Learning with Holograms

Microsoft, Pearson, University of Canberra, and Canberra Grammar School have come together to bring HoloLens, an interactive holographic computer, into the classroom.

What is HoloLens?

Microsoft HoloLens is a holographic computer built into a headset that allows you to see, hear, and interact with holograms within an environment like a living room or office. There are no wires or external cameras, nor are there any phone, or PC connections required, so you can move freely and self-contained.

Matthew Purcell, Head of Digital Innovation at Canberra Grammar School (CGS), became very familiar with the device during a recent eight-month project. He explains that there are several sides to HoloLens.

“First there’s the hardware, the actual HoloLens unit. Then there’s the software platform, Windows Mixed Reality, which runs on top of a cut down version of Windows 10 designed for a holographic interface,” says Purcell. “On top of that you have the apps – just like you have an app store for your iPhone or Android, there is an app store for your HoloLens device.”

Speaking of apps…

The technology only became available in 2016, so there are very few apps available for download – and even fewer education-based apps. When Microsoft approached Pearson about bringing HoloLens into the education space, Pearson went to Prof. Rob Fitzgerald at University of Canberra, who is a leader and innovator in the field of Information and Communication Technology Education.

“Rob approached us [CGS], as we had worked together on augmented reality projects in the past,” says Purcell. “We then had a series of design meetings with Pearson to discuss and flesh out the kinds of apps we would like to see developed. Pearson made them, and we trialled them in the classroom and provided feedback.”

Learning With Hololens P1

In the end, Pearson built five subject-specific apps with input from CGS – maths, science, health, history, and commerce. Each app focused on a separate topic within its discipline. For example, the Health app focused primarily on the human anatomy unit.

“The aim was to develop apps for the subjects that were uniquely suited to mixed reality. We really wanted to provide the students with an experience you cannot get from any other medium,” says Purcell.

The student reactions

When a device like HoloLens makes its way into a classroom full of teenagers, the novelty factor is unavoidable. According to Purcell, most students had never seen anything like it before, so there was a lot of excitement. The classroom trial itself lasted eight weeks – ample time for the novelty to wear off and for teachers to gain an idea of how the apps were actually going.

“The students received HoloLens well – they really enjoyed using it and so did the teachers,” says Purcell. “Because it’s so complex to develop an app though, what was developed could only be used for one or two lessons and students wanted to use it for other topics. Basically, they wanted more.”

What will it mean for student learning?

Eight weeks might have been long enough for the novelty to wear off but perhaps too short an amount of time to see any true learning outcomes. Still, Purcell maintains that HoloLens gave teachers a powerful and unique way to communicate key concepts in the classroom. It gave Health teachers, in particular, a way to overcome certain teaching challenges.

Learning With Hololens P2

“Our Health teachers use iPad apps when teaching the human skeletal system. But even though the app is supposed to be 3-D, it’s not, because you’re viewing it on a 2-D screen,” says Purcell. “HoloLens enabled them to present this unit entirely in 3-D. The holograms were true to scale and students could walk around them to explore them in detail so they were able to gain a lot more spatial awareness of the skeletal system. This unit can be traditionally hard to teach and understand but HoloLens made it quite a bit easier.”

It’s clear that here is where HoloLens really shines. When concepts are too small, too big, too complex, or too abstract to understand by reading a textbook, HoloLens can bring them to life so that they may be visualised.

“I certainly believe a lot of concepts can be extremely well written but there are many that can’t be, and that you need to be able to visualise, and I think that’s where HoloLens can really deepen student learning,” says Purcell.

What does the research say?

A 2016 study found that embedding augmented reality in medicine-based authentic inquiry promoted student engagement and motivation levels. But the literature points to educational benefits that go beyond higher levels of student engagement and interest.

Learning With Hololens P3

A study that focused on mixed reality in the science classroom found evidence of improved thinking and reasoning skills, and collaborative learning. The data showed significant content learning gains and an increase in spatial reasoning ability in students. One student, exiting their classroom remarked, ‘‘Wow, that’s the first time I got chemistry this entire year!’’ The authors concluded that the mixed reality science classroom can be a powerful learning environment at the high school level.

Researchers have also found that augmented reality can help students learn more efficiently, as well as increase knowledge retention. It allows for learning to be student-centered but also creates opportunities for collaboration, which in turn fosters a deeper understanding of content.

What do the students have to say?

Five CGS students played a key role in optimising HoloLens for the classroom. Not only did they provide feedback to Pearson about the apps developed, they took the process a step further and developed an app of their own.

In HoloLens Part II, we take a closer look at the student journey.


1 https://www.microsoft.com/en-au/hololens


3 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s41039-016-0039-z



Related articles

  • Four ways neuroscience and technology accelerate student learning

    Four ways neuroscience and technology accelerate student learning

    What happens when neuroscience and e-learning collide?

    Read More
  • Learning with Holograms Part 2

    Learning with Holograms Part 2

    Learn more about Microsoft HoloLens which was recently trialled at a school.

    Read More
  • How digital are Australian schools?

    How digital are Australian schools?

    How digital are Australian Schools? 700+ teachers surveyed

    Read More
  • Future Jobs

    Future Jobs

    Are you training for a job that will be gone in five years?

    Read More
  • Adaptive learning

    Adaptive learning

    How adaptive learning can improve student engagement & concentration.

    Read More