Down the Rabbit Hole: Social Technology Tools in Educational Alternate Reality Games

“If children can build, play and understand games that work, it’s possible that someday they will understand and design systems that work. And the world is full of complicated systems.”

 — Sara Corbett, Journalist, New York Times

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As part of our Social Media in Education course for our Master of Teaching programme at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (University of Toronto), I investigated a critical question of my choosing. In general, I am very interested in Game Based Learning – specifically, educational Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). One reason aligns with Corbett’s quote above. I first came across this narrative form as a producer for an interactive Daily Planet segment for Discovery Channel here in Canada.

ARGs are interactive, networked narratives (dubbed storyscapes by Blumenthal, 2012). At their core, they behave like complex scavenger hunts. They rely on existing real-world environments as their game space and employ transmedia storytelling, often both online and offline, to deliver content that may be altered by students’ ideas or actions. They can be considered “games you play in order to get more out of real life, as opposed to games you play to escape it” (McGonigal, 2011, Chore Wars, para. 30). Such ARGs have the potential to provide learning environments that help foster competencies and extend education to where learners are not only consumers of knowledge, but producers of it as well. This makes ARGs ripe with potential for educational applications.

A step away from the passivity that learners may associate with the traditional classroom, the dynamic nature of Serious ARGs can motivate players by giving them a focused problem to solve. The solution process elicits knowledge and learning rewards, while goal-driven environments morph player game play into a focused, engaged learning experience (Lynch, Mallon, Connolly, 2015, p. 35).

Yet, ARGs are a relatively unfamiliar concept, particularly in the realm of education. Patrick Jagoda, PhD, Associate Professor of English at the University of Chicago, and Game Designer and Project Manager Ashlyn Sparrow do a great job giving a bit more background in the video below. Jagoda is also a researcher behind one of the articles and ARGs I analyzed (The Source).

To help demonstrate what a serious ARG looks like in practice, here is a trailer for the ARG Urgent EVOKE, by game designer and author, Jane McGonigal (cited above).

ARGs can be used as instructional tools in any subject (often with a cross-curricular lean), and as part of media pedagogies; they can be used to teach History, STEM subjects, literacy and any combination beyond and therein. They often challenge students to problem-solve and to employ other 21-century competencies (such as collaboration).

As there appears to be a research gap with educational ARGs in general, and in the way social technologies are best utilized within ARGs specifically, I created an annotated bibliography that reviews articles with a more a general focus on ARGs. Within these articles, I then considered how social technologies are leveraged in each case.

This Annotated Bibliography helped inform and illuminate a response to my critical inquiry:

“How can social technologies successfully be integrated into Alternate Reality Games intended as instructional tools in the classroom?”


Aurasma in the Classroom: Mediated Selves // Who ARe You?


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Coming into the field of education by way of a digital media production background, I have a keen interest in emerging educational tech. I’m especially interested in applications that not only allow us to do the same ol’ – only better, but in tech that completely reshapes the way we think about, say, storytelling or art.  As part of my Teacher Education course on Social Media in Education, I chose to look into Alternate Reality (AR) applications to education. I focus on one specific app, Aurasma and the new opportunities it creates for teachers. I truly believe AR is an integral part of the way the next generation will learn.

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But first, let me just quickly debrief how AR works: The easiest way to explain it is that it blends Real Life (RL) with Virtual Reality (VR) (Ohler, 2014, p. 16). The AR world consists of triggers and overlays. Triggers are essentially elements in the real world, such as Quick Response (QR) codes or a painting on the wall (Ohler, 2016), that prompt a meta-media overlay on a user’s mobile device, such as a tablet or phone (both Snapchat and Pokeman GO use AR, for example). Fun side-note: One of the first commercial applications of AR was the yellow first down line that began appearing in televised NFL football games, sometime around 1998 (New Jersey Institute of Technology).

Aurasma is an application (available on Google Play or in the App store) that provides an easy way for teachers to set up and connect triggers with added information overlays (images, video or text). These overlays are called Auras in Aurasma-speak. Aurasma is not new, nor are its educational applications necessarily, but it is something that is still remains underutilized in the classroom, though its educational applications are vast, and its barrier-to-entry relatively low. As the app’s site says, “Aurasma makes it easy for anyone to create augmented reality experiences. Educators and students were some of our earliest adopters, and our passionate user base is creating new AR content every day.”

The app is free and set-up is simple. (Note that there is a Pro version of the account, but that this post refers to the free version):

(Source: Aurasma YouTube Channel)

  1. Download the Aurasma App and go on the site
  2. Create an Aurasma Account (it appears that you need to sign up separately for both the app and the website “Studio” version, though the accounts are linked). Note also that there is a free version as well as a Pro version.
  3. Share your Aura
  4. Follow others for ideas
  5. Dream trigger and Auras
  6. Students and parents need to do is download the Aurasma app, search for your account in the app and follow it. They will automatically be able to view your publicly shared Auras.

To give you an idea of how Aurasma works, here is one potential way to apply it in the classroom.



There are several ways Aurasma and AR in general can benefit learning. It can extend and deepen learning by providing students with an added layer of information at their finger-tips. For example, as Selena Woodword describes in her video, she can tag particularly challenging Shakespeare passages with certain symbols to add explanations, and definitions for students to reference when reading, on-demand (perhaps when they are already at home, and do not have an easy way to seek clarification from their teacher then and there).

These auras can feature a written explanation, or a video of the teacher explaining the terms or significance. Same can be done for challenging Math work; picture a student opening a math textbook or worksheet, and being able to prompt an Aura of the teacher re-explaining a difficult concept that was previously taught in class, but perhaps forgotten. Presto. The student can now re-view the teacher’s explanation at their leisure. A field trip can come to life, as shown in this example, allowing the teacher to create their own custom tour guide experience.  School Resource Teams (such as Librarians) can create interactive “scavenger hunts” that familiarize students with return box, photocopier, dewey decimal system, Manga and many other topics in an engaging way. In one study, author found that students retained more information in this method than traditional induction lectures (Connoly & Hoskins, 2014).

And student can be co-creators and curators of experiences too (more on that in the in-class application, below). They can be authors of new mixed-media stories, link YouTube presentations to in-class projects, and more. For example, in music class, a trigger linked to an image of a saxophone can prompt a video of students performing a musical piece on the instrument (this may be a great way to showcase “digital portfolios” on parent-teacher night). Similarly, a Book Review can link a book cover to a student’s recorded video discussing the information, orally, providing opportunities for differentiated instruction and greater student accommodation of student learning needs. And extra-curricular too are not off-limits. Yearbooks may prompt personal video messages of graduating students. I am most excited about the potential of turning Aurasma over to the students.  

“When we create a new medium, we tend to first fill it with the content of the old. That’s why some of the earliest movies were recordings of plays. Eventually, pioneers emerge who realize that the new medium offers unique opportunities for expression, and that’s when it finally comes into its own” (Ohler, 2014, p. 19).


ARt: Mediated Selves // Who ARe You?

(Image Source: Ohler 2014)

(Image Source: Ohler 2014)

Here is an overview of an in-class activity, to give a sense of how the app can be used. Note that the expanded lesson (with curriculum connections can be found here).

In this activity, suggested by Ohler (2014) and slightly adapted by me, students create a whole new kind of ARt. “With the magic of augmented reality (AR), student artists can create a whole new “ARt” form by combining traditional pieces hanging on the gallery wall with digital art that lives in the cloud” (Ohler, 2014, p. 16).

Students create two separate self-portraits – one using a Real Life (RL) hard-copy image, whether a printed headshot or created in some other kind of way (this can be up to the teacher to decide, when determining scope and sequence of the project). Students then modify this image digitally, by adding various digital layers via Photoshop (or another creative suite app or software), as appropriate, in an alternate interpretation and representation of self (some guidance can include having students identify with a hobby, personality trait, etc., and considering how they can visually represent those traits).

When both RL and AR layers are complete, students combine them by making the RL portrait the trigger for the AR “Aura” digital layer. Students would also be prompted to consider the way we mediate our identities in different settings, and would be invited to critically consider their digital interpretations of self (how are our identities mediated in digital realms, what’s real, what’s not?)

Students would also provide a written reflection as a translation layer explaining their thinking and reasoning for choices. Student portraits would then be hung up on display, and students, staff and parents would use Aurasma to view the students’ work.


Want Smart Kids? It’s In the Books

Saturday, 22 May 2010, 9:26 | Category : education
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Access to books has a direct impact on a childs education.

One thing my friends can tell you is that I horde books. Entire walls are covered in them. My floors (or ceilings, depending on where you stand) dent from them. They are on shelves (that are designed to hold half as many), stacked in piles and spilling over in corners and on the floor.

I have everything from worn and likely long-outdated university texts (even my older brother’s), to Sir Seuss’ finest works, to review editions lugged home from work. I am a firm believer that the return-on-investment with books is measured in perspectives gained, not dollars paid.

But simply being surrounded by them changes the way you think about them. If they are around, you’re more likely to pick one up – simple as that.

Well, turns out that’s a good thing. Because my propensity for said book-hording will have a positive effect on my child’s education, say researchers. This too is a good thing, because there is a well-established link between the level of education obtained and the level of income a person earns…and I argue, quality of life too.

A 20-year study, lead by Mariah Evans, associate professor of sociology and resource economics at the University of Nevada, found that parents who have books in the home increase the level of education their children will attain.

For years, educators have thought that the strongest predictor of your education was your mum’s or dad’s; the more educated they were, the more educated you’re likely to be too. Well, strikingly, this massive study found that being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain, as your parents’ education.

Dear Child of Mine, I got you covered.

Turns out, both factors – an extensive library or having university-educated parents – can propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average.

This trend translated abroad too (though the impact was greater in countries such as China). Also interestingly, the study found children of lesser-educated parents benefit most from having books at home.

So what does this mean? Our public libraries need to be well-stocked and accessible, with flexible hours of operation. Oh, and friendly, knowledgeable staff too.

Here are some additional points the study found:

Even having a few books can go a long way. The more books you add, the greater the benefit.

Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level.

Having books in the home impacted the level of education a child attained more than whether the child was reared in China or in the United States.

OK Go’s Rube Goldberg Contraption

Monday, 8 March 2010, 20:49 | Category : Musings, web
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From the boys who brought you the viral Treadmill Video, comes their latest. This launched last week, and it’s already gotten 6+ million views.  Aptly titled “This Too Shall Pass” this video is a single, near-four minute shot of pure Goldbergian marvel. Imagine being the one working the camera…talk about pressure.

As for who’s behind the contraption, OK Go turned to LA-based Syyn Labs. With a motto like “High Voltage Debauchery” you know you can safely set your expectations high. And the team doesn’t disappoint.

Syyn Labs is a creative collective that meshes art with technology, often with amusing and enlightening results. The team shows off their engineering and creative prowess monthly at an event called Mindshare (though this itself warrants a separate entry).

Dear Canada, this Valentine’s, here’s why I love you…

Tuesday, 9 February 2010, 22:58 | Category : Environment, Musings, Uncategorized
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Without a doubt, Canada is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Okay, so I’m a little biased. But with such range and vast, stretches of wilderness, can you blame me? Anyway, I caught this ad last week, and I made a point to seek it out and watch it again (which really means two things: The ad is effective, or I really need to get back to analyzing those stats)…I recall hearing that part of the reason Newfoundland & Labrador was the most popular province for vacationers within Canada (at a time when fewer people were travelling in general) is because of its successful advertising campaigns. I can see why. This is straight Tolkien.

2009 in Review

Saturday, 2 January 2010, 13:08 | Category : Musings, web
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Strange swirl over sky in Norway

Sunday, 13 December 2009, 15:09 | Category : Musings, Physics
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Unpack your bags, it’s not a wormhole. It’s a Russian Navy missile test gone awry. Check out Jay’s interview with Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell in a recent Daily Planet.

NFB’s WaterLife Interactive

Waterlife InteractiveI am so impressed with the folk at the National Film Board (of Canada). They just keep pumping out top-notch content. First their amazing free iPhone / iPod Touch app (that allows you to screen entire films), and now WaterLife.

Their latest initiative is an interactive site centred on the idea that our Great Lakes (and waterways in general) are changing – not for the better. The idea of water as a limited resource, is of course, nothing new. Potable water all the more so. Here in Canada we don’t think about it much, because we’re under the impression there’s plenty of it. Wrong. We just happen to have more of it than most other nations, but by no means enough to be dismissive in its use. Just talk to an Aussie. They think us blazingly wasteful. A couple of years ago, I co-produced a segment for that highlighted this difference.

I spent the first decade of my life by a major river, and my summers by the sea. I’m fortunate enough to live in a place that’s surrounded not only by the Great Lakes, but numerous smaller ones. Whenever near water, I’m keenly attuned to its rhythms. It transforms me. It teems with life. In fact, there’s likely more life underwater on Earth than on land. And if you think about it, Planet Earth is kind of a misnomer.  All the more reason our very existence depends on the health of our water systems. This is perhaps why I feel so passionately that amidst all the “Green” initiatives, we don’t leave out the Blue. They are one and the same.

If you’re curious to find out more, CBC’s The Current ran a great radio series last year called “Watershed”. I also recommend reading Alana Mitchell’s “Sea Sick”.

WaterLife was brought to my attention by ad girl Lava Nosenkis.

A Parisian Love Story, according to Google

Wednesday, 2 December 2009, 19:44 | Category : Musings, Uncategorized, web
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Poetic. And sweet. Who could have predicted 10 years ago that we’d be telling stories via searches…

For more in this brilliant series, head here.

Time’s Best Inventions of ’09

Tuesday, 1 December 2009, 19:37 | Category : Future, Musings, Technology
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The remainder of the list is here.