Augmented reality: How does it impact equality in education?

Trey Lee

While the act of learning is commonly associated with classrooms, recent years have seen educators searching for new ways outside of the classroom to engage with students and promote learning. This has become recognized as informal education. Informal learning experiences rarely focus on teaching specific knowledge and skills, but instead concentrate on trying to spark curiosity to further science learning. Research shows that motivation holds consistent positive relationships with many learning outcomes, which is why we are looking toward emerging technologies for ways to increase students’ motivation to learn.

Students interact with AR to learn science concepts

Augmented Reality (AR) has the potential to enhance students’ experiences within learning environments, and our current focus is exploring this potential in informal education. AR technology creates a virtual 3D space where digital objects are displayed as if they are present in the real world instead of solely a virtual one like with virtual reality (VR). AR appears in two modes of delivery: head-mounted displays (HMDs) and AR interfaces. AR HMDs are devices worn on the user’s head that project digital images onto a specially designed transparent lens in a way that makes the object in the images appear as if the object is located within the real world. One example of AR within education is a study comparing the use of AR applications within two fifth grade classrooms focused on butterfly ecology. The results suggest a significant increase in both learning achievement and learning attitudes. The students in the study responded quite positively to the technology, but another indicator of success came from the surveys given to the teachers. The aspect the teachers liked most about the technology was that it permitted the students to progress at their own pace while allowing the teachers to provide support where necessary without needing to direct every part of the lesson.

A core component of AR that helps enhance students’ interest is gamification, which is the use of game mechanics in a non-game situation to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. Gamification can be used in a learning context to encourage students to perform better in learning tasks. The most common examples of gamification mechanics we see are badges, points, and leaderboards. Research suggests that people can have different degrees of susceptibility to gamification, one example being that younger people or those who are more familiar with games are more likely to be influenced by gamification techniques. One study found that gender and personality can affect students’ perception of specific game elements, but that gender can moderate the effect of personality on that perception. Studies have also shown that AR technology can be particularly beneficial for students with various disabilities. Furthermore, another study demonstrated that AR provides beneficial support for the entire classroom and is not limited solely to students with disabilities. The investigation of gender differences in school achievement has a history of controversy, but it is important to understand how those differences are mitigated/enhanced by emerging educational tools.

Fun-filled locations like zoos and aquariums are great opportunities to get kids excited about science, so we chose Blue Zoo aquariums to deploy our first educational AR application. Our preliminary results show that high school students generally like AR technology as a learning tool for coral reef ecology. They see it as an effective way to increase motivation and complement learning in both formal and informal education environments, while slightly favoring AR for formal classrooms. Significant improvements in knowledge assessment scores for all participants further support AR’s efficacy as a learning tool to increase understanding of coral reef ecology, while negating subject attitude effects on learning achievement that existed before our activity. However, we found that those learning outcomes may be moderated by gender identity.

Gamified AR may aid learning performance with students of all subject interests, but the essence of video games in today’s world may moderate that learning performance in favor of males. We did include ‘non-binary/third gender’ within our scope during data collection because many other studies surprisingly did not, but we didn’t want to generalize what we saw in those results without a greater sample size. However, we did find significant differences between boys and girls with the post-test scores and score improvement. Studies have shown that gender differences affect the perception of gamification. This could be a result of females feeling less encouraged to play video games because of negative expectations based on gender and/or prior experiences while gaming. One study found through survey analysis that boys from the age of 14 use video games up to five times more than females. Males are also more likely to be interested in using technology than females. The combination of these two findings may result in a steeper learning curve for females regarding gamified interfaces within educational contexts.

The brain is flexible and prone to change in accordance with physical and social environments, which suggests that any gender differences regarding susceptibility to gamification resulting from the social environment of gaming that exist today can be changed in the future. If the field of gaming sees the same increasing trends in gender equality as education has seen over the past 20 years, the gender differences in gamification susceptibility may change along with them. As these emerging technologies continue to develop, so will our understanding of how to best address imbalances in education commonly found in formal classroom settings by providing alternative modes of learning.

Trey Lee is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability at the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation focuses on the development and implementation of extended reality (XR) technologies within environmental research and education.

For any questions or additional information, contact Trey at treylee (at) Follow him on Instagram to keep up with his latest activities: @treyolen.

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