In a world where the speed of technology growth outpaces the social contracts that inform when, where, and how technology is used, it’s not unreasonable to bristle when someone’s smartphone rings near you in the museum. Indeed, today's momentary intersections of our old ‘real’ lives and new virtual lives (if these are even separate) often confound us when they occur in places that are revered for their historicity, and complicate what we mean by being present in the moment. These hybrid realities, along with technology’s ability to jolt us away with a signal, alter our sense of place and our personal connections to our immediate environment—even more so when the place is one connected to our low-tech cultural heritage.
Yet what happens when technology is specifically designed to embellish places already historically rich? Can the division between our avatar and our anatomy dissolve into an augmented reality? Can the power of information on the mobile screen bring us more deeply into our experience of a physical, historical world than simply being in it can? Several researchers from Taiwan addressed these questions and added to a growing body of literature that tests the promises of technological supplements for improving learning experiences in and out of the classroom. The particular emphasis on public history and heritage tourism elevated the discussion of learning into an investigation of how some learning technologies may nudge tourists toward richer experiences of heritage sites than if they were to go them alone and unplugged.
In a study of 87 university students at a Taiwan heritage site, five scientists aimed to measure whether self-guided-tour technologies improved students' information retention about the site, and what—if any—impact the technologies had on students' sense of place. The students were divided into three even groups: one with no tour guidance; one with only audio guidance; and one with Augmented Reality (AR) guidance, which included an interactive audio and image-capture program that aimed to contextualize the historic site and foster deeper understandings of and personal connections to it.
Before being sent off to amble around historic buildings for 90 minutes, students were surveyed on their factual knowledge of the site as well as their personal sense of it; each student was tested again after exploring the site. The researchers compared results from pre- and post-tests to assess student learning achievements, and rounded out the study with interviews of student participants.
As the title of the article suggests, the test case results favored the augmented reality tours. In fact, learning achievement results were clear: AR users had the highest learning post-test scores of all three groups, as well as the highest levels of test improvement. The sense of place assessment for the AR group was also much stronger than for the other two groups, suggesting that the AR media stimulated the students’ enjoyment and interest levels of the tour site.
Though the methodology—from the testability of a learning experience based on recall of specific historic facts to the neat dovetailing of the AR program content to the testing content—raises legitimate questions for the strength of the study's results, it is worth considering the findings beyond the context of knowledge retention. For one, this study adds to our growing conversation on the intersection of geography and technology. Achieving a sense of place through a virtually mediated physical reality could very well defy the bifurcated camps of technophobes and technophiles. On the other hand, we're already so hybrid (even unplugging has become a euphemism) that we might consider the idea that our senses have already morphed: perhaps reality augmented with technology is the new baseline, and our sense of place itself is largely already virtual. If this is the case, taking our tours unguided and feeling out of place in our history for a little while might not be the worst thing. We might even call it a kind of reality check.
Chang, Y. L., Hou, H. T., Pan, C. Y., Sung, Y. T., & Chang, K. E. (2015). Apply an Augmented Reality in a Mobile Guidance to Increase Sense of Place for Heritage Places. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 18(2), 166-178.
Image: Tour Starts Here / Suzie's Farm via Flickr