Augmented Reality in Jewish Day Schools
Augmented reality tools can be used by teachers and students to enhance Jewish learning.
[This article is part 9 of the series Continuing Conversations on Leveraging Educational Technology to Advance Jewish Learning. The series is a project of Jewish Funders Network, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the William Davidson Foundation. For an in-depth look at opportunities in Jewish Ed Tech and digital engagement, read Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy. Later this year, Jewish Funders Network will launch a new website to help advance the field of Jewish educational technology.]
By Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg
It’s Monday morning at the SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. Live music is playing in the atrium as the children arrive. Some children are talking or playing with friends and some are congregating around the piano player. Still others float to a bulletin board which displays pictures of teachers and administrators. An iPad is suspended nearby. One by one kids scan a picture using an app called Aurasma and suddenly the picture begins to speak. Each face on the bulletin board asks them a question from Parashat Ha-Shavua, and then shows a Google form on which the children can fill in their names and the answer to the question. Those children whose answers are correct will earn popcorn redeemable in the school office.
It’s Open School night at the Academy and parents are between presentations. They walk over to pictures of their children and scan them with iPads provided by the school. They are rewarded with videos of their children welcoming them to the program, in both Hebrew and English.
The common denominator of these two scenarios is the injection of excitement and surprise by giving students and parents access to an additional electronic layer of information through the use of an Augmented Reality app.
Augmented reality, known as AR, is defined as: “An enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device.” When a pilot is fed information on a viewscreen concerning the aircraft approaching him, he is using augmented reality. When Ikea enables you to project what a certain couch would look like in your living room, it is taking advantage of augmented reality. And when the signs and pictures of a school begin to talk when they are scanned with a particular app, it is augmented reality in the service of education.
My first exposure to augmented reality in a school setting was on a tour of the Avenues School in Manhattan. Posted on a hallway wall was a blank map of the world. The tour guide said that it would yield a wealth of student-generated learning when scanned using the right app.
When I went home I tracked down the video they had created about using AR and my imagination was inflamed. In my mind, I was already substituting a map of Israel for the map of the world and Judaic subjects for the ones in the video. I also substituted the free Aurasma app for the for-pay one used at Avenues and set to work finding ways to incorporate augmented reality into our school.
How Do You Make it Work?
In order to make the Aurasma app do its “magic” and display a video or an email or another picture, etc, when it scans an image, someone has to plan the magic in advance. That means that a teacher and/or student must establish an account on the online Aurasma studio (Aurasma.com), and learn how to use that studio to pair the image (e.g. the class picture) and the digital overlay (e.g. the video in which the students greet their parents.) There is a learning curve, but it is not impossibly steep and involves no programming.
The figure below shows how I used the famous image of the Arch of Titus to evoke a video in its bottom right corner. Less obvious is that on the right side of the studio, I was also linking to a YouTube video, as well as automatically generating an email. This particular “Aura” (image + overlay) was one clue in a Tisha B’Av Treasure Hunt. The intro video connected the Arch of Titus to the concept of baseless hatred and applied that concept to the contemporary problem of bullying. Students would see a YouTube logo, which when tapped, would take them to a video about bullying. They would also see an email logo which, when tapped, would display a question about the video in the subject line. They would then type their answer in the body of the email and send it back to earn credit for the clue.
More than Just Razzle Dazzle
I needed to determine if AR could just add “ Wow” to a curriculum, or could also actually become part of that curriculum. My answer is a qualified yes. There were numerous ways that an AR element has enhanced curriculum in our school, but logistical issues make its implementation not as simple as I would like. Here are a few sample projects:
- Fifth graders, researching Righteous Gentiles on the Yad Vashem website, in conjunction with learning about the midwives in Egypt, filmed their presentations. We set it up so that scanning the Righteous Gentile on their poster would bring up the video of their presentation.
- Third grade students filmed each other acting out tips they learned from the nurse on how to limit the spread of germs. We connected pictures of the students to their demonstrations.
- During the last Shemitta Sabbatical year, we ran a school-wide Shemitta/Environmental program, turning our atrium into five geographic regions, each with environmental challenges. Kids entered the areas, scanned specific images that led them to videos on those issues, and then conducted discussions with their teacher concerning the videos they’d watched.
- Middle School students, when not involved in an official lesson, can scan images posted in their area, which lead them to videos that provide more depth to issues examined in class.
- Third and fifth graders took home a HaggadAR shel Pesach, in which readers could scan the pictures to watch the students singing the songs of the Seder.
If you download the Aurasma app, make a free account, and follow Mosherosenberg1, you can scan the famous image below of the arch of Titus, and trigger the three auras mentioned in the article. And if you click here, you can access all of the images which are clues for the Tisha B’Av Augmented Reality Treasure Hunt.
- Producing augmented reality takes time, as does training students to produce it.
- It is not enough to produce the “Auras”- you must test them as well and deal with the sometimes finicky nature of the beast. (“Why isn’t my image scanning properly? Why am I seeing the video from the previous image…”)
- In order to view AR in the Aurasma app, you must set your app to “follow” the work of the account that produced it. Doing so is straightforward, but nothing is straightforward when you are dealing with an entire grade and certainly when you are dealing with a parent body which wants to view materials sent home. This also means that you will likely want to keep all the work under one account so that you don’t have to adjust everyone’s device to view numerous authors’ work. Such organization is not simple at all, and makes it tempting for the teacher to do all the work.
- And in its latest incarnation, Aurasma requires that you establish a free account in order to view anyone’s auras.
- Sometimes teachers opted to use the simpler, if less impressive option of QR codes, which also send the scanner to see additional digital content. I dream of finding the system that is easiest to set up, automatically visible to the public, and free.
Not Just for K–8
My colleague Orly Nadler at Maayanot High School points out that as students reach high school, “there is a lot more emphasis on primary sources and analysis which limits alternative experiences.” She sees more potential in social studies for this type of activity.
In that vein, my colleague Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky at The Frisch School reports that augmented reality through the Aurasma app has been a key component of his school’s evening showcases in both history and the arts. For the Frisch Evening of the Arts, students produced a time-lapse video of how they had created their artwork. When viewers scanned paintings and sculptures at the evening, they triggered the videos, thus showcasing not only the art products of the students but the creative process, as well. This project was recently featured at the International Society for Technology in Education Conference (ISTE). You can view the presentation here.
Hot Off the Presses!
A new resource is brewing special excitement in the world of educational AR. This past spring saw the debut of a tool called Metaverse, which allows you to design location-based AR experiences. In other words you can make the educational equivalent of the Pokemon Go app that swept the gaming world last year by designing an “experience” and linking it to other “experiences” to form a quest. The quest consists of user-generated clues, which may be questions, videos, 3D objects and more anywhere, using the GPS function of your device. Using the app, students detect the site-based clues and respond to them in order to earn rewards. Using Metaverse one can also design adventures in which users take on roles and advance through different possible scenarios in an experience similar to a Role Playing Game (RPG). Since the app is a start-up, the creators are personally and immediately responsive to feedback. They have formed two Facebook groups, Metaverse Pioneers and Metaverse Teachers to share ideas on how best to leverage the tool and they offer webinars for teachers as well.
In truth, location-based augmented reality in a Jewish context is not a new concept. In an initiative supported by a signature grant from the Covenant Foundation, Rabbi Owen Gottlieb designed and implemented Time Jump: New York, an augmented reality game and simulation which “uses place-based and inquiry-based learning, building on current research on mobile Augmented Reality Games to bring Jewish history to life in the 21st Century.” What Metaverse seeks to do is put the tools for designing simpler versions of such games into the hands of every teacher and student.
This study has stressed the ways in which augmented reality tools can be used by teachers and students to enhance Jewish learning. We have focused on the Aurasma app since it is commonly used by educators. There are many AR apps that teach specific areas in general education, or play games. Publishers have used scannable images to add depth to their publications. Most significantly, businesses have driven up sales with AR driven campaigns. In most cases educational applications are more of an afterthought for companies aiming at the lucrative business market, and so we should not be surprised that no one has approached the generation of AR with a mindset of what would best suit an educational setting. A possible exception is the groundbreaking work of Compedia, an Israeli high-tech company which works with the Israeli government on cutting edge projects involving augmented reality and virtual reality, but which also applies its technology for educational purposes, producing entire curricula of AR based lessons. But even Compedia is providing the product, not the tool. Hence those who want to design their own AR experiences are limited to what is out there. No system exists whose primary goal is placing the tools of creation in the hands of students and their educators and empowering them to populate a new stratum of reality with their educational creations.
The ideal system would simplify both the design and sharing process. To make it even more helpful for Jewish education, it could partner with a content provider, such as Sefaria and Jewish Interactive, which can make available libraries of Jewish texts and images for use as triggers and incorporate the capacity to produce a variety of interactive activities as part of the AR. These might include manipulating 3D images, submitting data, and playing games. It would explore possibilities of connecting to other emerging forms of educational technology within the same experience. It would be free for educational use and would enable students, classes and schools to pool the results of their creativity. If properly realized, it would add an entire new dimension to the ways in which our students can interact with and depict their heritage.
Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg is a fifth grade teacher and JudeoTech Integrator at the SAR Academy in Riverdale, NY. He is the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, New York. His most recent book is The Unofficial Hogwarts Haggadah.