Designing Enhanced Learning Environments in Physics: An Interdisciplinary Collaborative Approach Producing an Instrument for School Success

Part of the Advances in Game-Based Learning book series (AGBL)


Parallel, an innovative teaching and learning tool, was designed by a multidisciplinary team gathering together university and college professors, post-graduate students, teachers, as well as young adults and college students. The creation of Parallel, made possible fruitful collaboration between students, teachers and researchers. The collaborative experience was part of an effort to understand how a serious game on a mobile platform using augmented reality could be exploited in a formal educational context to overcome the difficulties encountered by physic’s college students. Up to now, 60 % of these students have been failing the course as they are being taught the laws of electromagnetism. As Lave, points out, “too often, school lessons are fraught with difficulty and failure more many students” (Lave, Anthropol Educ Q 16:171–176, 1985, p. 174). We will discuss how we arrive at the conclusion that Parallel can act as a potential instrument for student’s mastery of their own relationships with society and allow them to reinvest their learning with youth and the elderly. Although the empirical study we are presenting pinpoints a specific aspect of physic’s learning, it opens new horizons for cross-generational and age-oriented digital game-based learning from childhood to older adulthood.


Augmented reality Mobile learning Physics Activity theory Longlife learning. 


Parallel, an innovative teaching and learning tool, was designed by a multidisciplinary team gathering together university and college professors, post-graduate students, teachers, as well as young adults and college students. The creation of Parallel made possible fruitful collaboration between students, teachers, and researchers. The collaborative experience was part of an effort to understand how a serious game on a mobile platform using augmented reality could be exploited in a formal educational context to overcome the difficulties encountered by physic’s college students. Up to now, 60 % of these students have been failing the course as they are being taught the laws of electromagnetism. As Lave, points out, “too often, school lessons are fraught with difficulty and failure more many students” (Lave 1985, p. 174). We discuss how we arrive at the conclusion that Parallel can act as a potential instrument for student’s mastery of their own relationships with society and allow them to reinvest their learning with youth and the elderly. Although the empirical study we are presenting pinpoints a specific aspect of physic’s learning, it opens new horizons for cross-generational and age-oriented digital game-based learning from childhood to older adulthood.

Augmented Reality and Ageing Population

Brief Introduction to Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) overlays computer-mediated information on the real world in real time. This ability enriches environments for action and learning and offers the potential for new kinds of shared experiences. Unlike virtual reality (VR), where the user is completely immersed in a virtual environment, AR allows the user to interact with the virtual images using real objects in a seamless way (Zhou et al. 2008).

The first AR interface was developed by Sutherland in the 1960s (Sutherland 1965). This first system involved head-mounted display and movement sensor. The real development of AR started in the 1990s with Bajura et al. (1992) and State et al. (1996) work as new interaction and visualization capabilities in the field of medicine. AR applications usually relate to various research areas ranging from computer vision, computer graphics, and human−computer interaction that operate in conjunction with the aim of presenting an enhanced reality as well as allowing the user(s) to interact with it in a natural way (Liarokapis 2006).

One common paradigm for AR is the magic lens allowing the user to see-through to an image of the real world with added AR elements (Cawood 2008). Optical see-through augmentation is based on semitransparent head-mounted displays (HMD), superimposing the real environment using semitransparent mirrors while video see-through displays show a captured video image superimposed with the virtual content. Recently, handheld devices such as touch tablets and smart phones have become popular platforms for AR applications. These systems are less bulky than the head-mounted displays usually worn for see-through augmentation. Handheld devices are also more widely spread outside the research community today than the HMDs fostering a better integration of AR in various applications fields (e.g., tourism, automotive industry, and games) and their adoption by the user community. Similarly to video see-through HMD, visual extension with handheld devices is typically done using a video camera. It provides the handheld display with a live video stream of the real world that can be augmented with synthetic graphics.

Augmented Reality Interface Benefits

Given the 3D visualization intrinsic to augmented reality, AR seems suitable for science and technology applications, either in industrial or in educational contexts. It allows for the illustration of intangible concepts, for instance the application of forces, such as gravity, on objects. The literature includes several studies demonstrating that augmented reality has actual advantages. Compared to conventional 2D interfaces, AR solutions support the understanding of complex phenomena by offering a unique visual and interactive experience. It provides a tangible presentation of what are often abstract phenomena and demonstrates spatial and temporal concepts more effectively. Augmented reality also has a positive impact on users and learners, their connection to the activity, their attention, and information retention.

On the other hand, mobile AR applications (i.e., augmented reality solutions using mobile platform) change the nature of how we interact with and understand spatial data and our environment. The advanced AR techniques render the interface in a far more intuitive way than usual computer-based solutions making it easier for users to match what they see in the display with their view in the real world. In addition, tangible interactions with the “real” world can be performed through multimodalities components. A connection is thus formed between the physical and the virtual worlds in which the users find themselves, and many layers of information are easily accessible at the same time.

Such possibilities offered by augmented reality interfaces are well adapted to the ageing population. They allow to escape the confines of typical information systems for which some technical expertise is required. Mobile AR can be used to add realistic visual cues into a user’s surrounding providing natural and explicit interactions. The Nacodeal project (Saracchini et al. 2015) proposes a guidance and communication service dedicated to elderly people using such solution. Their new technology, relying on a wearable device with an embedded pico projector, exhibits content autonomously based on the user location and device orientation.

The use of immersive augmented reality solutions as a rehabilitation tool for Parkinson Disease (PD) has been investigated (Boucher 2013). AR is seen as an optimal tool for meeting the rehabilitative criteria for people living with PD. By making use of virtual features, the major areas of concern (motor, cognitive, and quality of life) in the PD population may be addressed simultaneously. Mobility associated with AR solution allows people to ambulate and practice movement strategies in realistic situations while virtual reality platforms are often constrained to treadmill. AR interface provides a strong sense of presence (i.e., a sense in being in the virtual representation provided by the interface) and realism. A system need to appear to be realistic to the user if any rehabilitative benefit is to be achieved from the program.

Museums are increasingly offering new methods of engaging and educating visitors through the use of AR systems associated to mobile guides, interactive exhibits, downloadable games, and 3D artifacts. A comparative study involving two populations of respectively young adults (18–21 years) and elderly (65 years and older) revealed that regardless of age, experiencing artifacts using AR on a tablet was enjoyable and encouraged emotional responses (Alelis et al. 2015). Seeing the physical artifacts after the digital ones did not lessen their enjoyment or emotions felt. These findings underline the effectiveness of augmented reality interfaces in cross-generational contexts of use.

We now focus our attention on the educational needs of younger generations and the potential of AR to modify the dynamics in classrooms and in collaboration between generations. Even if the results of the study we are presenting are drawn from a specialized area, we hope that the following section will resonate to the reader as the conclusions open up a fruitful dimension for cross-generational learning.

Challenging the Way Physics is Taught in the Classrooms

Addressing the Needs Related to the Younger Generations

Today’s youth are the first generation to be immersed from childhood in the World Wide Web and it has to be taken into account when training tomorrow’s citizens (Piette et al. 2007). Other authors, such as Prensky (2001), describe young people born in the 1980s as Digital Natives, and as the Game Generation. Prensky argues that they are able to assimilate information much more quickly than their parents because they have always lived in a world of ubiquitous technologies. Kaplan Akili (2007) also examined the characteristics of these young “digital natives” and argued that they are more skilled and able to quickly find answers to their questions by themselves.

However, younger generations in Canada are putting aside science studies and exacerbate the decline of scientific culture, resulting in irreparable loss of know-how essential to the functioning of enterprises, economy, and society in general (Robitaille 2010). Despite the evolving cultural context where adolescents evolve, most educators have remained sceptical about the relevance of using mobile platforms (PDA and tablet) to facilitate learning (Pachler et al. 2010). At the present time, the pervasive use of digital technologies as tools of mediation in cultural practices, both in the West and elsewhere in the world, can no longer be ignored. As the Canadian Council on Learning’s report on virtual learning stated (2009):

Canada’s younger generation is primed to exploit the potential of learning technologies. Computers, multimedia programs, chat rooms and other manifestations of the digital age are now common throughout children’s developmental years—as almost any parent or educator will attest.

The current challenge for educators is thus to integrate digital technologies into their teaching practices (Barma et al. 2010). We believe it is a manifestation of a generation gap that needs to be addressed. Twenty-first century students are better off developing competencies in preparation for their future involvement in a society marked by the rapid production of scientific and technological knowledge and the proliferation of their applications (Government of Quebec 2006). How it can be done and what promising new technologies can be exploited for the benefit of science students?

The Added Value of Mobile Learning

With increasingly powerful networks, mobile learning is becoming an inescapable reality. There are multiple advantages in the use of portable computers or tablets in education. It allows the enhancement of student motivation, their sense of responsibility, their development of organizational skills, individual and group learning, and improvement monitoring of students’ progress (Savill-Smith and Kent 2003). These mobile technologies are said to facilitate social interactions and increase the learning motivation by allowing children to move freely (Zurita and Nussbaum 2007).

A review of the scientific literature provides different definitions of mobile learning (Pachler et al. 2010). According to Wali et al. (2008), some authors emphasize the mobility of devices and propose technocentric definitions (Kukulska-Hulme et al. 2005). Others define mobile learning as a continuation of e-learning (Quinn 2000) or emphasize the importance of the social practices in which learning activities take place (O’Malley et al. 2003). To illustrate their conceptualization of mobile learning, Wali et al. (2008) conducted three studies with the goal of determining how students use portable devices (e.g., laptop computers and cell phones) comparing the use of more conventional media (e.g., classroom note-taking) for the facilitation of learning in formal and informal settings. To these authors, current definitions of mobile learning are not representative of what actually happens in the learning context. Their studies demonstrate that students do not only use mobile technologies, they also employ conventional tools, such as books and other documents, to facilitate learning. Consequently, more traditional learning should be considered mobile, since students use conventional tools in the same way as they do mobile technologies during learning activities, in different contexts. Additionally, certain uses of portable devices are rather static, meaning the mobility component is not always the most important.

Wali et al. (2008) come to the conclusion that the definition of mobile learning should be enriched to take into account several contextual elements, considered as a combination of the physical location, the environment constraints, the rules, and the division of duties within the community of learners. For these reasons, they offer the following definition: “learning that occurs as a result of pursuing learning activities that are directed toward achieving the same objective across multiple contexts (both physical and social)” (Wali et al. 2008)

In physics teaching, two concepts remain promising in a classroom: learning and mobility when students are apprehending difficult concepts like electromagnetic fields, electrically charged particles, and the interrelation between forces and charges (Barma et al. 2015). It requires the students’ capability to abstract their representation in a three-dimensional way (3D). As presented in the introduction, the technology used in mobile devices allows for the integration of additional functions (geolocation, Wi-Fi, email, video, discussion blogs, etc.). These rapid changes motivated our team to create a digital-based teaching tool, test it with a small group of students to reflect on how giving them a certain degree of freedom of movement around a virtual 3D interface could allow them to test knowledge transmitted in a lecture-based class. The problem was complex since it asked students to predict the movement of electrically charged particles under the effect of magnetic and electrical forces. The relationships between technology and learning proposed by Sharples et al. (2005) seem to be very interesting in the context of this study, because they allow for the conceptualization of how the learner’s experience is reflected in the form of new knowledge.

“The role of technology in these explorations and conversations is to form a distributed system of meaning making. At a first level of analysis we shall make no distinction between people and interactive technology, instead examining how the human-technology system enables knowledge to be created and shared in a continual process of coming to know through the construction and distribution of shared external representations of knowledge.” (Sharples et al. 2005, Chap. 14, p. 4).

Several studies on the use of mobile technologies for learning have been carried out. Among them, that of Waycott et al. (2005) concluded that:

“like other mobile devices, PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) have not been designed with learners in mind, yet they offer great potential to support lifelong learning and indeed are being extensively used by learners. Therefore it is important to investigate how learners make use of such devices: what benefits the devices enable and what learners encounter problems.” (pp. 126–127).

The reflexions above open the door to possible convergence between technology and learning with a vision of durable cross-generational lifelong learning (Table 1).
Table 1

Convergence between technology and learning (Yin 2010, p. 10)

Mobile technologies

Learning methods






Located (contextual)

Network connection






According to Waycott et al. (2005), the use of mobile devices can support lifelong learning, and devices bring constraints as well as benefits, which may be important in certain areas of learning, such as sciences. Hennessy (2000) demonstrated in his research that “where learners have devices for extended periods, they develop a strong sense of ownership over both devices and the tasks for which they use them” (p. 127).

If we now focus on two other aspects of new technologies, that is, the contribution of serious games and augmented reality to students’ learning, many educators believe that the use of games confers many benefits in the educational context (Barma et al. 2010). Serious game is the term used for games whose primary purpose is something other than mere entertainment. They “invite the user to interact with a computer application designed to combine elements of teaching, learning, training, communication and information with playful aspects provided by the video game. Such an association is designed to supplement utilitarian content (serious content) with a videoludic approach (a game)” [translation added] (Michaud and Alvarez 2008, p. 11).

Augmented reality (AR) is one of the technological tools recently associated with serious games. An interesting potential use of serious games, according to some studies, arises from the fact that they have the ability to make us rediscover “memory” (Alvarez 2012). In our opinion, this aspect is important. It implies that, in addition to learning, the game permits the reuse of already acquired knowledge, which resurfaces during play. When combined with AR, it allows for a fluid, real-time connection between the digital world and the real world.

Augmented Reality: Enhancing the Learner’s Experience

The literature includes several studies on the use of augmented reality to teach mathematics (Kaufmann 2003), mechanical physics (Bergig 2009), electromagnetism (Billinghurst and Dünser 2012), engineering (Liarokapis et al. 2004) and biomolecular sciences (Nickels et al. 2012). Such studies have helped demonstrate that augmented reality has actual advantages. Compared to conventional 2D interfaces, AR solutions seem to help students learn more effectively and increase knowledge retention. Augmented reality supports the understanding of complex phenomena by offering a unique visual and interactive experience. It also has a positive impact on learners, their connection to the activity, their attention, and information retention. It seems to improve understanding in kinesthetic learners. However, while several studies have demonstrated such key benefits (Dunleavy et al. 2009), they did not clearly evaluate and quantify the actual gain derived from the use of these technologies in terms of learning.

It seems relevant to reflect on how students form concepts in learning environments that use increasingly powerful technological tools. The relationships between technology and learning proposed by Sharples et al. (2005) seem to be very interesting, because they allow for the conceptualization of how the learner’s experience is reflected in the form of new knowledge while engaging in a serious game to better understand electromagnetism. Furthermore, according to Sanchez and Jouneau-Sion (2010), games constitute complex and nondeterministic learning situations encouraging involvement, decision making, autonomy, and collaboration. They provide environments characterized by reflexivity, generally virtual, within which learners can develop their own strategies and test their ways of thinking and acting. These practices are well integrated into the practices of today’s adolescents. Consequently, they have become a beneficial teaching approach that can be used when students have access to technological tools. However, in a teaching/learning context using serious games, it is important to go beyond the technological tool and aim for learning by the user. The tool alone is insufficient and learning depends on the ways it is used.

Overcoming a Basic Contradiction in Physics Teaching by Introducing an Instrument of Success

The research team focused on augmented reality imbedded on a mobile platform (Apple iPad Tablet) as a technological innovation to foster autonomous and durable lifelong learning. The application setting was a college-level electromagnetic physics class. Research has revealed the conceptual difficulties students face with concepts taught in physics class (Cepni et al. 2000; Hestenes et al. 1992). Electromagnetic forces act on charged particles. These electromagnetic phenomena are introduced in the preuniversity course,1 Electricity and Magnetism. They pose significant difficulty for students when the time comes to represent them in space. The behavior of charged particles in space may result in counter-intuitive trajectories. Then how could we provide a realistic, concrete visualization of the interrelations between these forces on the particles? In order for a particle to be subjected to an electric or magnetic force, several conditions must be respected. For the electric force, the particle must first have a positive (+q) or negative (−q) charge, and must be located near another source of electricity. Every electrically charged object generates an electric field. An electric force is created when a charged object is found in the electric field of another charged object. If the charge of the object has the same sign as the source of the electric field, repulsion will occur. Otherwise, there will be attraction. The situation becomes more complex when magnets, which generate magnetic fields, come into play! To generate a magnetic field, a particle must always be charged, and must also possess a speed and be traveling near a magnetic field source. The mathematical equations developed from the laws of physics to describe the trajectories of charged particles rapidly become complex when they include more than one electromagnetic field component. Most physics students cannot visualize the 3D dimension related to the interrelations between, charges, electric, and magnetic fields. They just memorize equations and are not able to predict the trajectories of particles in 3D. Engeström’s qualifies such memorizing actions as “conscious memorizing” which is a form of transmission of knowledge and experience that brings about conscious learning actions (2015, p. 75).

Even if some recent analysis highlights the fact that “none of the reports offered concrete proof that personalized learning technology delivers a more complete, robust and nuanced understanding of students than those held by experienced teachers” (Roberts-Mahoney et al. 2016), the research we conducted lead us to believe that a combination of formal teaching and the use of a digital-based tool improves students’ comprehension of electromagnetism. It is a challenge to teach difficult and not apprehensible concepts in physics or in chemistry. A promising avenue is presented by Kim et al. (2012) as they suggest that teaching methods based on the discovery (inquiry-based pedagogy) combined with portable digital tools are transforming the children from single passengers into active role-playing scientists who share their knowledge and solve problems collectively.

In addition, the abilities of children to incorporate technologies into their learning are often better than those of their teachers, and the speed of such adaptation may surprise many adults. Nevertheless, most of the time, physics teachers provide students with experimental step-by-step laboratory protocols that are designed to test the adequacy of a mathematical formula presented during a lecture-based class (Larochelle and Désautels 2003). Engeström (2015) argues that the outcome of school going activity is, for example, the reproduction of algorithms to solve well-structured, “closed” problems (p. 80). This form of learning encourages the reproduction of texts by students for good grades (Miettienen and Peisa 2002). More specifically, in education, science teachers can be expected to have a basic contradiction between teaching for tests and grades versus teaching for supporting students’ mastering their own relationship to a sociotechnical society and become autonomous thinkers during their life time. The challenge of our interdisciplinary team was to create a tool not so that it would just to be reproduced (like a closed mathematical problem to be resolved with a precise algorithm) but that would allow students to negotiate their own way while integrating many possible electromagnetic parameters by immersing themselves in a 3D environment to solve an enigma that would be different every time and being given some degree of liberty when choosing parameters to play with (Barma 2009).

Redefining the Object of School Going Activity to Promote Lifelong Learning

Cultural activity theory considers the activity system the key unit of analysis, as the result of goal-oriented individual and social interactions (Engeström 1987; Engeström and Sannino 2011). In his systemic triangular model, Engeström (2001, 2015) illustrates human collective activity with six interacting poles or components of practice (see Fig. 1). The subject is the viewpoint from which the activity is analyzed (students), the object or the goal is the resolution of the enigma in order to promote learning science in context (outcome). Another pole of the model corresponds to the tools or artifacts used by the students to achieve their goal. The lower part of the triangle puts into evidence the mediation role played by the socioinstitutional dimension of human activity. The rules pole refers to expectations, school policies, norms, values, beliefs, and ideologies that regulate actions and interactions within the system. The community component consists in our case of the teachers and peer students attending the targeted school. At last, the division of labor dimension has to do with the changes in role, tasks, and responsibilities when realizing the goal.
Fig. 1

Parallel: a potential instrument to change the object and the outcome of physics teaching

The concept of contradiction is also central and presupposes a dual existence between two alternative competing teaching strategies for the production of a new form of school activity. In Fig. 1, the lightened broken arrow in the circle highlights a potential contradiction in the object of the activity of the learners: being successful at reproducing mathematical algorithms or being able to integrate autonomously notions on electromagnetism. The results are also different in both cases: students may end up resolving a closed mathematical problem or succeed in decoding an enigma a way to become autonomous thinkers. Contradictions are considered necessary to induce change and demand qualitatively new instruments of success for their resolution (Engeström 1987). If Parallel reveals an instrument of success, it could change the object and the outcome of the activity. Monk’s recent work also suggests that such a dialectical cultural-historical model has a great potential to promote intergenerational learning and development of individuals (Monk 2011). It challenges the commonly held view of intergenerational transmission of knowledge.

Description of Parallel

Organizational Components of the Research Project

The project, funded by the university−college collaborative program of the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS), relies on a multidisciplinary team consisting of three professors and a research assistant professional from Laval University, three teachers from the Cégep de Sainte-Foy, and a researcher from the Centre en imagerie numérique et médias interactifs (CIMMI). This collaboration brings together a variety of skills, covering the fields of computer vision, multimedia communication technologies, GIS, physics, and educational sciences. Project synergy, benefiting from the diversity of expertise, is further strengthened by the involvement of college-level students who participate as both creators and users of new learning tools developed within the project. Consequently, skills and knowledge are developed during both phases: creation and use.

During the first phase of the project, a scenario competition was launched among students of the communication techniques department (multimedia integration and graphics technology programs) of the College. Based on guidelines established in conformity with the chosen electromagnetic concepts and the context of mobile augmented reality use, five proposed scenarios were submitted, including the scenario which was selected for Parallel. Given the small size of the team, the dedicated skills of its members, the limited scope of the game and learning objectives, an Agile software development approach was selected. Agile Software Development is a set of software development methods in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change (Retrieved from:

Playing Parallel Serious Game and Game Components

Parallel Scenario and Objective

Parallel is based on an exploration in which the player progresses in a mysterious environment. There is no character to control and the order of progress is not well defined. When the student starts Parallel, a storyboard briefly explaining the scenario appears (see Fig. 2). Students discover that a sealed chest inscribed with Sumerian writings has been recovered from a northern sea. This discovery coincides strangely with the excavation of three tablets with Sumerian inscriptions corresponding to those of the chest. Inspections reveal that weak electromagnetic fields emanate from three separate locations on the sides of the chest. The tablets suggest that symbols are hidden in corresponding places inside the chest. These symbols turn out to comprise the secret combination to open a door in a huge stone arch. The objective of the game is to discover the three symbols that will open the door.
Fig. 2

Start screen of Parallel which presents the opening of the storyboard describing the game context

Parallel Mechanics

To uncover the symbols, the player has a digital tablet and three steles, and markers bearing different inscriptions (see Fig. 3). The three markers represent the three steles mentioned in the scenario described above. They come into play to trigger the apparition of the augmented reality elements.
Fig. 3

The three Parallel game markers trigger the apparition of (a) a glass cube, (b) a mysterious chest, and (c) a door

Here is how the notions of physics were presented to students via the simulator. Through the electromagnetic field control panel (Fig. 4a), students can choose the type of field to insert in the cube by selecting E (electric field) or B (magnetic field). They can also choose which cube surfaces will have a positive or a negative charge (in the case of an electric field), as well as a north or a south pole (in the case of a magnetic field). Three field components can be defined simultaneously with the simulator, one for each of the x, y and z axes. For instance, when students select an electric field on the y axis, the field intensity can be increased (i.e., using a glide button on the right of the electromagnetic field control panel); consequently, students can observe the reaction of the particle beam inside the cube in real time and according to an infinite number of viewing angles. Students can also choose the type of particle to project.
Fig. 4

The Parallel game is composed of three scenes. (a) The first scene shows a glass cube, which allows configuration and observation of the particle beam. This is the practice cube; (b) the second scene shows a chest which contains the three fundamental clues needed to win the game; (c) the third scene displays a sealed door which can be opened by using the three symbols found in the chest, in scene (b)

Hand-holding the tablet allows the camera to capture images from the surroundings, which are immediately analyzed by the augmented reality component of the game. This component searches for the presence of one of three markers (see Fig. 3). When the camera is pointed at one of the markers, the player can access the game scene associated with that marker. Three virtual elements can be displayed, according to the identity of the visible marker, that is, a glass cube (see Fig. 4a), a chest (Fig. 4b), and a door (Fig. 4c). The display creates the illusion that the virtual element truly is part of the scene: the element is rendered in a way adapted to the player’s point of view. Players can move around the marker and observe the cube as if it was really placed on the marker.

How Parallel is Played

A video describing Parallel and how it is played is available on Youtube:
In the game’s scenario, the player starts with the first scene (see Fig. 4a) showing a transparent glass cube. The interface allows the player to activate a particle gun, which projects a particle beam in the cube. By using the interface to adjust the electromagnetic fields, the player can change the beam trajectory, which will be affected by the field forces (see Fig. 5). The trajectory is calculated in real time by a simulator that accurately conveys the real physical phenomenon. This scene allows the player to practice in order to understand how the different field combinations affect the beam.
Fig. 5

(a) By manipulating electromagnetic fields, the player can reach all faces of the cube; (b) some configurations create interesting effects that respect the laws of physics

Then the player switches to the second scene showing a sealed chest (see Fig. 4b). Hidden inside the chest are three symbols. The game provides students again with a particle gun that can scan the chest’s interior and produce an image of the area struck by particles. They must apply electric and magnetic fields to the sides of the chest to direct the particle beam to the identified locations (see Fig. 6). By directing the beam at the correct locations, players can see the secret symbols. Since the chest is opaque, the particle beam is not visible; players must mentally visualize the trajectory of the particles to correctly direct the beam.
Fig. 6

(a) Hidden on the interior wall of the chest are three inscriptions which can be visualized by directing the particle beam to specific locations. Marks on the exterior of the chest, shown in a white circle here, indicate the position of one of the inscriptions; (b) enlargement of the mark; (c) one of the inscriptions on the interior of the chest as shown by the camera

Once the three symbols have been discovered, players move to the third scene, the sealed door (see Fig. 4c). To open the door and finish the game, players must select the three inscriptions that they found in the chest. If the door opens, they succeeded the challenge and the game. The game was designed for the Apple iOS platform and runs on the iPad tablet. It combines two key technologies that allow the player to interact with the scenario in a virtual manner through a user interface (Unity3D technology), and in a real way via a camera (Qualcomm’s Vuforia technology).


The experimentation in the classrooms began just after formal teaching of the section covering electric fields and at the beginning of the part of the course devoted to magnetism. It extended over two classes lasting 1 h each. The investigation was carried out with four class groups, that is two control groups (CG1 and CG2) and two groups using the Parallel solution (PG1 and PG2). As well, two physics professors (called Teacher A and Teacher M) were involved, as were 160 students registered in the Electricity and Magnetism course taught in the winter 2012 semester. Each professor had two groups (one CG group and one PG group). The PG group of teacher A, which used the Parallel game, is labeled A in the rest of the article, whereas teacher M’s PG group is identified as M.

A game evaluation questionnaire was administered to the two groups which had used Parallel (PG1 and PG2); 68 forms in total were filled out and subjected to qualitative analysis. This chapter is centered on the analysis of evaluation questionnaires. Questions primarily addressed the students’ appreciation of the gaming experience in class, the utility of the game for visualizing electromagnetic concepts as well as students’ opinion on the relevance of the use of the simulator in a science course. The questionnaire also evaluated the students’ initial interest in video games. As a result, we were able to collect information regarding the comprehension of the intuitive functioning of the application, as well as the game’s originality (introduction, graphics, and augmented reality) and its level of difficulty. Added to this were the video recordings of classes during which the simulator was used by students. The videos allowed for real-time observation of students’ reactions. Moreover, a participant−observer produced a report.


Experimenting Parallel

During the first session, only basic instructions were given to students in order to identify barriers to the intuitive understanding of the application and their difficulties in appropriation, as well as to identify possible instructions which could be developed in view of a better use of this tool in a classroom setting. Beyond some guidance on using the iPad, three pieces of instruction were given to students, working in teams of two. The first element of instruction defined the limits of the game, including the fact that it has three markers, of which two were on the counters in front of the students (i.e., the glass cube marker and the chest marker), whereas the third, of large format, was hanging on the display board at the front of the class (i.e., the door marker), and then identified the one with which students should start. The second element was designed to suggest a feeling or attitude of exploration, research, and questioning for this exploratory and appropriation phase, clearly indicating to students that they should observe closely, approach or move away from the virtual objects as needed, consider all three markers, go back to previous scenes, ask questions, discover the goal of the game, etc. Finally, the third element was designed to reassure students on the context of this session: our observations were not meant to evaluate them, but to evaluate the usefulness of the game with regard to helping them in their learning. Moreover, it was clearly announced to the students that they themselves were neither being evaluated, nor would they receive a mark.

The appropriation challenge was major in several ways: only a limited number of students had previously used a touch tablet; very few, from one to four out of groups of 20 students, had already heard of augmented reality. In addition, in contrast to the textbooks, which presented 2D illustrations, in this situation students had to place the concepts in their 3D setting, identify the goal of the game, learn the interface codes (coordinate system, ways to define fields B and E, and their combination), find the symbols, and then accomplish the tasks by using the theory presented in physics class to succeed in the game. Students were given 35–45 min for this exploratory phase, depending on the group.

Regarding the students’ behavior, the observer notes indicate an amazement phase common to all groups, but at times of varying intensity. During the first minutes, they did not speak much, or only softly. Then, after a few minutes, when the reading of the introduction was completed and the first virtual objects appeared, a new attitude arose in the teams. First they were “surprised,” “impressed,” “interested,” and sometimes even “excited.” This enthusiasm brought them into an attitude of research, questioning, and exploration of the quest. The students were very absorbed in the task of appropriation and an exchange dynamic arose within the teams. They were in a “parallel” world and nothing else existed: neither the professor, nor the camera, nor the observer. Students moved around the laboratory to consult the third marker.

Several of the teams maintained this attitude from the beginning to the end of this game session, even though only one to three teams per group were able to complete the game successfully at this stage. Some randomly explored the different components of the game, others systematically devoted time to each detail, trying to make connections. Some asked for one or two additional pieces of information to proceed. The generally used strategy was groping, “trial and error.” They had “no idea what they needed to do” (A14) and they had to “sort things out to understand” (A19). On the other hand, some teams seemed “disoriented” and “didn’t know what to do” at certain times. They tended to give up and remove themselves from the exploratory process. Some suggestions got them restarted, sometimes only for a brief period. Some adopted a random trial and error strategy, hoping that “someone would come tell [them] what to do.” (M58).

How Parallel Changes the Relations Between SubjectToolRulesDivision of Labor and the Object of the Activity

The primary advantage of augmented reality was that it significant helps students see and visualize the physical situation and trajectory in 3D (35 answers), for all field configurations, which facilitates their understanding (11 answers). Augmented reality also helped students by providing a visual representation (glass cube) of an abstract situation that is not otherwise easily accessible. They can “see instead of imagining” and link the theory to its physical manifestation. Students could think about what they are seeing instead of starting with their mental representation of the situation. For some students, it facilitated the adoption of a mental representation of the situation. We noticed that the glass cube scene became a reference during discussions between some students. Moreover, when they tried to limit the time spent with the glass cube (modification of rules) to practice on the fields and direct the particle beams to a specific site, they used the cube as a reference, and drew it on a sheet of paper. Some used the cube scene without starting the particle gun, or the beam (meaning no time countdown) to discuss their field configuration. A benefit of augmented reality was that it provided an experience, an interaction with a virtual setting that would not otherwise be accessible. Students could try their field configurations, concretely see in real time the effect on the particle beam and validate their understanding. There was autoregulation of their learning.

Parallel as a 3D tool provided a certain sensory experience of the situation. In addition, augmented reality allowed for greater interactivity between the student and the virtual setting than the real display usually available (electron beam in a bulb and Helmholtz coils to create a magnetic field) allows. There was devolution of power to students during the lab: they managed the unfolding of their own actions to resolve the enigma. This comment also applies to the accessibility of the real display (i.e., number of display vs. number of students) and to the limited number of manipulations and configurations possible regarding electromagnetic fields.

Even if the research project was exploratory and very targeted to a specific disciplinary knowledge, Parallel has a good potential to overcome a basic contradiction in school activity. The solution was appreciated by physics’ students. By being willing to avoid guiding the students too much in their experimentation with the Parallel solution in the classroom, professors, although not deprecating a more traditional teaching/learning method, modified the use of teaching space, the division of tasks among themselves and between their students, as well as the usual classroom rules.

Parallel challenges the more traditional way of learning electromagnetism. Some rules are modified (usage of space, body−hand−eye coordination necessary to move electric particles in electric of magnetic fields), division of labor between teacher−students−peers. Interpretation of experimental results regarding augmented reality is consistent with the suggestions of Dillenbourg and Jermann (2010) regarding the added value of the technology in terms of the enrichment of knowledge regarding real-world objects and interactivity. We noted that students appreciated the simplicity of using augmented reality. In their opinion, it promoted contextual learning and autonomy. They believed that augmented reality, linked to a serious game on a mobile technology platform (e.g., touch tablet), facilitated the understanding of the concepts of electromagnetism, since it allows for a direct contact with a tangible reality. It gave a new meaning to the mobilization of resources (theoretical knowledge) in context, creating an interaction zone and generating an attraction affect triggered by immersion.

Results regarding the elements of the serious mobile game and its use as a support or obstacle to learning electromagnetic concepts lead to the emergence of two dimensions proposed by Yin (2010) regarding the possible convergence of said technologies and learning methods: learning in context and learner-centered learning. The learner can physically appropriate the Parallel solution, and move with it around the markers in order to become involved in the learning process. These results are in line with the observations of Alvarez (2012), who stated that serious games provide a considerable benefit in allowing us to find “memory.”

Another point greatly revealed is the support of real-time self-verification of learning. Given that this is the first verification of the tool through an exploration process, at this point we cannot presuppose the representation of electromagnetic concepts. This is a nonconventional experimental framework, given the multiplicity of the parameters involved in student learning, including the mobile technology tool, the serious game, and augmented reality. In the problem-solving context of the Parallel solution, each student had a degree of freedom regarding the use they could make of space and the application of the theoretical concepts involved. Consequently, in a group context, the researcher is faced with a multitude of strategies.

As a research team, we experienced a dilemma regarding our wish to provide support and to offer space for students to be free. The results corroborate the choice we made to give information on the use of the tool and game playing. It is important to underline that this was made possible by the user-friendliness of the tablet’s affordances and the simplicity of use of the augmented reality application.

Even within the context of an exploratory effort, we noted that learning supported by a mobile platform presented us with a multitude of contexts; the student is required to take into account the following parameters: movement in space, appropriation of the virtual interface, active involvement while interacting in a space provided by the augmented reality, and retention of disciplinary knowledge to resolve the serious game puzzle. These findings constitute the basis on which the next iterations will be built and are coherent with the definition of mobile learning we have adopted.

We also observed a strong convergence of mobile technology and two learning aspects, that is, learner-based learning and contextual learning (Sharples et al. 2005; Yin 2010). These conclusions lead toward new possibilities in science teaching and provide an incentive to become involved in additional work while aiming for a more collaborative aspect via a network connection. Consequently, we are already exploring a second project phase, during which classroom time allocated to handling the Parallel solution will be increased. In addition, the evaluation questionnaires will be revised in order to target the concrete elements which stood out during the first project iteration. The immersivity of augmented reality and the mobile aspect of the game will be reinforced by offering a unique, class-scale augmented reality, simultaneously shared by several students. This type of configuration could promote interaction and collaboration among players, and will make observed phenomena more tangible and reality based.

Augmented Reality Potential Toward Cross and Intergenerational Usage

Research results (Billinghurst and Dünser 2012) already underlined the benefits of augmented reality as a teaching tool for students of all ages. While augmented books have been focused on young children, mobile AR systems seem particularly suitable for high school setting. In such context, Parallel could act as the foundation of an intergenerational collaboration between college and high school students. The enthusiasm triggered by the solution among the college students yielded to their participation in several showcasing events dedicated to academic as well as general audiences. Mentoring of high school students by college students toward the adaptation of the serious game could be envisioned. Such an approach will be consistent with the current maker culture as well as the need for improving student programming skills.

The added value of augmented reality has been demonstrated as well for adults in continuing education contexts. The technology is able to create realistic and immersive working experiences to train nurses, surgeon, and mechanical operators to name a few (Knowles et al. 2011; Ong et al. 2008). Even if attempts to develop AR applications focusing on ageing population have been limited, an increasing trend in using AR system among older people has been observed (Malik et al. 2013). With the growth of elderly mobile users, evidence shows the possible trends using AR system to support elderly in terms of mobility and independence (Kurz et al. 2014). These examples underline the versatility of this technology across generations of users, from the youngsters to the elderly. Adaptation is still required from a thematic standpoint to meet the targeted user interest (e.g., physics-based mystery solving in the context of Parallel; a techno-cultural visit of Montreal in the context of Montreal Urban ( Targeting broad audience). Adapting the user experience to the targeted population experience and requirement is also needed (Liang 2015). Augmented reality is a powerful enabler. More and more integration of this technology in edutainment solutions all along the life should be expected in the coming years. At the end, Parallel, along the pretext of resolving an enigma in a college physic’s class may hold a great potential to modify rules, division of labor usually followed by students and make then engage in more sustainable long-life learning.


  1. 1.

    The Electricity and Magnetism course is offered in Cégep. In the Quebec educational system, students attend cégep between high school and university. The system includes 5 years in high school, then 2 years in cégep prior to attending university. Cégep is considered part of higher education.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université LavalQuebec CityCanada

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