The Future of Programming Education May Lie in Augmented Reality

The age-old saying that learning can be fun is now being explored with a modern and measurable twist. A team of Georgia Tech researchers from the College of Computing are exploring the use of augmented reality (AR) technologies and their effectiveness in learning, particularly, in programming education. 

College of Computing undergrads, Sudeep Agarwal and Joon Y. Kimand recent graduates, Nathan Dass(Google) and Sam Ford(Qualcomm), with the leadership of CSE Associate Professor Polo Chau, won the best poster award at the 6th Chinese CHI symposium, co-located with the premier human-computer interaction ACM CHI Conference, for their work exploring AR in learning.

“As AR and VR [virtual reality] platforms are becoming bigger in the market, eventually we will be using both platforms in the future for everything – as mobile is used now. We wanted to see if it would be good for use in programming education and which platform would be best for the ones available at this time,” said Agarwal.

The team’s research compared two popular AR technologies, Microsoft’s HoloLens and Apple’s ARKit, on their potential for helping people to learn how to code. The team explored problems based on spatially-oriented or path-finding tasks that were disguised as games or puzzles.

“We believe when you learn something fundamentally, the best way to learn is by having fun with it. And while a 2D interface may be fun, an AR interface has much more potential,” said Kim.

Dass continued, “As the need for coding constantly grows, the need to prepare generations for coding at younger ages is increasing. AR has huge potential in many different areas, especially in visualization by adding a new layer of interactivity that didn't exist before.”

“As more portable methods of AR are introduced, such as mobile AR, I think we'll start to see widespread adoption and integration of AR into our everyday lives. One of the biggest concerns is how usable the technology is and how willing people will be to adapt to a new interface. So, we set out to address this.”

The findings confirm that AR has potential to enhance beginners’ learning experiences for coding. This is especially true for tasks that are more interactive and benefit from visual feedback. 

“We also melded the missions of coding in education with AR for this exploratory study to see if we could get favorable results in timing tests and user experiences. We ultimately found favorable results in timing tests and user experiences overall when learning code and using AR,” said Ford.

Another finding from this study shows that Apple’s ARKit on an iPhone 8 Plus (mobile AR) is more user-friendly at this time than Microsoft’s HoloLens (head-mounted AR). This is because typical gestures performed by users are similar to what audiences are already comfortable with thanks to smartphones.

“Because you are already used to using these gestures on the phone, applying it with the head mount was more difficult to grasp,” said Agarwal, “And, I think there is a compromise between immersion and usability.”

“Computer science and programming education is increasingly important. AR technologies could make programming a lot more fun, and hopefully that could help attract more people to learn coding,” said Chau.