Note: The following article uses the Design Thinking Cycle from DownCity Design. The cycle helps to model the chronological steps that occurred in this project. Please click on the previous link to learn more.

Identifying the Problem

When the sixth-grade students enter Barrington Middle School, they have a lot of questions. Teachers and administrators have a lot to cover and a limited amount of time and space. This is particularly true of the learning space in the Information and Library Media Center. Nancy Maddocks leads students in all grade levels through practical and inventive ways for collecting and curating research, self interests, and community engagement.  However, it is often challenging to facilitate those frequently-asked questions when numerous tasks call for her attention.



Exploring the Solution

On the second day of school, Nancy was speaking with Mark Davis who teaches a Computer Technology course.  He was looking for an opportunity to collaborate on a creative project that would engage the entire learning community. Service learning is an opportunity to teach and reflect on learning objectives through community involvement. When Nancy mentioned the library orientation, Mark saw an opportunity to introduce augmented reality into a service learning project.

Augmented reality is the process of layering digital media over physical objects using technology. Given the rear-facing cameras on tablets and smartphone, media can be augmented over objects in the physical word for real-time viewing. Mark was familiar with Aurasma, a free tool from HP.  In previous experiences, students and teachers created augmented reality scavenger hunts and gallery walks in the classroom with existing objects.

“Students were inquisitive about the library and interested in creating a project that would support all students.”

Imagining the Best Solution

The two colleagues decided that students in Mark’s sixth grade Computer Technology course would be the ideal producers for the content and creation of an augmented reality exhibit. Students were inquisitive about the library and interested in creating a project that would support all students. The project would introduce them to strategies for delivering information to a wide audience while using a creative, 21st-century tool.

The two colleagues had one major challenge: could they design, create, and launch the project in two days? Before the Labor Day weekend, the instruction and production would have to be completed on the Wednesday and Thursday before school closed for four days. On the day students returned, the first group of peers would arrive,  first period, for orientation. Therefore, the project had to be functional before the holiday weekend. It was a daunting challenge for both teachers.

Evolving with the Learners

To begin, Nancy came to Mark’s classroom and conducted a Parking Lot conversations using Post-It notes.  The group was asked to consider what questions they had about the library. Each student produced a Post-It note with a question that was hung on the board. In a traditional Parking Lot strategy, the teacher quickly groups similar questions under topic headings. For example, questions that relate to the return and checking out of books might be grouped under the title of “Circulation Desk.”

Grade 6 parking lot questions about the library

In this process, Mark introduced a favorite tool for collecting, sorting, and saving the notes digitally. Post-It ® Plus, an app for iOS and Android, allows the user to take a picture of the sticky notes and import them as an interactive digital board.  Each note becomes an independent image that can be re-sized, moved, and annotated. The final version can then be exported as a PDF file or slidedeck so that it can be shared with others. The teachers projected the digital board using an LCD projector, allowing all students to see the questions easier and participate in collaborative, digital sorting.

A series of common themes and questions was established and reviewed by Nancy and Mark during a common planning period later on the first day. The decision was made to select seven key questions or ideas that appeared frequently. Nancy rewrote the questions in kid-friendly language and paired them with a unique icon that matched the content. Each question and icon was printed and became the “trigger,” the physical object that would be augmented by the students.

Two six-graders collaborate on a video recording using an iPad

On the second day, students were paired and provided with an iPad with Aurasma installed. Mark gave a 10-minute lesson of instructions on how to create and save an augmented object using Aurasma.  Students then had a limited amount of time to decide the best mode for delivering augmented content. Some students took screenshots or photos, others produced brief videos.  By the end of class, they students produced original media that was augmented to the triggers created by Nancy.

Sharing the Prototype

Later in the day, Nancy and Mark tested the prototypes for accuracy and content. At times, the results were not as complete or helpful as the teachers had hoped. In fact, during the holiday weekend, the two met together to problem solve some of the technology challenges. Nevertheless, in just two class periods, the students produced amazing results and met the launch deadline.

The following week, students from Mark’s classes served as docents to the orientation students.

Grade 6 Plus-Minus-Delta reflection

A series of stations with the triggers was set up in a corner of the library. Each station had an iPad and a pair of headphones available. Students rotated through the stations to examine the question with Aurasma. Students found the experience was very engaging and many asked how it was produced.

The next day, Nancy conducted a Plus-Minus-Delta talk with the production team students. The aim was to

analyze the project’s successes, challenges, and future improvements. The students took great pride in their immediate results. They were understanding about the challenges faced by some of the tasks they had to complete.

“….accepting the unrefined process of design was the most challenging aspect of this learning experience.”

Making Refinements

Certainly, this lesson was a primary example of emphasizing process over product. The final product is the goal, but the design process is the exciting part. Watching students develop creative solutions and communicate complex ideas in multimedia was invigorating. It became clear that a number of resources needed to be in place for a smoother process.

Aside from time, having a clear set of expectations and a model of an augmented reality experience would have been helpful. Students could have discussed the benefits and weaknesses of several models to determine best practices. This could have been completed using the Plus-Minus-Delta strategy or another Parking Lot.  A fellow colleague, Rebecca Henderson, has demonstrated the power of a SWOT analysis. By examining the entire design process for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, the students can be more mindful of the experience and reflect on the process rather than focus on the end result.

Scott Morpeth, a district technology specialist, was very helpful in organizing the Aurasma app on the iPads. Without his contribution, the timeframe for designing the augmented reality experience would not have been possible. Involving more colleagues is always helpful and Mark and Nancy are not the only faculty at Barrington Middle School using augmented reality. The eighth grade teachers in the Purple Cluster used student-produced dioramas as their triggers. Using the iPads equipped with Aurasma, students recorded reflections about their work and paired the video with their diorama. During Open House, parents were provided with iPads and invited to take a gallery walk where they could  see their child’s work and hear his/her reflections.

Grade 8 students facilitated the augmented reality stations for sixth graders

Most of all, students helped each other with challenges by sharing strategies freely and serving as facilitators for gallery walk. Since students were responsible for communicating content, they became fluent with the information and had better comprehension. More importantly, with the emphasis on the process and not  “having the right answer,”  mistakes and challenges were accepted as a natural part of the process and not a failure. Above all, this lesson helps students see how being part of a community is both frustrating and fulfilling. As a learning community, we are grateful for their willingness to meet a challenging task with enthusiasm and patience.

As two literacy-orientated teachers, Mark and Nancy were fond of the famous poem stating “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This project could have received the benefit of more time for planning, but what else could have affected the outcome? They noted that perhaps a different age group or later in the school year would have made a drastic difference. The technology was not essential to the task yet it certainly made motivation and the stakes for completion much higher.

For the two colleagues, accepting the unrefined process of design was the most challenging aspect of this learning experience. Both discovered that, like the students, an emphasis on the quality of the final project was less meaningful than the quantity of skills and strategies learned and applied in the process of creation. This empowered both Mark and Nancy to take more risks with instruction in a way that allows students to construct knowledge rather than simply being vessels expecting to be filled with the content.