Skip to main content

Augmented Reality

Sector Snapshot Getting Started Next Steps Talk and Share

What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality (AR) layers digital information onto the real world in real time through the use of a camera-equipped device in order to augment or enhance reality.

Where did augmented reality come from?
The phrase ‘Augmented Reality’ was coined in the 1990s by Professor Thomas Caudell a scientist at Boeing Aerospace but the concept has been in existence much longer. Experiments using head mounted devices have been ongoing since the 1960s and the use of ‘ghosted’ images to enhance reality were pioneered in the early 190s (Sutherland 1968; Columbia University 1993). Over the last 15 years we have seen the evolution of AR from something that required expensive unwieldy equipment and complex software to an accessible technology enabled by portable devices including smartphones and tablet computers. It is now applied across industry from interactive museum displays (e.g. Museum of London’s StreetMuseum; The Science Museum’s Arctic Home exhibit) and interactive advertising (e.g. Lego’s Inside the Box campaign) to use by the military and in Medicine (e.g. Google glass in surgery Tablets in nursing).

How does augmented reality work? 
Augmented reality is a hybrid reality which means that it is partially immersive or not fully virtual. In AR the user is situated within their own context and can see the world around them which is then enhanced by supplementary computer-generated images video audio or other information to enhance mediate or moderate the users view of reality. AR is available through smartphones tablets and head mounted devices where the ‘reality’ can offer a recognisable image that triggers the digital overlay in the device

There are two ways in which AR is currently used in education:

  1. As a location aware experience – in which a GPS enabled device (smartphone or tablet) is used to enhance an environment with media (e.g. text video audio) that is relevant to the location or as an overlay to static presentation of information e.g. a model or publication
  2. As a visual-based experience: – using a smart or optical head mounted device users can scan an object and digital information appears.

(See Dunleavy and Dede 2013.)

Sector Snapshot

Where is augmented reality currently being used and how?
Although small in number case studies are emerging which detail the implementation of AR in higher education.

There are many case studies of the use of AR in learning and teaching but it is only slowly becoming embedded into the curriculum.

The ARstudio an Australian research project (University of Canberra the Australian National University and Macquarie University) has investigated the opportunities for learning afforded by AR and studied ways in which students and academics could design and use the technique in their own contexts (Munnerley 2014).

The ‘Special Collections using Augmented Reality to Enhance Learning and Teaching’ (SCARLET) project digitised rare books and manuscripts held in the John Ryland’s library in Manchester. An app was created which enables students to see and handle original materials while providing an additional layer of imagery resources and information to augment the learning experience. The project was driven by a strong pedagogical underpinning and the technology used as an enabler rather than an end in itself. An enquiry-based learning model was used to prompt students to follow lines of enquiry contextualise and interpret the material (Association for Learning Technology 2012).

The video below created by the ‘cARe’ project explains how City University London integrated AR into teaching and learning in the School of health Sciences.



Other universities are using Google Glass – an optical head mounted device or ‘pair of glasses’ – in medical education enabling doctors to see an operation from a resident doctor’s perspective and provide real-time guidance on a procedure (Stanford University and Ohio State University). Google has a second-generation version under development targeted at specific sectors.

While smartphones and tablets provide affordable opportunities to explore AR the technology from Virtual Reality (VR) is now being used for AR too. Microsoft’s new Windows 10 is expected to promote its AR headset called Hololens. See

AR also presents opportunities for creative marketing and some higher education institutions (HEIs) are using the technology in their prospectuses to enhance the student recruitment process e.g. Kendall College (see video below).



Traditional outputs e.g. conference posters can easily be enhanced for providing further information. Use of a special code logo or even a photograph or diagram can be used to trigger the AR.  

What are the potential benefits of augmented reality?
The educational value of augmented reality can be analysed through the approaches of situated learning theory and constructivist theory. AR is situated within the specific environment where the learning takes place and provides an opportunity for teachers to overlay abstract concepts onto the real world. For example used within architectural education AR can be used to show complex layers of design and engineering beneath the walls of a building. This approach also fits with the idea of scaffolding and AR can be used alongside other modes of learning to move students progressively towards a deeper level of understanding (Dunleavy and Dede 2013).

Getting started

How do I get started with augmented reality?
The best way to get started with AR is to experiment with it. Find some AR apps and do some tests with a pilot group of learners and some enthusiastic faculty. You could try:

Aurasma Layar or Zappa free and widely available apps which enable practitioners to design an interactive AR experience for students. Have a go at creating your own augmented content and an AR app. See and


  1. An app that provides a ready-made AR experience – this captivating 4D anatomy model (for the less squeamish among us) is a good example and provides a systematic view of the human body. Try it out with a group of biology or medical students.


Alongside this approach think about the wider issues. Matthew Ramirez lead augmented reality developer/manager has suggested five tips for developing AR resources.

  1. Consider how you might apply AR – in which contexts might it work well?
  2. Pay attention to content – AR can be a useful gateway into complex subject matter.
  3. Who are your users? Some students will find AR easier to grasp than others.
  4. What existing resources do you have that could be repurposed for AR?
  5. Engage learners in the development of AR – developing and testing ideas with learners (otherwise known as co-production) is more effective than producing something in isolation.

Additionally it is important that the result is accessible and that students with disabilities are not significantly disadvantaged. Consider how students who cannot use the app in the same way can still get equivalent experience and knowledge.


What should I expect if I try this approach?
There is a definite ‘wow’ factor associated with the use of augmented reality and students are immediately engaged by the novelty of the approach. Resistance might be encountered from those who view the approach as a ‘gimmick’ that has questionable educational value. De-emphasising the technology and emphasising intentional design the pedagogical underpinning and opportunity of the approach is a means of engaging the sceptics.

Some practitioners fear that AR is difficult to implement and question whether they have the technical skills to design an AR experience. The reality is that with new and free AR apps available even the less technically-minded among us can easily give it a go.

Next steps

Where can I learn more about augmented reality?
The ARstudio an Australian-run research project on AR produced a report on their findings in 2014. It provides a useful conceptual model for thinking about AR tools which map its effectiveness and an evaluation framework.

See: Augmented Reality: Application in Higher Education 

Augmented reality is already being used in advertising and soon to be bundled with smartphone maps. The ubiquity of smartphones also provides the devices readily into the classroom. Many students will have used it before higher education so consider examples from schools and colleges too.

AR in science disciplines is being supported in European projects e.g. but many UK activities and projects can be found in the JISCmail archives where they are discussed in various contexts.

Digital curators in the UK who are gathering interest in AR will publish what catches their eye and offer suggestions. E.g.

Technology magazines will have archives of articles offering many more potential applications of AR – See Wired's augmented reality section

Listen to and join the AR conversation by following these hashtags and twitter handles:


What HEA resources should I take a look at?
The HEAtoZ glossary contains an overview and further links.


Further examples can be found using “augmented reality” as a combined search term in the Knowledge HUB.

The Changing the Learning Landscape projects included examples of the use of AR in learning and teaching.

How else can the HEA support my professional development?

The HEA provides support for disciplines and common themes where AR is involved. You may find these under Employability Assessment Flexible learning etc.

Investigate the Frameworks for developing your practices policies processes and partnerships. See

Attend an appropriate HEA event to share your AR teaching experiences with others

The UKPSF offers opportunities to capture your teaching innovations within your practice at many levels from Fellowship to Principal Fellowship. Many other organisations have developed specific guidance around digital practice including topics like AR. 

Talk and share

#augmentedreality #AR @AugmentedCampus @team_scarlet

The materials published on this page were originally created by the Higher Education Academy.