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While most books are still just text on a page, augmented reality books can bring words and stories to life.
While most books are still just text on a page, augmented reality books can bring words and stories to life. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Tuesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Imagine reading a book about dinosaurs — and seeing the animals appear in front of you, even watching miniature versions of them walk right up your arm. With augmented reality, that’s possible. A book called iDinosaur lets readers hold a Tyrannosaurus Rex in their hands.

The University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) has 36 augmented reality children’s books in its libraries, including a handful of titles in Spanish. And future teachers are being introduced to the books as options for their classrooms.

Ilna Colemere, instructional technology coordinator at UTSA, researches ed tech and offers trainings for teachers and students on the technologies she sees as having the most potential in schools. Augmented reality books occupy just a tiny corner of the reading market, and many are published outside of the United States, making them hard to use here. The augmented reality elements of the books come alive through apps that are downloaded on phones or tablets, and Colemere said some of the apps aren’t available in the United States yet.

But she sees these books as powerful tools for engaging young readers.

“They add depth of understanding when it comes to the vocabulary,” Colemere said. “It makes it real, in a sense. That is where the wealth of this technology comes from.”

“They add depth of understanding when it comes to the vocabulary. It makes it real, in a sense.”

For several years now, publishers have experimented with ways to make books more interactive. The Hechinger Report profiled some of these efforts in 2015, describing how some books come with companion videos or have movement and sound embedded in them. Augmented reality books like the ones UTSA is collecting fit solidly into this “transmedia” world.

Virtual and augmented reality have been cited among the major trends in education innovation, offering students opportunities to take field trips anywhere in the world or dive into human systems and explore biology from the inside. The California State Parks system now offers direct interaction with park rangers for students visiting virtually from all over the country and the world.

Related: How one high-poverty district is adding virtual reality to its classrooms

Google Cardboard is among the cheapest ways to bring virtual reality to students, requiring just a smartphone and an easy-to-construct viewer (made of cardboard, lenses, magnets or tape, a fastener and a rubber band). Schools on pretty much any budget can now bring virtual reality to the classroom.

And with apps like Layar and Aurasma, students can make their own class projects interactive by creating augmented reality elements themselves. Students simply sync multimedia elements, such as videos, with static ones, like posters. When viewers look at the posters through the AR apps on their phones, the multimedia elements come alive.

Colemere emphasizes that classrooms don’t have to be heavily stocked with technology to make these lessons possible. Even if a teacher is the only one with a smartphone, she or he can facilitate shared AR or VR experiences for students. All it takes is one device.

But teachers, Colemere said, have to draw a line, making careful decisions about how virtual and augmented reality should fit in the classroom.

“It just goes back to producing quality products that are going to help our students,” Colemere said. She urges teachers to bring augmented or virtual reality to the classroom not because it’s novel, but because it can enhance student learning. “My entire approach is, ‘Don’t just use it because it’s there. What value does it bring to instruction?’”

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