What is Mixed Reality?
Before defining Mixed Reality (MR), it can be helpful to describe it in the context of several forms of emerging technologies collectively known as X-Reality (XR) or Extended Reality. XR is an umbrella term used to describe Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Mixed Reality.
Virtual Reality (VR) allows a user to immerse themselves into a completely virtual world that blocks the real world from view. For instance, students using VR can take a 360° tour of a dinosaur exhibit at a museum across the world from the comfort of their classroom.
Augmented Reality (AR) overlays digital images onto the real world, augmenting it with virtual objects. Pokémon GO! is a well-known example of AR, as are Snapchat lenses. Learn more about Virtual and Augmented Reality in the 2018 DIAGRAM Report.
Mixed Reality (MR) is the newest innovation in XR technology. It fuses elements of VR and AR, but takes the immersive experience a step further—users don’t just experience a fully virtual or altered reality but are able to manipulate virtual objects in a real—world setting. A student using MR in anatomy class, for instance, could virtually dissect a human body.
*Dear Readers: It’s important to note that the term Mixed Reality has also been used as an umbrella term for VR and AR, rather than its own form of emerging tech. When researching and/or considering adopting Mixed Reality as defined above, keep this in mind to ensure you’re seeking out MR in its unique, immersive form.
Mixed Reality Devices
In its current form, Mixed Reality users wear a translucent headset with built-in features such as head tracking, hand tracking, eye tracking, and voice command to sense a user’s actions and respond to commands. Motion controllers can also be used to support a user’s ability to manipulate virtual objects with precision. It’s important to note that as technology advances, the devices used to experience Mixed Reality may change.
How is Mixed Reality Being Used?
Currently, Mixed Reality is not widely used by or marketed to the general public or schools. That said, it is being developed for and tested in certain markets. The technology is primarily being piloted in industry and healthcare. For instance, surgeons are using MR to practice procedures before operating on a human, and manufacturers are using it to train factory workers. When it comes to education, Mixed Reality is still in the early stages of classroom adoption, but we are seeing a few schools begin to pilot it as a way to enhance student learning experiences.
How is Mixed Reality Being Used in the Classroom?
Emerging technology has the potential to impact the way people learn and connect with others. In fact, people remember information better if it’s presented to them in a virtual environment, and emerging technology has been proven to increase productivity in the business sector. When reflecting on these benefits, integrating emerging tech into classrooms seems to be a natural fit—with the potential to improve student comprehension when aligned with education standards and integrated with student analysis that requires use of their critical thinking skills.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have been integrated into some U.S. classrooms to provide students with an opportunity to experience life and learning in new ways, including taking a virtual field trip to a museum, learning about a new culture, exploring a coral reef, visualizing the anatomy of the human body, and more. In spite of these benefits, however, VR and AR are used in less than 10% of schools. With Mixed Reality being a newer form of XR, we can presume, based on lack of data, that the percentage of classrooms using it is significantly lower.
That said, Mixed Reality is being used in a small subset of schools and districts, and use cases are projected to grow as the technology advances and cost decreases. Though not yet integrated at the scale of VR or AR, there are several use cases of Mixed Reality worth diving into.
Example Use Cases
Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) use Mixed Reality applications and technology developed by zSpace. At BPS, teachers begin a Mixed Reality-based lesson with students by setting the purpose and goals of the Mixed Reality experience. Students then shift to a technology lab where they engage in hands—on MR activities. In the lab, students use smart glasses to immerse themselves into different class subjects. When learning chemistry, for instance, students build elements on the periodic table by manipulating the location of electrons using Mixed Reality technology. In another example, high school students in New Brunswick, New Jersey, are guided by their technology teacher to use Mixed Reality, collaborating with their peers to build virtual buildings, bridges, and other structures which they later analyze with their teacher and classmates.
Lifeliqe is a company bringing Mixed Reality to classrooms through interactive 3D models. Students can use Lifeliqe apps through a MR headset to interact with a virtual human heart, moving it in space to see it at different angles. The company also produces digital curriculum—aligned to Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core—that helps enhance students’ understanding of their experiences using MR.
Opportunities and Challenges of Mixed Reality in Classrooms
Mixed Reality has the potential to enhance teaching and learning if used in concert with an experienced educator trained in how to effectively teach using the technology. It gives students agency in how they learn and brings learning to life—allowing them to manipulate 3D virtual objects in a physical space. In VR a student might take a tour of the human body; with AR they might visualize a 3D human brain while sitting at their classroom lab table; with MR they could dissect a virtual model of a human heart.
Schools using Mixed Reality are experiencing positive results. The superintendent at BPS, for instance, pointed to the value of Mixed Reality in accelerating student learning. Teachers also reported increased student participation and even improved grades they believe are due, at least in part, to students’ learning experiences using Mixed Reality.
As we prepare students to be successful in an increasingly digitally driven world and workplace, it’s likely that emerging technology, including Mixed Reality, will become a “need” rather than a “want” to ensure students’ future success. It has the potential to take classroom experiences to the next level—creating classrooms that are modeled more like laboratories of learning than traditional chalkboard and desk formats.
Research has shown that hands—on learning can increase student retention of information. It bears repeating that Mixed Reality adds an element of engagement that goes beyond that of VR and AR. Students have the ability to manipulate objects. From these results we can only postulate that the functionality of Mixed Reality to manipulate objects (hands—on learning) could increase student retention at a higher rate than other forms of XR.
*Before diving into the opportunities of Mixed Reality, it’s important to note that many of the potential benefits of MR are similar to those of Virtual and Augmented Reality.
Opportunities for students, educators, and parents:
Elevate understanding of complex and abstract concepts through hands—on experiences;
Increase engagement in learning and with added feelings of agency over their learning experiences;
Increase opportunities to experiment through trial and error;
Advance soft skills such as decision making, collaboration, and critical thinking.
Advance technology skills to facilitate success in STEM careers, while also increasing interest in technology-driven careers.
Develop engaging and hands—on lessons, differentiate lessons based on student learning styles, and improve students’ technical abilities;
Collect more robust student data to see a more detailed picture of student learning;
Increase collaboration, making it easier for educators to share data with colleagues and parents, with data from students’ Mixed Reality experiences being uploaded into a cloud in real time;
Incorporate STEAM learning into daily classroom instruction.
Provide their child with enrichment opportunities, allowing them to engage in new experiences at a more affordable price (e.g., instead of paying to take a child to a museum to engage in a cultural activity, Mixed Reality can bring that activity to life in the classroom);
Increase personal technology skills as they support what their children are learning in school;
Provide exciting, supplemental, at-home learning opportunities for their children.
Though the potential of Mixed Reality is promising, the technology and its successful integration in schools presents challenges—one challenge being the cost of the hardware and software needed to use MR. As a newer form of XR, the cost of Mixed Reality can be high. For instance, Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 retails for $3,500. It could be difficult for schools with limited resources and competing needs to find the funding necessary to purchase Mixed Reality technology.
Additional challenges may include:
Inability to use hardware and software not designed for students with certain disabilities and physical attributes;
Health issues due to lack of hygiene when groups share devices. (XR hygiene regiments are not always commonplace inside classrooms making it easier to pass germs between students);
Shortage or lack of access to technology in school (also known as the digital divide);
Lack of instructional guidance from teachers to help analyze what is learned in a virtual environment;
Certain virtual experiences may trigger intense emotional responses;
Data protection measures not in place to ensure student information is not housed or owned by a third party or used for advertising purposes (enhanced headset features collect more data points, including for students under 13);
Need for digital literacy and understanding of how to behave in a Mixed Reality environment.
Shortage of data on the impact of Mixed Reality on student learning and mental well-being, making it difficult to make informed decisions about integration of MR in classrooms and determine if Mixed Reality will be a valuable tool long term (not just a new, shiny object);
Lack of content aligning to curriculum and lesson plans, supplemental learning resources to accompany MR experiences, and a scarcity of diverse and inclusive content to accompany devices;
Loss of instructional time to learn new technology, discover how to approach a new form of instruction, and determine how to integrate Mixed Reality into classrooms effectively;
Lack of best practice solutions to turn analog classroom management into digital classroom management;
Lack of support to help students manage emotions that may be triggered by Mixed Reality;
Little guidance on XR hygiene practices for students and classrooms;
Shortage of support staff to monitor large groups of students using Mixed Reality technologies;
Lack of instruction on how to properly care for and store large quantities of headsets leading to broken technology;
Limited or no budget to purchase devices.
Lack of access to technology and internet/WiFi capabilities in the home to facilitate their child’s Mixed Reality learning experiences outside of the classroom (digital divide);
Limited understanding of how their child should use the technology safely and the security and safety issues accompanying Mixed Reality technology;
Limited opportunities to supervise their child when using technology;
Little guidance on how to model digital etiquette for their children.
As we’ve mentioned, for Mixed Reality to be an effective classroom tool it needs to be done with purpose and led by the guidance of an experienced educator. Though a Mixed Reality experience may be engaging to students, it means little if they aren’t able to process and analyze what they experience using the technology. What’s more, if Mixed Reality is to have a meaningful and positive impact, it must be made accessible and available to all students—particularly those with disabilities.
Opportunities & Challenges for Students with Disabilities
The potential benefits and challenges of Mixed Reality for students with disabilities are similar to those of Virtual and Augmented Reality. (Learn more in the chapter on VR and AR in the 2018 DIAGRAM Center Report.) These XR technologies, if designed to be accessible, stand to create more inclusive and diverse learning environments and remove barriers to learning for students with disabilities. Yet, if the Mixed Reality systems (hardware and content) being used in schools is not accessible, many students could be left behind, missing out on the learning opportunities experienced by their peers.
A student with limited mobility that isn’t able to be present in a traditional classroom environment could use XR to virtually join classmates in chemistry through an avatar; a student who is deaf or hard of hearing could use live captioning overlayed on the real—world environment in AR or MR to more easily collaborate and engage with fellow students on a project; eye tracking capabilities of Mixed Reality could enable a student with limited use of their hands to interact with virtual objects with eye and head movements; enabling features—such as color adjustment and magnifying tools—could help students with low vision explore and understand a virtual scene being presented to them; using XR headsets, teachers can assist students with physical disabilities who wear devices, and help rotate devices so a student can see 360° of motion.
Photo Credit: Kai XR
Additional opportunities for students, educators, and parents include:
Engage in learning through assistive features of accessible Mixed Reality platforms;
Expand inclusive opportunities to engage with Mixed Reality technology (traditional ed tech tools, such as laptops, are inaccessible to some students);
Practice soft skills, which could be particularly helpful for students with autism;
Enhance focus (for all students, and particularly students with ADHD);
Enjoy the same or similar experiences as their peers, including virtually participating in Mixed Reality classroom activities from remote locations.
Provide additional and tailored assistance to students with a range of disabilities, enabling them to learn alongside their classmates;
Create differentiated learning environments for students with disabilities and improve the technical skills of students with disabilities;
Encourage students’ critical thinking in new environments;
Enable students with disabilities to experience new perspectives.
Learn new ways to connect and communicate with their children;
Provide experiences to their child that aren’t necessarily possible without Mixed Reality technology;
Teach children how to engage in social situations in a non-threatening environment.
Students with disabilities have frequently faced barriers to the use of emerging technologies for learning. Below is a list of additional hurdles that Mixed Reality may present for students with disabilities. Please note that this list does not span the full range of potential barriers, but points to several of the known challenges that have been communicated by advocates, researchers, and leaders in the accessibility space. Many of the potential challenges of VR and AR also apply to Mixed Reality. Refer to the chapter on Virtual and Augmented Reality in the 2018 DIAGRAM Report for more information about these challenges.
Additional challenges may include:
Difficulty engaging in a Mixed Reality experience without audio descriptions of virtual scenes built into systems (students who are blind or have low vision);
Inability to engage in Mixed Reality experiences involving movement of one’s body or precise hand gestures (students with limited mobility);
Difficulties using Mixed Reality hardware such as hand controllers or a headset that isn’t adjustable (students with limited mobility)
Inability to engage with peers and fully understand what’s being taught in a Mixed Reality environment if dynamic captioning is not built into the technology (students who are deaf or hard of hearing)
Potential to have a triggered emotional or physical response to a Mixed Reality experience (students with disabilities such as PTSD)
Potential to have a seizure due to certain sounds or flashing lights within a Mixed Reality experience (students with a disability such as epilepsy).
Under Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) used in public schools, students with disabilities are commonly provided with accommodations that remove them from traditional classrooms where most opportunities for teachers to support the use of emerging technologies occur;
Need for increased understanding and training on the accessibility needs of students with disabilities when using Mixed Reality technologies;
Lack of training to support a student undergoing a negative emotional or psychological response resulting from a Mixed Reality experience;
Absence of trained support staff to provide assistance to students with disabilities to enable them to use the technology effectively;
Lack of access to effective communication channels with parents of a student engaging in a Mixed Reality experience from a remote location;
Lack of headsets specifically created for those with disabilities;
Lack of well-known examples of Mixed Reality use cases that work well with students with various disabilities.
Lack of information on the accessibility features, or lack thereof, of Mixed Reality learning experiences being used in their child’s classroom;
Inability to access accessible Mixed Reality technology at home for their child with a disability, making it difficult for their child to engage with their peers and the lesson(s) being taught through Mixed Reality;
Lack of knowledge regarding Mixed Reality technical options that may work well for their child.
There are additional challenges that may arise with Mixed Reality and likely to be unforeseen barriers to use we can’t yet predict. When using Mixed Reality in the classroom, it will be important to have alternative ways for students with disabilities to interact with a Mixed Reality learning experience and connected content to ensure students with disabilities are not left behind.
Action Steps for Educators, Students, and Parents
When it comes to classroom use, it’s essential that all XR is safe, effective, and inclusive for students. Not all emerging technology, however, has been designed to be accessible to students with disabilities. At present, accessible emerging tech is being developed piecemeal, including Mixed Reality technologies.
When adopted in schools, it’s important to determine any accessibility challenges related to the Mixed Reality hardware and software being adopted, asking questions like: Will all students be able to use the hardware and applications necessary to engage with the technology? Will Mixed Reality be accessible to students with certain cognitive disabilities?
Action Steps for Educators
Explore how it can be used as a tool to enhance student learning rather than allowing the technology to be the primary driver to learning;
Define what accessibility means for students. Questions that educators can ask themselves might include:
“What do all my students need to learn effectively in a Mixed Reality classroom?”
“What barriers will students likely experience with this technology?”
Consult with students with disabilities and their parents to discuss individual needs;
Share knowledge and collaborate with fellow educators that are using Mixed Reality in their classrooms to support students with disabilities;
Engage in open discussions with students and parents before, during, and after a Mixed Reality experience to determine what’s working and what might need to be tweaked;
Communicate with administrators on the needs of students with disabilities when it comes to using emerging technologies;
Work with administrators and fellow teachers to create instructions and documentation on digital classroom management for teachers with students with disabilities;
Create lesson plans and learning resources that can be replicated in other classrooms.
Provide teachers with feedback on a Mixed Reality experience;
Share insight into what was learned and any barriers to use that were experienced;
Provide feedback on the comfort level of equipment such as headsets;
Vocalize ability to view Mixed Reality content;
Monitor personal intensity threshold when using MR to mitigate discomfort.
When Mixed Reality is being implemented into their child’s classroom, speak to their teacher about their disability and what they might need to use it effectively;
Ensure their child’s IEP has modifications to ensure the technology is adapted for their use;
Monitor the length of time their child is in a headset to gauge potential discomfort;
Create constant dialogue with their child’s teacher to proactively provide solutions when XR barriers arise.