Students at Hoërskool Dinamika, a school in the east of Johannesburg, are gathered around a table. Sets of cards are arranged in rows before them. Some students also have the cards in their hands and one has a smartphone out. They’re full of smiles and are clearly deeply engrossed in what they are doing.

But it’s not what you think. They’re not on a break. They’re actually in class and hard at work learning.

The cards are from Super Animals, a promotion by food retailer Pick ‘n Pay meant to reward loyal customers. They found their way into the classroom thanks to a teacher who saw how they could be used to positively transform the experience of learning for her life sciences students, because these aren’t just any ordinary cards.

They are augmented reality (AR) cards that, when scanned with a smartphone, unlock multimedia content that contains information on the animal featured on each card.

AR is a method to enhance the analogue world with a data-rich digital overlay accessible through a smart device. It may still be in its early days, but it holds the potential to improve learning outcomes, especially in countries such as South Africa, where students consistently perform poorly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. The country is currently experiencing a shortage in STEM skills as a result of this, despite having one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world.

However, to be effective, augmented reality needs to be introduced to classrooms in a systematic and evidence-based rollout. Because the stakes are higher in education than in any other industry. Get it wrong and you can lose an entire generation. Had it not been for the teacher, students at Hoërskool Dinamika might not have been exposed to AR in a classroom setting.

They might never had a taste of its benefits, the most significant of which include:

Affordable next-gen delivery method

AR does not need new, expensive, bulky equipment. It isn’t even that demanding when it comes to connectivity requirements. This makes it one of the more affordable next-gen content delivery methods. A basic smartphone or tablet is enough.

According to the Department of Telecommunications, 46% of the country’s approximately 25 000 public schools had some form of connectivity available for teaching and learning. Major provinces such as Gauteng and Western Cape are at an advanced stage in their paperless classroom projects, which provide students with tablets. This suggests that AR is within reach of a significant portion of the country’s students today and will be available to all if government follows through on its promise to rapidly expand the rollout of ICTs in schools.

Delivery method students are familiar with

In South Africa, almost 70% of users accessed the internet from their phones. This number is probably higher if you drill-down to look only at the school-aged demographic. These digital natives were born within the last 10 to 15 years, after the mass adoption of smartphones. They grew up using technologies such as the internet, computers and mobile devices.

For them the content delivery methods such as paper, chalkboards, and overhead presenters must seem positively archaic. They made sense when these were the primary means by which people consumed content outside of the classroom. But now, in 2017, they are an obstacle to effective learning. It makes sense that education delivery should use the platforms students are already familiar with and using outside the classroom.

Enhance teacher knowledge

One of the areas where teachers in this country struggle the most is in their subject-matter knowledge. Even when compared to similar countries elsewhere in Africa, teachers in South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy, lag behind.

But AR can relieve teachers of the weight of being the sole interpreter of the materials put before students. The digital element of an augmented reality learning tool can be designed to guide students and be responsive to questions they may have on the content. A separate teacher app can be designed to enhance what teachers already know and help them become more effective educators.

Continual assessment and tracking learning in real time

Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of augmented reality — and any digital learning method, really — is the ability to see how students are learning. It is possible to see how much time they’re spending on each topic, what they are looking at and how they’re using the materials. This data can be pooled and analysed to create information that improves the design of the system.

Mini-tests can also be incorporated into an AR-based education delivery platform, making it easier to immediately spot where students are falling behind. More importantly, which students are falling behind. An intervention to help these students can then take place before they fall too far behind.

Improved retention and performance

AR plugs into the senses, specifically sight, sound and touch. This makes it a highly engaging way to experience the world. A significant amount of research in education shows a positive relationship between how engaged students are when they’re learning, how well they retain content after and how well they perform when tested on their knowledge.

One study tested this out. The researchers taught students the basic functioning and anatomy of the heart, using either a fiberglass model or AR. The results were clear. Augmented reality was found to be “effective for participant learning when compared to the conventional fiberglass model learning tool. Furthermore, the augmented reality learning tool was rated more enjoyable, curiosity inducing, and easier-to-use than the fiberglass model.”

This article was first published by Memeburn on 13 September 2017.