Learning in augmented reality: Extending functional realities

The presentation that accompanies this post is here.

In a previous post about a recent presentation that I did on augmented reality and learning, I mentioned the concept of “functional reality”. Given the increasingly diverse and distinct virtual, augmented and physical realities that surround us, it is helpful to distinguish between realities that form an integral part of our meaning-making activities and those that do not. The concept of functional reality refers to those reality contexts in which individuals are able to make sense of their experiences. What constitutes a functional reality is distinct to each individual and dependent on the individual’s unique experiences, knowledge and skills. For example, I know the basic rules of American baseball. However, the few times that I see a baseball game on television, I am confused by all of the data displayed on the screen. I know that somewhere there is the number of strikes, balls, speed of the pitch, batting average, etc., but I don’t know what’s what. Hence, although I am experiencing the reality of the baseball game, my understanding of what is going on is hampered by the fact that all that data that is being displayed is not a part of my functional reality. I don’t know how to make sense of it. If this were a part of my functional reality, we could assume that I would be far better informed about various aspects of the game as I watch it than is the case. (Really, I just get utterly lost in these games – don’t have a clue what’s going on. Not that I’m overly concerned about it, but my friends get tired of my incessant questioning).

My point regarding augmented realities as they relate to learning, is that they can open up limited or non-functional realities to larger audiences, essentially broadening their functional reality. Thus, expanding individuals’ functional reality is a learning outcome. Nevertheless, because augmented realities basically consist of data layered over an experiential reality, there is still the issue of having to be able to make sense of the data layer in the context of the underlying experiential reality. This can be overcome on a case by case basis. I can be taught to decode all of the data floating around the TV screen during a baseball game just as anyone can be taught to decode a wide range of data overlays. As such, augmented reality technologies would seem to have a lot to offer educators. They can add a richness to experiences that aren’t obvious on the surface as long as learners are able to decode the additional data.

The approach to learning and augmented realities that I’ve described so far suggests a rather passive role for learners. Learners obviously enhance their experiences through the use of informative data layers. Yet, I wonder whether such a passive engagement with augmented reality technology actually expands learners’ functional reality or simply supplants it, creating a “reality dependency” where the extent of a functional reality becomes a variable property that is entirely reliant on the technology and whatever data it can provide at any given moment. I would be skeptical about defining functional reality in this way because it seems to me that a dependency on technology for augmentation creates a barrier between functionality and reality.

In my presentation, I suggested an approach that would encourage learners to actively participate in the creation of augmented realities, what I refer to as “learning as ‘realization'”. There’s an obvious play on words here, but I think the phrase is appropriate. “Realization” in this sense refers to both the discovery (something is realized) and the active creation of an individual’s reality (something is made real). In these kinds of activities, which I would ideally see as collaborative activities (more minds experience more richness), learners would be encouraged to “augment” something that they experience. It could be a statue that they see on a street corner. “Augmenting” could consist in finding out and documenting the subject matter, the artist, dimensions, materials, etc., and creating a data layer so that this information would become accessible to the public. In the process, learners will have discovered a number of things, ex. about their immediate environment, art in general, as well as developing skills related to information gathering, measuring, etc. Well thought out activities of this sort can obviously engage learners on a multitude of levels while broadening their conceptual relationship with what they experience around them, i.e. expanding their functional reality.

My conceptualization of functional reality as it relates to learning is not, and is not meant to be, an entirely novel approach in education. What I hope that it does do is suggest ways to combine a number of educational approaches (ex. experiential learning, collaborative learning, outcome-based learning, constructivism) with a reasonable expectation of how technology will affect our societies as we look to the future. Augmented reality is a technology that will have (to a lesser extent still, is having) a profound effect on societies and the way individuals learn. The combination of increasingly mobile technologies and those technologies’ environmental awareness capabilities suggest that augmented reality technologies will be the killer apps in the near and distant future. Experience suggests that educational policies will be ill-equipped to deal with these developments because policies tend to be very shortsighted. Hence, policies tend to be reactive, rather than proactive, in regards to technology and the typical knee-jerk reaction is to avoid them by banning them. The concept of functional reality as it relates to augmented realities and education is intended to illustrate a potential general framework for thinking proactively about an anticipated future and education.

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