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One story that caught my eye out of EDUCAUSE 2016 was Pearson’s HoloLens announcement. Pearson is partnering with Microsoft to run educational augmented reality pilots at a handful of postsecondary institutions. These pilots include investigating the potential of augmented reality in nursing education (Texas Tech and San Diego State), and for enhanced remote student tutoring in a liberal arts setting at Bryn Mawr College.  

You can learn more about Pearson’s vision for the HoloLens in higher education from a post by Peter Campbell. Peter is the director of strategy, immersive learning solutions at Pearson - someone with a background in both academic instructional design and educational technology.

Let’s take a step here. First, most of us have not gotten our heads around augmented reality. We tend to confound  VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality). The biggest news in VR over the past few years has been the $2 billion purchase of the VR company Oculus by Facebook in 2014, and the release of the Oculus Rift this year. 

AR is different from VR in that the user is not fully immersed in the virtual world, but rather interact with a combination of holographic images (and sound) with the physical environment. Microsoft calls this “mixed reality” - and for an idea of what wearing a HoloLens is like you should check out this video on their HoloLens site.  

If you are an educator your alarm bells should be ringing at this point.  

Virtual and augmented reality have every potential of crashing and burning through the edtech hype cycle. With VR and AR we are destined for an era of inflated promises, overheated rhetoric, and the inevitable crash of disappointment.  

Higher ed people seem to be willfully insistent on not learning the lessons of past edtech hype cycles. 

I’ve lived through the boom and bust of virtual worlds (Second Life), netbooks and MOOCs. 

We are still waiting on the hype crash for adaptive learning platforms, mobile learning, and learning analytics - so that we can get on with the incorporation of these technologies into our work.

So why should AR be any different? 

Honestly, what has gotten me intrigued is Pearson - and this Pearson and Microsoft partnership.

We tend to forget that Pearson is the largest educational company in the world. Pearson is an $8 billion company with over 35,000 employees spread across 70 countries. Over the last couple of years Pearson has narrowed its focus on digital education, selling businesses such as The Economist and The Financial Times. Much of the world still thinks of Pearson as a paper textbook company - but the future of Pearson is clearly in educational services (such as online program management - Pearson Embanet) and adaptive learning platforms (such as MyLab).  

As Pearson transitions itself from a publisher to a digital education services company, Microsoft is undergoing a similar transition from a products to services. Microsoft, with 114,000 employees and a market capitalization of over $470 billion, has for too long punched below its weight in higher education. Many of us may use Microsoft applications each and every day, but Microsoft’s academic mindshare remains small compared to the company’s corporate and consumer reach.

For Pearson, making a big bet on augmented reality as a game changer in higher education makes sense. Pearson is transitioning from a legacy goods model (selling textbooks) to a services model (adding value to institutions and learners).  Building experience, competency, networks, and collaborations around augmented reality may help accelerate that transition.

For Microsoft, a big bet on augmented reality in learning could leapfrog the company directly into postsecondary relevance.  

Pearson is starting small with its pilots, running with disciplined AR experiments in residential programs that have a strong need for technology augmentation. Nursing training is perfect for AR, as the current practice of using “standardized patients” (actors) to simulate clinical situations is wickedly expensive. Substituting even small amounts of standardized patient time for training by augmented reality could result in meaningful cost savings for nursing programs (and ultimately nursing students).  

The real potential of AR is the dream to make the next big leap in online learning. The decades of experience that we now have with online learning has proven that we can do many many things well at a distance. What we have never figured out is how to teach hands-on and tactile skills very well through online education. 

You can get pretty far with virtual labs, but at some point there is no substitute for getting one’s hands on the organic matter and chemical compounds.  Architecture and design students still need to build physical models. And collaborative hands-on work - be it in a lab or a studio - is still difficult to replicate on a screen with the fidelity of in-person interactions.

Augmented reality could break through many of the limitations that we face today in online learning. We can imagine scenarios where students can learn hands-on skills without having to congregate in one place. Augmented reality could change our expectations of online synchronous (same-time) learning, enabling the insertion of distant coaching and instruction for complex tasks.

If AR is to be a game changer in online learning, however, there remains a long road between here and there. We will need years of patient experimentation, learning, and feedback.  We will need the technology to develop. Ideally, this technology will develop within an educational feedback loop. The developers of the technology, such as Microsoft, should be paying attention to how the technology is used in teaching and learning.

Pearson and Microsoft have the size and reach to play this long game.  If (and in my mind this is a big if) Pearson and Microsoft decide that AR is a central element to their long-term educational strategy - then these two companies (collaborating with colleges and universities) could just pull this off.

My strong hope is that Pearson and Microsoft do everything they can go damp down the hype of AR for education. That they stay modest and small, and work hard to put the needs of educators first.  We would want Pearson to be open about reporting the results (both good and bad) of the HoloLens pilots that they have initiated.  

Pearson should put transparency and relationships with educators first in their AR program. There is less risk of competitors taking the “idea” of using AR for learning than Pearson may imagine. The real differentiator here is not the technology - as the technology will become commoditized - but the ability to make a sustained and long-term commitment to developing a teaching ecosystem around educational AR in partnership with educators.  

This commitment must be about the connections and networks that can be made in the education community as we experiment with and adopt new practices - including AR - in blended and online learning.

What do you think that Pearson and Microsoft could do to show that they are serious about this long-term commitment to experimenting with AR in education?

What would be your incentives to partner with Pearson and Microsoft to experiment with the HoloLens in your educational programs?

What sort of complementary services and software should Pearson be developing to accelerate the diffusion of AR in education?

How can we avoid entering the educational hype cycle for AR?


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