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Hard Fun
Matt Dunleavy and ROAR

Matt Dunleavy’s Web site opens with a quote about “hard fun,” defined as “the joy in meeting and mastering a challenge” (Henry Jenkins, convergent technologies scholar).

It takes only one conversation with Dunleavy to see that he’s a full subscriber to the hard fun concept -- for himself and for students at all levels.

Matt DunleavyDunleavy came to Radford University a year ago from a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where he worked with other researchers on the use of augmented reality for instructional games. Here at RU, he and his graduate students in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership (STEL) are building upon and expanding that research in collaboration with Harvard University, MIT, Hewlett Packard Labs and Radford City Public Schools. This fall the National Science Foundation awarded Dunleavy and STEL a grant to support this work. The three-year grant will total approximately $500,000.

The Radford Outdoor Augmented Reality (ROAR) project team is designing augmented reality curricula for elementary, middle and high school students. “By augmented reality, we mean that we are using handheld computers equipped with GPS to superimpose digital characters and images over a real physical place, such as a school playground or athletic field,” says Dunleavy.

The concept is hard to grasp if you haven’t seen it, so let’s back up. You know about virtual reality. And you’ve experienced or heard about multi-user virtual environments -- MUVEs. They’re seen in video games in which multiple players using different computers can compete in a virtual environment. The emerging technology of augmented reality -- AR-- goes beyond a MUVE by putting the game in a specific, real place, such as a playground, a playing field, a park or a city. The players, holding GPS-enabled handheld computers or cell phones, move about in the designated place and respond to video, audio or text information cued by their arrival at a particular point.

For example, a group of second graders, in small teams on their school playground, become Native Americans who face two pressing questions: Why are their people getting sick? Why are the buffalo dying? In a game called “Buffalo Hunt,” with content based on Virginia Standards of Learning, these second graders learn about Native American culture -- and about teamwork.

During the course of the game, they inhabit a rich world of sights and sounds as they arrive near points on the playground that trigger their handheld computers. Images of medicinal plants, audio of Native American dance music, words from a wise woman and, eventually, the buffalo themselves offer clues but don’t solve the problems for them. On each team, students have different roles, shaman or chief, for instance, and they might get different information on their individual computers. In order to successfully navigate the game space, they must share the information among their teammates and figure out what it all means.

“Buffalo Hunt” was designed by Sarah Boblett, who is one of Dunleavy’s graduate students and a second grade teacher. With the resources provided by the NSF grant, Dunleavy and his team will collaborate with teachers from Radford City Public Schools to design AR curricula that meet their students’ needs and address high-need content areas in science and mathematics.

“The ability to superimpose digital characters onto any physical space allows the ROAR curricula development team to continually repurpose areas of their choosing with multiple immersive scenarios to meet various teaching and learning objectives,” says Dunleavy. “Via immersive AR, the once-familiar playground can become the nation’s capital, a Costa Rican rainforest, the site of an Avian flu outbreak, a watershed threatened by logging, or any other narrative that provides the desired context to meet the teaching objectives.” While having a good time and getting exercise in the open air, students can develop teamwork and critical thinking skills and actively learn content based on state or national standards. This is hard fun.

Does it work? That’s what Dunleavy wants to find out. It doesn’t take a genius to know that students enjoy this kind of activity — witness the multimillion-dollar gaming industry. “We know this technology engages kids in learning. Our research focuses on whether the technology enhances their learning,” says Dunleavy. His findings will help guide the use of AR in K-12 instruction.

Applications of the technology go beyond education, says Dunleavy. “Radford University is a leader in developing augmented reality technology, and we hope to apply it to other areas, such as business and the military.”

To learn more about Dunleavy’s work and the ROAR project, visit http://www.radford.edu/mdunleavy/445/ROAR.html.

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