Learning history with augmented reality


Augmented reality immersive interfaces possess the potential to improve student learning and influence the overhaul of the process of schooling. The ubiquity and power of mobile learning devices and the learning advantages afforded through constructivist, game-like pedagogies provide both opportunities and challenges for schooling, and we are only beginning to understand the effective teaching and curriculum design required for such immersive interfaces. Applied to the discipline of history, these changes could assist students to move beyond predetermined textbook notions of history and instead develop the skills to think and act like historians.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality is the concept of spatially blending a digital layer of information onto the physical environment. It is designed to blur the boundaries between reality and technology by enabling users to interact with virtual people and objects when they approach a linked location in the real world (New Media Consortium, 2010a). Through an immersive interface, augmented realities are able to make participants feel as though they are taking part in realistic experiences. Dede (2009) asserts that participants are able to suspend disbelief that they are immersed in augmented reality when the interface provides the sensory feeling of being in a three-dimensional space, when they can “initiate actions impossible in the real world that have novel, intriguing consequences”, and “powerful semantic, psychological associations” are triggered by the content of the experience. As the technology has matured, augmented reality has begun to spill into education and these interfaces support thinking and learning in ways that have not previously been possible (Dede, Dieterle, Clarke, Jass Ketelhut, & Nelson, 2007).

Educational appeal and application

The emergence of new digital media is altering the way people think and learn. Today’s students are accustomed to negotiating among various media sources and working in “a digital environment for communication, information gathering, and analysis” (Oblinger 2004, p. 2). A 2009 national survey found that 8- to 18-year-olds devote an average of 7 hours, 38 minutes to using entertainment media in a typical day – more than 53 hours a week (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2009). Immersive interfaces appeal to these Neomillennial Learning Styles, which are “geared toward entertainment, excitement, experiential activities, structure, teamwork, and the use of technology” (Dede et al. 2007).

Mobile phones possess the potential to significantly influence teaching and learning. Students use smartphones to communicate with their peers throughout the day and research has noted significant engagement when similar tools are used for learning (Dunleavy, Dede & Mitchell, 2009). It is highly likely that mobile phones will soon be utilized in schools and these devices have “the potential to change both what and how we teach and learn” (Dieterle, Dede & Shrier, 2007, p.5). The ubiquity and power of sophisticated smartphones means that the technology is now available for engaging augmented reality applications to soon become widespread.

Immersive interfaces can significantly improve student engagement. Students also learn more through immersive simulation than via traditional teaching, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or English language proficiency (Dede, 2009). In immersive environments “many academically low-performing students do as well as their high-performing peers…Digital immersion allows these students to build confidence in their academic abilities by stepping out of their real-world identity of poor performer academically” (Dede, 2009). It is possible that immersive media may hold a key to releasing “trapped intelligence and engagement in many learners, if we can understand how best to design instruction using this type of immersive, simulated experience” (Dede, 2009). It has also been found that the learning benefits of immersive simulations also apply to older learners and not just school age participants (Dede, 2009; Shrier, 2005).

The most significant advantage of augmented reality is the facilitation of the “development of process skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating utilized through interdependent collaborative exercises” (Dunleavy et al., 2009, p. 20). Augmented reality has the potential to help shift learning from students receiving content to enabling them to take an active role in creating knowledge (Educause Learning Initiative, 2005). McWilliam calls for teachers to spend less time explaining through instruction and more time in what she describes as “experimental and error-welcoming modes of engagement” (2007, p.5), and to take play seriously as a pedagogical tool. Education is about more than accumulating large repertoires of facts and routines, however the demand for content coverage in schools often results in a pedagogy of teaching by mentioning that rewards formulaic learners. The aim of school should be to produce thinkers rather than memorisers, not to cover content, but to help learners become thoughtful about and productive with content. This is supported by findings from neuroscience which show that the brain is changed through active experimentation, not by teacher-centred pedagogy (Zull, 2004).

A failure to properly prepare teachers in the use of appropriate pedagogical strategies for augmented reality would negate its vast potential. As Matthews (2009) states, “the role that teachers play in the learning process cannot be overemphasized.” Teachers need to act as guides and mentors encouraging collaboration, reflection, debate, and debriefing. Teachers who are uncomfortable relinquishing control of learning to students (Dunleavy et al., 2009) and who are unwilling to advocate for the use of augmented realities will engender a resulting lack of interest in students (Dieterle et al., 2007).

Curriculum development is the key to augmented reality’s potential as a teaching tool (Blagg, 2009) and augmented reality simulations need to be effectively integrated into the broader curriculum. It is important to embed “…the AR game within a larger curricular unit that involves pre-game introduction activities and post-game debriefing activities” (Mathews and Squire, in press). Confining immersive interfaces to the teacher-centred model of education is akin to putting a rocket engine on the back of a horse. Immersive interfaces will be ineffectual alongside curriculum fixed in the practices of memory skills, instruction, and pen and paper dexterity.

It is likely that, just as video games have been found to encourage good learning principles (Gee, 2003), augmented reality simulations will do the same. Designers of augmented reality experiences are leveraging design techniques from role playing games (Squire and Klopfer, 2007). A real advantage of these sorts of simulations is that they allow students to become more comfortable with failure, as mistakes are often a natural part of the learning process in the game. This supports findings from neuroscience which show that failure is a natural part of learning (Willingham, 2009).

There are three main styles of applying augmented reality to education. Firstly there is the closed-ended, place-based field trip, which is the easiest and least likely to last long-term as it will be impossible to scale. Secondly, there is the more ubiquitous approach of ambient games which last two to three weeks and blend into the neighbourhood. This approach can be influential. Thirdly, there is the possibility of having learners create their own games, which would involve a significant disruption to current educational practice. Klopfer (personal communication, October 15, 2010) calls for teachers to be clearer about what they are trying to achieve. For instance, are teachers using augmented reality to convey events or to help learners understand the complexity of causation?

Application to teaching and learning history

While augmented reality interfaces can feasibly be designed and applied to any subject area, History stands to make particular gains from augmented reality approaches. There are already augmented reality virtual tour guides for museums (Studierstube, n.d.), augmented reality applications that provide maps and information about how historical sites looked at different times in history (ICT Results, 2009), visitors will soon be able to pan across the Coliseum and see what it looked like with cheering spectators and competing athletes (iTacitus, 2007), and augmented reality services are being developed in relation to the Civil War (Mummert, 2010). Augmented reality simulation games for History have also been developed. One example is Dow Day (ARIS, n.d.), which places participants in the role of a news reporter investigating different perspectives during 1967 protests against the production of napalm. Another example is Karen Schrier’s (2005) ’Reliving the Revolution’ which is a focus for this paper.

‘Reliving the Revolution’

‘Reliving the Revolution’ enables participants to physically traverse the site of the Battle of Lexington reliving events from the perspective of one of four historic figures present at the Battle during the American Revolution (Shrier, 2006). Participants use GPS –enabled wireless handheld devices to collect evidence in order to determine who fired the first shot, a source of continued historical debate. At specific spots in Lexington, virtual items appear, such as a musket, descriptions of buildings or virtual historic figures, like Paul Revere. The historic figures provide testimonials about what they think happened, and they share evidence in the form of maps, documents, and images. Participants play the game in pairs and take the role of either an African American slave/Minuteman soldier; a free/white Minuteman soldier; a female loyalist; or a British/Regular soldier. Depending on the role they take, they will receive different evidence: “a British soldier might give misinformation to a Minuteman soldier, or a slave might share more insights with a fellow slave” (Shrier, 2006).

The following examples from participants in ‘Reliving the Revolution’ help explain the development of their historical skills. One participant found that the significance of concepts that had previously been abstract was clarified: “I relearned U.S. History One…this recapped it and I relearned it and now I know more about history. … the pictures, and the items [helped make it clearer]” (Shrier, 2005). Another participant comparing the ‘Reliving the Revolution’ learning experience to usual history class commented: “A history class is like data, but this was like data and then you had to interpret or analyze it on top of it” (Shrier, 2005). Another participant revealed a more complex understanding of the various points of view of the Battle of Lexington: “I learned about all the different sides. Normally you would just think of the American soldiers and the British soldiers, slaves, the wives, the people at the bar, the Minutemen, there are people frustrated here for personal reasons, patriotic reasons, you get a sense of the different roles of that time period” (Shrier, 2005). The construction of their own interpretations and conclusions was reinforced by a participant’s comment that ‘Reliving the Revolution’ was different from other games because, “You had to research and then figure something out for yourself. It wasn’t like a set like ‘you have to click on this conclusion now.’ You have to come up with whatever” (Shrier, 2005).

The importance of needing to physically move was reflected in a conversation between two participants:
“Participant 1: Yeah, if we sat in a classroom and did this and I would walk away and be
like “Yeah, okay.”
Participant 2: But when you are actually moving around to do it….I think it’s definitely
more interesting to do it this way than to sit in the classroom” (Shrier, 2005).

An exchange from the post-game debate demonstrates how the participants reached conclusions:
“Participant 1 (British soldier): There wasn’t one piece of evidence, but it was
the mentioning of one name over and over again. Like you can never really trust
one firsthand account, because of course they are going to be biased by their side.
But if you get like four or five people mentioning Edward Mitchell [a British
soldier], it kinda leads you to believe that he did something.
Participant 2 (Slave/Minuteman): Like whenever we found a British person,
they were too busy to talk to people, they were only busy looking for something
and doing something.
Participant 1 (British soldier): Well that could have just been you, since you are
a slave and a minuteman soldier, they wouldn’t have talked to you anyway.
(looking through her handheld) Because a lot of British soldiers talked to us
because we are British. Like this guy said, “Those Lexington Minutemen asked
for it. The Minutemen were out for revenge. They should surrender.”
Participant 3 (Loyalist): Yeah, we found a hat that had been marched on. So that
probably means that…the British were in pursuit, that they probably came here
looking for a fight, and they were willing to pursue it.
Participant 4 (Loyalist): That they were prepared to pursue it” (Shrier, 2005).

Shrier (2005) found that the use of augmented reality for learning was best supported through the pedagogical frameworks of constructivism/constructionism and situated cognition. She believed that an augmented reality game could teach critical thinking and historiographical skills, whilst physically navigating historical evidence in a historical site to make the process of doing history more authentic. Dieterle et al, (2007) found that the results of ‘Reliving the Revolution’ “suggested that the game encouraged active, participatory and reflective learning through appropriate pedagogy surrounding the affordances of WHDs [wireless handheld devices].” There were high levels of engagement and the multimodal learning developed participants’ historical understanding, collaboration skills, media fluency, decision-making and critical thinking skills (Dieterle, 2009).

Analysis of augmented reality applications to teaching and learning history

Well designed augmented reality-based participatory simulations can “enhance the learning of historical knowledge, historical methodology, and the critiquing of interpretations” (Dieterle, et al., 2007, p. 10). Shrier (2005) is critical of K-12 History education, believing that students tend to learn a “master narrative of the past, but not the skills involved in creating and assessing histories” (p. 11). One of her aims with ‘Reliving the Revolution’ was to motivate students to think historically and work with evidence in order to develop historical skills. A simulation like ‘Reliving the Revolution’ scaffolds historical skills and encourages participants to act like historians by doing history, “rather than passively receiving historical information or accepting an institutionally-vetted narrative of the past” (Dieterle et al., 2007) and students develop “a more complex, nuanced understanding of the various points of view.”

History is something students should do, not something they should consume, and “instead of simply memorizing a series of names, dates, and places that support one singular historical ‘truth,’ students should learn how to pose inquiry questions, select, interpret, and analyse evidence, solve authentic problems, and develop their own historical interpretations” (Mathews, 2009). Wineburg (2001) has criticized the “textbook mentality” (p. 79) which presumes that historical knowledge only needs to be known rather than understood. Seixas (2000) argues that what is being taught is not history at all—but myth creation, and Wilson (2001) believes that history has become impenetrable for students, “resulting in little intellectual engagement, a dominance of teachers and textbooks, and minimal problem solving or critical thinking.” Research (Clark, 2009) has found that many school students find learning history boring and this lack of interest is confirmed by low levels of historical knowledge.

Helping students move away from a predetermined notion of history assists students to develop historical habits of mind such as: assessing evidence, assessing interpretations, and analyzing change. Lee & Ashby (2000) refer to these as “second-order” concepts and explain that these are ideas that enable us to understand history as a discipline. Seixas (1999) asserts that even conceiving of content and pedagogy as separate categories is not helpful as the two are inseparable.

The value of history education lies in its complexity (Seixas, 1997; Wineburg, 2001) and history teaching should reflect the complexity of the subject. Situating learners in authentic and “emotionally compelling, cognitively complex problem solving contexts” (Squire & Klopfer, 2007, p. 6) is “a promising method for learning sophisticated cognitive skills, such as using inquiry to find and solve problems in complicated situations” (Dede, 2009). Additionally, participating in a simulation in a real physical context triggers students’ pre-existing knowledge and this suggests “that a powerful potential of augmented reality simulation games could be in their ability to connect academic content and practices with their physical lived worlds” (Squire & Klopfer, 2007, p. 371).

The question of how much augmented reality versus how much reality remains to be answered. While structure is important, the best learning environment is the space between being totally open-ended and totally structured (E. Klopfer, personal communication, October 15, 2010). The physical place makes the abstract real and blends what learners see at that moment with their own reality. The confluence of virtual and physical information helps participants recall specific details and comprehend the significance of abstract concepts (Dieterle et al., 2007). Through the ability to simulate real problems and contexts, immersive interfaces also enable participants to transfer knowledge learned in one situation to another situation with improved performance (Dede, 2009).

Augmented reality games and simulations have the potential to create historical experiences that can scaffold student learning to the historical inquiry process (Klopfer, 2008; Squire & Jan, 2007). Augmented reality is able to situate learners within the core practices of history, the “core disciplinary dilemmas…non-linear open-ended dilemmas with no clear boundaries, that are central to a field” (Squire & Klopfer, 2007, p. 372). These problems can surface simplistic beliefs about history and entice students into complex historical practices by immersing them in the roles of historians. “[R]ecent research suggests that game-based historical simulations have the potential to create rich problem spaces that provide opportunities for students to practice their historical empathy skills and develop their understanding of history as an interpretation of events instead of a set of facts or a singular ‘historical truth’” (Squire & Durga, in press). In addition, augmented reality may be useful for helping students understand what is involved in undertaking large research projects and overcoming some of the challenges to inquiry-based learning (Squire & Klopfer, 2007).

Effective history teaching requires encouraging an understanding of multiple perspectives. Students tend to view history as a continuous, uncontested, predetermined story (Holt, 1990), where “a uniform ‘picture of the past'” (Shemilt, 2000, p. 85) is presented. Holt suggests that instead of handing over stories, history teaching should provide students with “the raw materials of history” (p. 10) and let them decide what story should be told. Critical historical engagement is more important than the facts (Clark, 2009) and students need to learn that the purpose might be different depending on who constructs the narrative (Holt, p. 5).

Augmented reality provides multiple entry points into the past and “real-world immersion in the ‘historical past’ in a way that was previously not possible” (Allison, 2008, p. 343). Unlike the linearity of writing, augmented reality possesses the scope, “to allow nonlinear narratives, multiple and distributed points of entry into a story, thus presenting alternate lenses through which to observe a past event” (Mathews, 2009). Importantly, a key design strategy of immersive interfaces is its potential to encourage multiple perspectives and enable participants to alternate perspectives. Being able to change perspectives from outside to inside an object or space, “is a powerful means of understanding a complex phenomenon” (Dede, 2009). The outside perspective provides distance to foster “abstract, symbolic insights”, and the inside perspective enables “actional immersion and motivation through embodied, concrete learning” (Dede, 2009).

While written narrative provides a range of educational possibilities, augmented reality as a medium provides a different range of possibilities. The augmented reality approach does not replace the classroom approach, it complements it. Instead of analysing written texts, the more game-like approach enables learners to make decisions, weigh evidence, assess consequences, and take on a variety of roles. The structure of the game can enable learners to reflect on their learning, discuss and debate with other learners, and move outside character’s shoes and back into their own. It is a different experience for each participant and brings them into the learning in a very personal way. (E. Klopfer, personal communication, October 15, 2010)

However, there is a danger that augmented reality could merely reinforce the fixed perspective that children bring to their understanding of history. Mathews & Squire (in press) found in their analysis of Dow Day that “students failed to see the game itself as a construction of reality and did not discuss the game as a designed learning experience with its own inherent interpretations and biased representation of the past. Instead students treated the game in the same way they might treat a historical film or traditional documentary (i.e., as an authorized, sanctioned or official truth)”.

Teaching about the past is inherently controversial and augmented reality could invigorate debates that have been taxing historians for centuries over definitions such as: ‘the past’, ‘reality’, and ‘history’. Allison notes that, “This type of tension is dynamic and good for History as a discipline” (p. 349). Kansteiner’s (2006) research into the sublimation of personal guilt into collective symbolic guilt in post-war Germany reveals the difficulties educators and game designers will experience as they try to enable children to link historical narratives to their own lives.

Likely impact and evolution

Researchers are working to structure augmented reality experiences so that participants are required to make interesting decisions rather than answer trivial questions. As augmented reality games become more commercial the consumers will drive the market (E. Klopfer, personal communication, October, 15, 2010). Moviemakers and toymakers are embracing augmented reality technology to enhance their products. The Horizon Report (New Media Consortium, 2010a) notes that, “Augmented reality is poised to enter the mainstream and market projections for augmented reality on mobile devices predict revenues of $2 million in 2010, rising to several hundred million by 2014.”

Publishers are also taking notice. The application of augmented reality can bring a print publication to life with videos playing directly from the physical page. In Australia, Macmillan is assessing the possibilities from a technological perspective and considering using augmented reality for upcoming Australian Curriculum publications (B. James, personal communication, October 11, 2010).

Augmented reality “holds great promise for enhancing student learning, but we are only beginning to understand effective instructional designs for this emerging technology” (Dunleavy et al., 2009, p. 19). Much work is needed to determine how to best blend real world and virtual experiences (Dieterle et al., 2007). As augmented reality is such a new area there is a huge need for further research into its affordances for education. The technical issues and prohibitive costs which have prevented widespread adoption of augmented reality in education to this point are becoming less of an issue. While most of the activity in education regarding augmented reality is occurring in universities, this is beginning to be transferred to K-12 settings. The 2010 Horizon Report (New Media Consortium, 2010b) predicts a four to five year adoption horizon at K-12 and a two to three year adoption at college level.

However, augmented reality interfaces are not disrupting education and despite all of its educational potential, augmented reality cannot be deemed a disruptive innovation. Augmented reality is an addition rather than a disruption to education as usual. As information becomes more personal and portable, and the Internet becomes a more pervasive part of the landscape, augmented reality will most likely incrementally become a common feature of people’s lives. In a world where most technology experts foresee a future in which wireless devices are embedded in everything, cameras record activity in public spaces, the Internet and applications are everywhere, and digital material is projected on all kinds of surfaces (World Future Society, n.d.), it is likely that using augmented reality to teach and learn history will soon become commonplace within the educational landscape.


Augmented reality immersive interfaces possess the potential to improve student learning and move students beyond predetermined textbook notions of history. History is something students should do, not something they should consume and augmented reality games and simulations can scaffold student learning to the historical inquiry process. As the technical issues and prohibitive costs which have prevented widespread adoption of augmented reality in education become less of an issue, augmented reality holds promise for enhancing student learning, although much research into effective pedagogy for this educational environment remains to be done.


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