Augmented reality or ‘AR’ is the name given to technologies that enhance our experience of the real world by providing computer-generated sensory information (most often visual or auditory), overlaying virtual objects into our real-world environment for example, or creating real-time interactions with people, places and things that aren’t physically present.
This technology is closely related to VR or virtual reality, which you may know from various viral videos of people being scared half to death whilst wearing rectangular goggles—whereas with VR the user is completely immersed into a world which is entirely virtual, AR offers a blended, interwoven, yet still immersive alternative. Perhaps the most widely used example of AR is the popular Pokémon Go app, which started a huge craze when it was released as it allowed users to get out on their feet and experience their usual, familiar environments whilst interacting with computer-generated Pokémon in real time through their mobile phones. This was the first truly widespread example of people incorporating AR into their everyday lives, and it is still widely used and vastly popular across the globe today—so we know that AR works for entertainment purposes. But what about more practical applications such as education?
There is a huge amount of potential for AR to assist in teaching and learning, particularly when it comes to language learning. This is because AR can help us to gain tacit or implicit knowledge far better than any textbook can—just as we know that holding a conversation with a native speaker is far more enriching and lights up more areas of the brain than a gap-fill exercise, we know that AR can operate similarly as it allows learners to experience what they are learning in a real-time, interactive, and immersive way. AR has already been used with some success to aid language learning—examples of how this might work include the ability to see annotations of real-world objects, people and places translated into multiple languages simultaneously, or conversation prompts given in real time to assist with in-person interactions. 3D models that can be explored interactively in multiple languages are also a great resource, as is the kind of 3D virtual avatar seen in apps such as Mondly—having a virtual ‘native’ speaker to respond and give feedback in real time with virtual visual cues and quick corrections is a great help to learners who are building their confidence to speak in other languages.
Indeed, there has been a great deal of research undertaken since these technologies have emerged which suggests that the 3D, immersive elements of AR in particular can be a great memory aid—the virtual environments and models provided by AR can be compared to the ‘mind palace’ technique used by many memory artists to store huge amounts of information in the long-term memory. We know that having 3D, multi-sensory data alongside information helps us to hold on to it for longer—the use of AR to teach vocabulary embedded in time and space, for example, seems to make use of this fact. Studies also show that AR can be a great tool for facilitating interaction with others, particularly building confidence to speak in the target language—the use of new and engaging technologies is also being favoured more and more for younger students, who as digital natives are psychologically trained to expect and respond to a greater deal of stimulation than students of the past.
More generally, research shows that students show more motivation, higher levels of engagement and satisfaction in their learning and ultimately achieve more highly after experiencing AR supported learning. But there are risks to any kind of dependence on nascent technologies—while the research published in the last seven or so years does show that AR can have a positive impact in the classroom, the disadvantages and challenges have also been made clear. There is a sustained resistance in the teaching community to the use of complex technologies which are difficult to set up and manage— technological difficulties and limited technological understanding/knowledge is cited over and over as a barrier to integrating AR more deeply into educational settings. There are also fears around the ways that AR learning might increase the cognitive load placed on students, and ultimately cause them to struggle to retain the right information later down the line. As previously mentioned, younger generations of learners expect a more stimulating, fast-paced approach. They get bored easily and are quick to move on to more interesting or engaging activities—this is something which can work in the teacher’s favour when using technologies such as AR, but there is a risk that the technology itself becomes a distraction that gets in the way of true learning.
The AR4EFL project hopes to further investigate ways of facilitating teachers and trainers to use AR technologies in a way that greater serves them, and ultimately their students—with a view to transforming the way that primary age students learn foreign languages, the project will design, test and publish a new innovative education package with both students and teachers in mind.