Scarlet Brings Home the Silver: Award for Augmented Reality Project

Last year The University of Manchester and Mimas won a much-coveted Learning and Teaching Innovation Grant from JISC to develop Augmented Reality (AR) applications for Special Collections. Thus was born the ground-breaking Scarlet project: Special Collections using Augmented Reality to Enhance Learning and Teaching. (OK the acronym doesn’t quite work, but it sounds a lot better than Scarelt!)

Click to download A4 Scarlet poster (2.3MB)

Scarlet has involved a really inspiring partnership of learning technologists and project managers from Mimas; three award-winning academics from the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures (Drs Guyda Armstrong, Jerome de Groot and Roberta Mazza); curators and IT experts from the Library; and, not least, students themselves, whose views were captured and fed back into the project development. Together we addressed the constraints that limit the use of Special Collections material in teaching and learning.

Many tutors recognise that exposing students to rare books, manuscripts and archives, even on a limited basis, can spark their enthusiasm for wider classroom-based and remotely-taught courses. On the other hand, students are constrained by the fragility and unfamiliar formats of the material. It isn’t easy for them to study an object in a seminar context, where several students are examining the same object. Student feedback shows that while they are inspired by the objects they encounter, they are often frustrated by the traditional pedagogical experience. In addition, Special Collections libraries are sometimes seen as fusty, old-fashioned places, hidebound by arcane rules.

The Scarlet project has addressed these issues directly, bringing Special Collections into the age of the app. AR enables students to experience the best of both worlds: to enjoy the sensory delights of seeing and handling original materials, while enhancing the learning experience by ‘surrounding’ the object with digital images, video streams, online learning resources and information on the items before them and on related objects held in the Library and elsewhere. AR makes the sessions more interactive, moving towards an enquiry-based learning model, where we set students real questions to solve, through a combination of close study of the original material and by downloading metadata, images and secondary reading, to help them interrogate and interpret the material. One of the benefits of the project is that it makes it more feasible to host ‘taster’ sessions for first and second years, enabling them to engage with Special Collections materials without requiring extensive handling of the original books and manuscripts, and thus addressing conservation issues about the over-exposure of fragile objects.

Augmented Reality has never been used before to enhance the experience of using Special Collections material for teaching and learning, and to overcome the major constraints inhibiting its use. It has potential to revolutionise teaching and learning in this field, helping students engage with primary source materials, and linking fragile and rare objects with online resources.

The Scarlet project has understandably attracted a lot of attention from the HE, library and heritage communities, and we were delighted that it was recently awarded joint second prize for the Association for Learning Technology‘s prestigious “Learning Technology of the Year” team award. The prize was presented at the 2012 ALT Conference Gala Dinner on 12 September here in Manchester.

Commenting on the award, project director Dr Jackie Carter said: “The SCARLET project has demonstrated perfectly the strength of working in a mixed team of project managers, academics and content experts, and learning technologists. This small project has punched well above its weight in demonstrating how an innovative technology, Augmented Reality, can be used imaginatively to enhance the student learning experience with special collections materials at Manchester.”

We hope that Scarlet will be just of the start of incorporating Augmented Reality applications into Special Collections and other library activities. While Scarlet has officially concluded, Mimas are now working on a follow-on project with the University of Sussex and the University for the Creative Arts, Scarlet+. And we are looking at ways of embedding AR into the student experience at Manchester. Watch this space.

For more information on the Scarlet website, visit the project blog. You can also view an online slide presentation about the project, compiled by Matt Ramirez and myself.

John Hodgson

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