Mixed reality

When I was still teaching, we introduced augmented reality (AR) into our Academy. The physical fabric of our learning spaces was overlaid with digital information: if you scanned parts of the French classroom, you could experience audio and visual French overlays; our Yearbook came to ‘life’ with a range of multimedia content which was generated, edited and embedded by the students; we had school knowledge hunts where we searched for the hidden AR content; Year 11s worked to make year 8 text books interactive using AR.

The students loved working with AR; it was a technology which still excited them. One Year 7 referred to it as ‘Harry Potter magic’.

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With regard to the presence which was effected by AR, we were creating presence as ‘it is here’: bringing the virtual into the real; yoking it to the physical.

We also used 3D – we worked with Gaia Technologies – and our students could ‘walk through’ a range of 3D immersive environments, from the rainforest to the trenches, from a slave ship to a submarine. They could also see inside the body, witness and replay complex chemical reactions and explode and reconstruct the mechanics of a tractor. 3D offered a different type of presence, a presence as immersion, what Lombard and Ditton refer to as ‘perceptual and psychological immersion’ (1997)*.

WuH.-KWu, H.-K., Lee, S. W.-Y., Chang, H.-Y., & Liang, J.-C. (2013), explore the status, opportunities and challenges of augmented reality in education.  In outlining and summarising some of the key educational benefits which AR affords, they note four principle possibilities (p.2):

Benefits of AR

Defining AR, they use Klopfer’s definition (2008) ‘any technology that blends real and virtual information in a meaningful way’, what they term a ‘mixed reality’ (ibid p.4).

Citing Brosnak (2011), WuH.-KWu, H.-K., Lee, S. W.-Y., Chang, H.-Y., & Liang, J.-C. highlight that AR as a mediated experience affords learners a sense of  presence, immediacy and immersion (p.8):

AR presence

They posit that AR ‘could provide a mediated space that gives learners a sense of being in  place with others’ (ibid, p.8) what Lombard-Ditton would define as ‘we are together’.

Milgram et al (1994) proposed a ‘Reality-Virtuality’ continuum, ranging from a completely ‘real’ environment to a completely ‘virtual’ one. AR and AV (augmented virtuality) are the two elements which comprise the mixed realities which form this continuum. In a few weeks, we will, via Second Life, be inhabiting a virtual world with our peers on the course. It will be fascinating to experience how ‘present’ we feel within this virtual world. Karen has already got me worried…

Karen Second Life

Where am I? Somewhere in-between?

Clark* explored what am ‘I’ and how technology can redefine who we are. In his piece ‘Where am I?’ Dennett** fictionalised the philosophical quandary of where the ‘self’ resides. Is it in the brain – Yorick? Is it in the body -Hamlet? Or is it elsewhere? Can we create an AI self, like Hubert?

When his brain and his body are ‘severed’ he recognises that ‘he’ is both inside the vat where his brain is stored and outside of it too. We exist in at least two places concurrently: corporeally and cognitively. And cognitively we can range, explore, be ‘elsewhere’.

Greenhalgh and Spenser*** explore how the binary between the corporeal and the virtual has defined discussions and debates about traditional and online education. ‘Skeptics of online education’ they claim, ‘ have argued that online education is anti-real, anti-embodiment, anti-expertise, and anti-human.’ (p.315) They claim that a false binary has been established between f-2-f education and online education and that, instead, we should recognise ‘the possibility of hybridity, flow, simultaneity, and in-between-ness’ (p.315).

This is ‘where we are’ when we are online: we are somewhere ‘in-between’; we are Hamlet and Yorick and Hubert and more simultaneously. And we are creating that ‘self’ too.

Geenhalgh and Spenser go on to highlight Jenkins and Castells’ observation that ‘the digital sphere is reliant on human connections and linkage; reliant on spreading into multiple online and real world contexts, in order to stay relevant’. Successful technologies, they argue, ‘must link spaces, knowledges and people into relationships’ (p.318):



In terms of technologies which ‘augment’ ‘real-life’ experience, they highlight geo-caching, Strava and Google Glasses and they pose a challenge for edtech:


This is a germane challenge and one which, in my field of school technologies, is already being taken up. One school Yearbook which I worked on has within it augmented reality content: scan some of the content with your device and you are presented with voices, videos and animations which augment the printed text. I’ve also worked with schools to use the fabric of their buildings, the physical space, to generate virtual AR content. So, we have a science ‘murder mystery’ hunt which starts with the students scanning their seemingly empty school hall to reveal the prone figure of their murdered Headmaster. They must they follow the virtual reality clues to uncover the identity of the murderer. Many schools are now using QR codes and AR to bring their physical spaces to life, to add layers of digital content and information to the fabric of their learning spaces. Smart-signage is being introduced which knows who is looking at it – Year 7? Teacher? Parent? – and adjusts the content accordingly. Feedback and marking can be transformed through digital layering; when I was teaching a group of Year 8s with low literacy levels a few years ago, I didn’t provide written feedback; rather, they were provided with a QR code which linked to video content of me talking through their work for them. This had much more impact on their performance than written feedback.

These hybrid experiences are powerful and it is encouraging to see also the increasing use of Google Cardboard and 3D content within classrooms. However, these advances are, as yet, nascent and specific. Generalised adoption of such innovation requires, as Greenhalgh and Spenser note, boldness and imagination. Might it be that Zuckerberg’s Oculus or Nadella’s HoloLens bring the required impetus?

*Clark, A. (2003). Natural born cyborgs: minds, technologies and the future of human intelligence, Oxford: OUP chapter 1, ‘Cyborgs unplugged‘, pp.13-34
**Dennett, D.  (1981). Chapter 13:  Where am I?.  From Hofstadter, D. and Dennett, D. (eds) The Mind’s I:  Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.  Penguin Press:   London.
*** Greenhalgh-Spencer, H., (2014). What Technology Reveals: Countering Binaries and Moving Toward the In-Between. Philosophy of Education Archive, pp.315–323.