Augmented Reality in Humanities Education

Last month the coordinator of the 4DRL, Jitte Waagen, was awarded with a grant from the University of Amsterdam for the development of Augmented Reality in education. As far as we know, this is within humanities at the UvA the first attempt to use this technology in academic teaching programs. That means this project is still very explorative in nature: what works, and what doesn’t? We improve by free experimentation, but also by clearly defining aims and setting out a vision for the future. So I asked Jitte to write down his ideas regarding the specific aims of the current project and in general about the future potential of AR in education.

How did the idea for this project rise with you?

Jitte with an AR experiment from earlier this year: a roman villa projected on a textured panel.

In ACASA, we do city walks with students to introduce them to the archaeology/history of Amsterdam, as well as introduce them to the world of online spatial data; the Through the Looking Glass (TtLG) project. Students are provided with a tablet with old maps and archaeological data that shows them where they are in relation to historical sources. This has so far been based on digital two-dimensional maps; we always wanted to do this in 3D, projecting historical data on the screen of a tablet as 3D reconstructions visible in the Amsterdam streetview. You could show so much more information, i.e. how would the 1481 city walls look projected on the current skyline of Amsterdam. In addition to our own curiosity, in evaluations of the TtLG project students often mentioned they would like to see buildings and objects in 3D during the walk. So it was basically an idea that was waiting for a project. The project in collaboration with the APM flowed naturally from this as well, since the museum is also used for teaching purposes at ACASA.

How do you concretely plan to use AR in education in this project?

For the Blending Past and Present project, which is about projecting historical reconstructions in the current Amsterdam streetview, students will be able to see their reconstructions (a result of a course on 16th century artists in Amsterdam) real-size projected on the current facades of the modern buildings where the 16th century house or studio once was. They will use this to evaluate their reconstruction, especially the spatial aspects, as well as experiment with the AR for presenting and communicating the result of their work. In the Augmenting Artefacts project, we will use AR to scan particular artefacts and create an enriched experience by bringing other material resources and/or ancient texts into a single scene (e.g. artefacts on display in museums elsewhere) to provide clues as to their interpretation.

In what way(s) do you think that AR offers added value to processes of learning?

Steps in the process of making an augment: 1. a 3D representation of the target object, a real object in the world that can be recognized by the software. 2. a 3D reconstruction based on historical information such as maps, drawings and descriptions. 3. combine the models in an app that can be installed on a mobile device.

Well, that differs a lot across fields of expertise, but I think in general, adding digital components to a real site or setting can demonstrate connections between sources of information while retaining a strong sense of realism, different than you would have in a purely virtual environment. For archaeology, I think added value can be found in the explicit dimensionality of the projected virtual elements in their spatial setting; how big was that temple and how did it dominate its surroundings? How does a reconstruction play out real-sized and what could this have meant for actual use? In that sense, I think it is an expansion of the merits of virtual visualisation and 3D techniques, which can be seen as a process of engaging with the data in a recursive interpretative cycle. On the scale of augmenting artefacts, the added value is probably in dynamics and enriched context, i.e. get static objects from the vitrines and being able to study them on all sides, as well as adding digital context. Think about completing a broken object by adding the missing parts, or combine it with objects that probably belonged to the same sphere of use, e.g. place a wine cup in a scene of the symposion (simply put: wine party) by bringing in virtual mosaics, wall paintings or even citations of ancient texts. This would enable a student to evaluate material sources related to a single topic in coherence, where this would be impossible in any other way, which is what could be a ‘virtual lab’ for the archaeologist. More generally, there is of course much to say about the effect of immersive experiences and what these do for knowledge communication and retention. Such effects have been shown for e.g. using video instead of textbooks, and this could easily be expanded to incorporate the next step of interactive XR techniques. But let’s be honest as well; XR technology is rather new in educational innovation and working with it is more experimentation than established practice. I am just very enthusiastic about XR technology, and we are trying to find out what the most effective applications could be.

What do you think the future of AR/XR/VR in an academic context holds?

That is a huge question; but very general it creates the opportunity to create simulations as a lab or a classroom that would otherwise be impossible/very expensive/hard to manipulate, hereby for example increasing the possibility for testing in an experimental setting, but also bringing people together in a way that would otherwise be difficult. Think about making experts/excellent teachers available to anyone with a computer for example. However, if I keep it immediate and focused at education, I think one of the most obvious changes it will stimulate is a gradual transition in less emphasis on textbooks and classrooms to the advantage of (partly) virtual leaning experiences and environments. Our world, and worlds that have gone, are being digitized at a high speed, XR technology is becoming easier to use for non-specialists and XR devices are becoming smaller, mobile and more powerful, progressively lowering the threshold for implementation. For archaeology, this means it will become commonplace to bring study materials/objects/monuments that are not physically present into the classroom or embedded in local contexts and sites. I think XR techniques will become a standard asset in the toolkit for Blended Learning, where different techniques of knowledge communication and learning are combined for effective teaching. If we must believe Gartners’ hype cycle, for AR we are at the beginning of the Slope of Enlightenment, and trying to reach the Plateau of Productivity, which is exactly what the AR projects Blending Past and Present and Augmenting Artefacts set out to do 😉 (