Where there is a will there is way
In late March, Mr. Riyaz Hussain found himself locked inside his house like every other person in India. While most people were worrying about family, friends and work, there was something else weighing down Mr. Hussain. As a teacher teaching students from Class IX to Class XII, Mr. Hussain was worried about his students and education in general. Back then, he did not know that zoom class would become the new normal. While technology and tools like Zoom and WebEx have helped him take online classes, he has befriended another new technology: Augmented Reality. Mr. Hussain started using Augmented Reality in his teaching process.
When theoretical physicist Richard Feynman started teaching physics, he was startled by the fact that most physics classes did not include experiments. He was particularly disappointed with lectures where important theories were not proven using experiments. In the face of this pandemic, Mr. Riyaz Hussain found himself in a similar position where his students can be online, but their learning experience won’t be the same. Professor Richard Feynman brought experiments to his Physics classroom and Mr. Hussain brought Augmented Reality to his online Biology class.
Mr. Hussain teaches Biology for students in Class IX and X and Zoology to his Class XI and XII students in Andhra Pradesh. He is not any ordinary teacher but one who has more than 20 augmented reality apps on his Android phone and iPad. While teachers in metro cities are grappling with the idea of online classrooms, Mr. Hussain is putting his faith in technology. While he likes a lot of those AR apps as a tool to teach online, he likes ARious, an app developed by EDU360. The app started as a brainchild of Dr. Sudhakar Agarkar, a veteran educationist with four decades of experience at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai.
Meet ARious – AR for Curious
ARious, (AR for Curious) is an augmented reality app designed for educators as well as students in the age group of 10-18. The app is currently available as an early access download on both Google Play Store and Apple App Store.
The premise of the app is simple: how can scientific concepts like “Discovery of Nucleus” be turned into an augmented reality experience. Mr. Riyaz Hussain says, “you cannot bring the same interest possible in the real classroom to an online classroom”. He has been curious about using AR to teach his kids and found a companion in ARious to fuel interest among his students.
In a real classroom, the teacher is always present and has always eyes on every student. In the online classroom, the teacher is present, but the presence of students is not always guaranteed. A few teachers have already expressed concern of attention deficit being a big problem during these online classroom sessions that began in the earnest of COVID-19 lockdown in the country. The phenomenon is very well depicted in a KitKat ad.
In the ad, actor Ayushmann Khurrana can be seen taking an accounting class but none of his students seem interested. His puns around interest and tax land flat and he immediately suggests a break and then introduces a fun element. In the case of classes conducted by Mr. Riyaz Hussain, that fun element comes when he starts an AR app on his phone and shares the screen on WebEx.
Augmented Reality apps for teaching
AR apps as a teaching tool is not a new concept per se. There have been a number of AR applications available on major platforms that tried to teach scientific concepts to students in various age groups. While some of them achieved critical acclaim, their platform agnostic approach and initial cost became a hurdle. Because of that very reason, EDU360 decided to offer ARious as a free to use service right from the start. Mr. Agarkar believes that access should not stifle innovation and aims to help students explore science in augmented reality with ARious. [The app might adopt a subscription model in the future].
This is the story of Augmented Reality becoming a medium for education and Mr. Riyaz Hussain becoming its patron. One of the selling points of the app, according to Mr. Hussain, is the interface. He says the app is easy to understand and quick to get started. The app shows four subjects in the main screen: Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Astronomy.
As a Biology teacher, Mr. Hussain appreciates the fact that lessons are clearly differentiated. The ability to tap on Biology and look at an AR experience without having to go through a longer list, which might also include lessons from Physics and Chemistry, simplifies experience for teachers. While ARious is a practical and useful app for teachers, the intuitiveness of the app is getting equal attention.
Overcoming the Hurdles with online learning
While Mr. Hussain is using Augmented Reality extensively to teach certain concepts, the road to this point has not been easy. He says the availability of smartphones and access to data networks has been the biggest challenge. Most of his students rely on their parents’ smartphones to join Zoom or WebEx classroom. If the parents are not at home, a student might not be able to join the online class. Even if they have a smartphone and data connection, the next challenge is for them to try augmented reality applications.
For an AR app to work on an Android smartphone, the handset must support Google’s ARCore service. Mr. Hussain says that several smartphones in the affordable price segment don’t support ARCore. His students have informed him how they are unable to use these AR applications themselves because their Android phones don’t support ARCore. This has been a challenge for both consumers as well as developers. However, both Google and its OEM partners have started enabling ARCore on devices that previously did not support the framework.
Mr. Hussain bought a Nokia smartphone because his Vivo smartphone did not support ARCore. Our education system was never designed with digitization in mind. The inefficiency in the current education model is coming to hurt some more than others. The problem highlights the digital divide where a certain section of the society lacks hardware and data services to experience online education.
Initiatives from Government
In Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Hussain says the government has recognized this gap in access and offers online classes via a channel known as DD Saptagiri. However, some students might find a disconnect with that learning since they are used to seeing a teacher in their classroom and might have developed a connection with their teaching style. As a teacher teaching from his home, Mr. Hussain says he has made a few changes.
Finding a way out
He has shifted the timing of his classes to ensure that all students could join. He and his school called each student to understand whether they have devices and data access to attend online classes. In the case of those who don’t have smartphones, he heard suggestions from other students saying that they can go to another student’s house to join the online class. In such a case, the primary role of a teacher becomes that of an essential worker to guide on COVID-19 protocols.
Germination of seed in AR
These pitfalls are not fully behind him but Mr. Hussain is bringing education to a generation that is likely to take this country to a new level of prosperity. He has used ARious to teach plant cell and animal cell. While he acknowledges that the experience of teaching plant cell and animal cell is better than teaching with the help of a 2D book, he also notes that there could be some inconsistency because of the books being used by various school boards.
On the ARious app, he thinks “Germination of seed” is the best learning module. Mr. Hussain says the initial description accompanying the lesson is concise. He then says that the haptic feedback works as a good way to understand where the user is moving within the lesson. Afterwards, it is as simple as tapping on a “START” button and placing your screen in parallel to the surface and the lesson comes to life. In the case of “Germination of seed”, a user can tap on the slider at the left-hand corner to see how a seed germinates.
In the recent update of the app, ARious has also gained a new lesson called Heart, which shows working of a human heart. The lesson is a fastrack to understand the four chambers of a human heart and how blood gets circulated through the human body with the help of the heart. “The demonstration of the heart model is really nice,” says Mr. Hussain and acknowledges that the speed control is a nice addition. However, his favorite lesson in Biology remains unchanged, it is Germination of seed.
Augmented Reality in teaching becoming new normal in classrooms of the future
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new challenge for students as well as teachers. During this pandemic, edtech has become flavour of the season. ARious is not any other edtech startup but a mission driven one with the goal of making classroom education three-dimensional. Imagine that old classroom where the geography teacher walked in with a globe. Now, imagine that same globe in augmented reality and placed on the surface of the classroom.
Imagine each student having a device to view the globe from all sides. Imagine zooming into the Sahara Desert and seeing how it spans from Algeria to Tunisia. This is the power of Augmented Reality. Necessity is the mother of all innovation. The pandemic has made a new form of education a necessity. Apps like ARious form the very first layer of an innovative approach to education, especially online education.
Augmented Reality is already a popular tool among teenagers and Snapchatters. While it is being used extensively as a social media tool, the real impact of AR could be in the field of education. ARious is focused on pioneering that experience. The app developers are already working on new lessons including anatomy of the brain and lungs. Mr. Hussain says ARious is redefining teaching and learning experience. He adds that the app will be even more critical when students return to school in the post-COVID world.
Freelance Technology Journalist