What is the best way for undergraduates, vocational school students and their teachers to learn to operate or service an Index-R200 turning-milling machine in an advanced training session? This was the starting question for a bachelor thesis by mechanical engineering student Alfonso Terrasi. To answer it, Terrasi developed a modern teaching format based on an augmented reality app.
His work is part of the "Teacher Training at Vocational Schools 2" (LEBUS2) project at the University of Stuttgart’ at the Institute for Machine Tools (IfW) and Institute of Educational Science (IfE), which is will receive funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research until 2023. The project focus is on consolidating professional teaching in industrial-technical vocational schools with a view to inspiring more young people to study technical education and to choose a career in vocational school teaching.
One of the objectives of this interdisciplinary project is to develop a concept for a course on Machine tool mechatronics, which will cover new teaching tools such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality," explains Walther Maier, Group Leader of Machine Design at the IfW. The engineers and teachers complement each other very well with their respective expertise: "Our technology education students add a technical and didactic component, whilst the mechanical engineering students bring in the technical knowledge," says Evelyn Hoffarth, a Research Assistant at the IfE.
AR glasses show the necessary hand movements
According to Hoffarth, the IfE has been working with VR learning environments for a considerable time. In addition to smartphones and tablets, he adds, the IfW has recently started using a range of AR goggles, whose use is currently being tested and for which applications are being developed. What this involved for Terrasi, for example, was to apply stickers containing AR markers, which the camera of the tablet, smartphone or AR goggles recognizes, to the lathe-milling machine for each process step, which his app uses to direct students to the various control elements of the machine.
When one holds a device over it, all the necessary information about the machine operations to be carried out will be displayed on the screen with images, text and videos. In some cases 3D animations are even used to demonstrate what has to be done. For example, you’ll see a key turning to the right to unlock the machine," Hoffarth explains.
The research group is currently looking into which digital support system is best suited for what teaching content and whether it would be better to use a smartphone or AR goggles. "The good thing about cell phones is that two people can look at the same thing at the same time," says Maier: "however, you always have something in your hand, which limits what you can do. AR goggles, on the other hand, leave both hands free."
Whilst most school children and undergraduates will probably enjoy learning through AR apps and VR goggles, the researchers are giving careful consideration to when it makes sense to use them. "One always has to consider the added value compared to a well-made 3D instructional video," Hoffarth explains. "Because just being able to rotate an object on a tablet screen often improves one’s spatial perception after which one can focus on any specific component."
Apps are still rarely used in schools
Despite the fact that teachers are open to digital programs and AR apps, they are still rarely used in schools. For one thing, as Maier explains, the cost and effort involved in creating an AR app is immense and close to impossible for individual teachers. "Currently,” he adds: “teachers will rarely find ready-modeled 3D objects that would be ideal for creating their own teaching apps. But taking on the task of modeling them and, where necessary, animating them or even optimizing the app for various, rapidly changing end devices is extremely time-consuming and one would need programming skills to do so."
I believe that more and more companies will start to offer digital teaching aids.Walther Maier, Group Leader of Machine Design at the IfW
What the researchers have seen though is that providers of teaching and instructional materials have as yet failed to adopt such apps to any great extent. Existing digital support services usually have to be paid for on a call-by-call basis, which schools cannot afford. "Often,” says Hoffarth, “the quicker approach is to teach the relevant skills on the machine itself, even if this may lessen the motivation of pupils and undergraduates.”
In Maier’s estimation, it will not be long before this market niche is recognized: "Not all teachers find preparing for asynchronous teaching approaches an easy thing to do, which is why I believe that more and more companies will start to offer digital teaching aids.” However, he adds, AR goggles still take some getting used to, which makes them difficult to use. And purchasing enough of them for an entire would also be costly. The use of AR and VR apps will therefore probably continue to be a niche application at best, at least for now.
Editor: Daniel Völpel