why it’s useful, and what educators need to implement it. We recently conducted a study among teachers, administrators, and parents on their understanding of AR in the classroom. We found that educators are not very familiar with AR:

AR use in education survey results table

Only a quarter (29%) of the educators in our study report using technology for instruction. They cited cost (68%) and maintenance of AR technology (48%) as their greatest concerns in using AR. However, there’s an important misconception here — AR doesn’t require any special equipment outside of a smartphone or tablet! Additionally, many AR apps are low-cost or even free.

Of the 29% of educators that reported using AR in the classroom, 74% report using it at least once a week. They see a number of potential benefits to AR, too, including boosting student engagement (78%) and motivation (65%).

No matter your level of experience with AR for instruction, it’s worth exploring to reinvigorate your classroom, engage your students, and refresh your practice. Here are a few of the most important reasons to try out augmented reality in your classroom, for any grade level and subject.

Foster Deeper Student Engagement

Have you ever tested out a high-quality AR educational app? They’re exciting to see in action and a blast to use! It’s no wonder that students find AR experiences engaging. In her article for Edutopia on AR, Christine Danhoff, a technology integration specialist in Ohio, said:

“In my experience, students’ engagement increases when they create experiences in AR to demonstrate their understanding of a particular concept or standard. When students use augmented reality during a lesson, they want to dive into the content and don’t want to stop learning or exploring.” — Christine Danhoff, Educator

Most AR apps consist of interactive elements that allow students to engage with the content in a physical, tangible way that otherwise is either impossible or very cumbersome and time-consuming to do in the classroom. AR can make complex concepts that students have a hard time mastering far more visceral. For example, McGraw Hill AR, our new app with free, standards-aligned lessons, allows students to explore complex algebra concepts like cross-sections and rotations with interactive models:

AR screen grab cross section problem

Students point their tablet or phone at their desktop and follow the instructions to manipulate the object that appears in front of them. If cross-sections were hard to understand or visualize before, now students can actively create and view them on a 3D object on their own desk!

Reach All Learners in New Modalities

While learning styles as a concept to refer to students as strictly “visual” or “auditory” learners is, in fact, a myth, there is certainly truth in the need to provide students with learning experiences that vary in modality and that provide different access points to content. Additionally, the research behind multimodal learning is growing — researchers believe that engaging multiple senses allows the brain to commit information to long-term memory and focus increased attention on the task at hand. When implemented purposefully, AR can provide an excellent outlet for tactile and visual exploration of concepts.

Build Student Agency and Enhance Problem-Solving Skills

The opportunities to work AR activities into your lessons are endless. AR can be a key component of a larger project-based experience, providing an outlet for collaboration, problem-solving, and creative agency.

For example, McGraw Hill AR’s Graph Theory activity (coming in October!) opens with a brain teaser. The app uses augmented reality to walk students through The Bridges of Konigsberg, where a person is asked to find a path that will visit each part of the town and cross each bridge only once. 

Then the app provides students with multiple versions of the same problem, where they determine if the viable path can be completed for imaginary cities, with connections to Graph Theory and Euler Paths. Finally, the app assesses their ability to identify Euler Paths.

Additionally, even the process of selecting and integrating AR tools into learning can be an important exercise to promote student agency. Tim Needles, a STEAM teacher and an advocate of purposeful AR, writes:

“As I continued to incorporate AR into my teaching I found more and more apps and programs that all had different specialties and advantages, so I regularly experimented with using new tools with my students and we made these collaborative tests part of the project itself each year. This gave students a voice in the learning process and a choice in which tools we used but it also taught them a process for teaching themselves about new technology tools and making collaborative evaluations, a valuable lesson itself.” — Tim Needles, Educator

Build Digital Literacy for College and Career

From our study, we know that students are frequently using AR at home. More than one-third (38%) of parents reported that their children currently use AR technology. Children that use AR use it very frequently, from multiple times a week (40%) to every day (38%). While students are clearly familiar with using AR for games and free-time activities, they may not have experience using them for learning.

As these technologies continue to evolve, it’s increasingly likely that learners will encounter them in higher education and even in their careers. Digital literacy evolves along with technology, and using technology for learning requires a distinct set of skills, separate from using similar technology for play. It’s critical that students have opportunities to use AR in the context of school, in collaboration with peers, and against learning objectives. When they encounter AR in college or career, they’ll be confident to leverage the tools at hand to achieve their goals.

Of course, for any of the benefits of AR to take effect, AR tools must be created with learning science and cognitive science in mind, be built with quality content, and be aligned to established standards. McGraw Hill AR is an augmented reality app that includes free, standards-aligned, publisher-grade lessons.

You can also read our full Augmented Reality in Education study here.

Patrick Merchant is a Senior Digital Strategist at McGraw Hill, where creates online products, including 1:1 classroom content, adaptive technology, and an augmented reality app. He has been in the education industry for twenty years and taught high school mathematics for four years. As a former math prodigy in elementary school, Patrick has a soft spot for advanced students that are not challenged enough or given the opportunity to tap into their full potential.