AR, Augmented Reality, Educational Technology, Immersive Learning Experiences

Q&A with Dr. Paula MacDowell on creating augmented reality (AR) experiences with students

February 01, 2019

By Bronwen McCann

Dr. Paula MacDowell is a Limited Term Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, instructing courses in the area of Educational Technology and Learning Design. As a design and technology specialist, Dr. MacDowell is working on research and advocacy initiatives to empower children and youth through education and technology. Motivated by constructionist theories of learning, she works closely with teachers and instructional designers to develop educational media and integrate technology with curriculum in ways that enhance learner engagement, empowerment, inclusion, and ingenuity. In this interview, MacDowell tells us more about the art of making AR, a new creative platform for transporting learning beyond the traditional barriers of university classroom walls and screens.

What motivated you to start making AR experiences with your students?

I created a vision-based AR assignment as an integral part of the curriculum in my educational technology and design courses with the goal of building community and energizing the classroom setting. Using a collaborative design process, students are guided and inspired to code meaningful AR experiences that represent the course keywords. These terms include game-based learning, immersive education, digital literacy, design thinking, artificial intelligence, intelligent tutoring systems, mobile learning, fake news, alternative facts, dark patterns, creative coding, etc.

Rather than being users or consumers of media, I challenge and support my team to be content producers and instructional designers who explore AR with a focus on digital storytelling, critical thinking, and creative expression. Students are encouraged to use their imagination and intelligence as they make their thinking visual. Learning happens through a collective sense of meaning-making and shared purpose.

What is constructionism and why is it relevant to your work?

I based the AR assignment on constructionism, an approach to learning that maximizes student agency and emphasizes designing, building, and inventing as ways of knowing. Knowledge is actively constructed by learners experimenting with diverse ideas, tools, materials, and perspectives— and further developed through reflections, observations, and interactions with others. The AR project gives my students an opportunity to learn valuable technical skills, push beyond their comfort zones, and contribute new ways of understanding the course keywords. Constructionism is a hands-on approach for generating a collaborative spirit and a sense of belonging in the class. As critical friends, we thoughtfully critique each other’s work; hence students are inspired by and learn from the team.

What is AR and how do you create immersive learning experiences in your classes?

AR refers to an enhanced version of reality made available by the integration of digital information with the user's real environment in real time. Unlike virtual reality (VR), which replaces the user's surroundings with an entirely simulated setting, AR supplements the real-world environment by overlaying new information. For example, you can download the free Zappar app to your smartphone or tablet and scan the embedded codes in this interview to see the student-created AR experiences come to life. Notice how each code augments learning by overlaying digital information (text, animations, photo galleries, games, quizzes, music, videos, buttons, web links, etc.) on top of the real-world images and course keywords.

What are your plans to share the impacts of this project in the educational community?

I’m grateful for the support of SFU’s Faculty Inquiry Grant to study how integrating powerful AR creation tools with a course curriculum transforms the student learning experience. My research team has submitted a technical paper to the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH 2019) and will also present the study findings this summer at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (CSSE 2019) and the International Society for Education through Art (InSEA 2019) world congress. We are also co-writing a journal article titled The Augmented Reality Abacus: Transforming imagination to reality with creative learning technologies in high school and post-secondary classrooms.

Why does this research matter?

As we live in an increasingly visual and digital society, integrating AR technologies with curriculum opens up a new world of creative possibilities for teaching and learning, beyond the traditional barriers of classroom walls and screens. Foundational to my teaching philosophy is the perspective that learners of all ages, from K-12 to graduate studies, benefit from opportunities to be the (co-)designers, coders, makers, and changemakers of the media and technologies in our everyday lives and learning practices. This view is not about a specific tool or technique; rather it involves an understanding of how technologies are designed and that they are capable of being redesigned. It is about the opportunity and responsibility we have to create and innovate our evolving socio-technical futures.

Tell me more about the innovative AR abacus.

Highlighting the message Learning through an AR Lens, an eclectic collection of codes designed by students in my courses (Fall 2017 to Summer 2019) will be showcased on an oversized AR abacus designed to teach coding and inspire creativity. The SFU community will be invited to interact with the AR abacus by scanning each image’s unique code using the Zappar app. This installation will engage audiences of all ages in creative play and contribute to a memorable educational experience by bringing people, art, story, media, and technology together. Here is a photo of the AR Abacus and research team: Rain De Guzman, Paula MacDowell, Juliana Wong, and Alexandra Kasper.

What are your future goals and plans?

My long-term goals include building on the findings of this research to develop a new AR/VR education project that focuses on environmental literacy and related community action. Student teams will be challenged to design immersive digital experiences related to the sustainable development goals and climate transformation, concepts that are difficult to teach in traditional classroom settings.

What have you learned from this project?

Above all, I must say that I’m proud of my students and their incredible work. I’ve learned that my job is to not only teach the course curriculum, but to make learning come alive and inspire my students to fall in love with the subject matter. Through the ebbs and flows of the AR creative process, we defined words together and coded our worlds together with love for educational technology and learning design.

While some students struggled with the technical aspects of making immersive content, significant mentorship opportunities resulted as learners supported each other to solve coding challenges. Reflecting on the reciprocal nature of innovation: I’ve learned that inspiring others will inspire you. My students continually motivate me as they advance knowledge and creativity. Hence, I continue to research and design technology-enhanced learning environments where diversity of thought, differences in worldviews, and creative explorations with new learning technologies are strongly supported.