XXVI.6 November - December 2019
Page: 72
Digital Citation

HCI in praxis: Teaching augmented reality storytelling in a journalism classroom

Victoria McArthur

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The real point of journalism is always to create informed global citizenry, and at a moment in time where newspapers and broadcast media maybe aren’t attracting younger audiences, immersive journalism can. —Nonny de la Peña [1]

back to top  Insights


As an educator, I have a longstanding interest in what HCI can do for education outside its typical subject domains. How can we leverage HCI pedagogy to support the design of interactive digital prototypes in a journalism classroom? The HCI community is already actively engaging with digital journalism. For example, the 2019 CHI conference in Glasgow featured a workshop calling for HCI to support accurate, impartial, and transparent journalism [2]. Adding to the community’s growing interest in journalism and HCI education, I present a case study in order to investigate how HCI can help journalism students explore journalistic storytelling via digital technologies.

As storytellers, journalists have a responsibility to share the complex narratives of our world. In the past 10 years, journalism has seen a shift in storytelling, mobilizing an array of digital platforms, including immersive and interactive technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) [3]. However, technological barriers (e.g., lack of programming knowledge or design thinking expertise) significantly impact the effectiveness of these narratives. Journalists have much to contribute to the tools they use to share the narratives of those who do not have a voice. Tokenistic attempts to force journalistic narratives through select media tools often devalue both narrator and audience engagement with stories. This reduces authenticity and renders the narratives shallow.

Emerging technologies such as AR offer new mediums to improve engagement. AR mixes virtual and real elements by presenting an interactive experience where real-world environments are augmented with computer-generated information. News organizations such as the New York Times have taken notice of the storytelling potential of both mediums and have begun to include AR and VR components in articles. Journalists and storytellers in general seem ready to explore AR as a storytelling medium. Yet existing AR authoring tools are generally inaccessible to non-technical users and require storytelling skills unlike those used to tell stories via traditional digital-media platforms.

In order for journalists to effectively use AR as a storytelling medium, we need to ask ourselves how HCI pedagogy can be mobilized to democratize AR. In a previously co-authored paper with Robert Teather [4], we drew comparisons between two similarly structured project-based courses that were pedagogically informed by HCI methodologies. One was a computer engineering course and the other was a digital humanities course. Although the topics covered by these courses varied greatly, both taught the same core principles of user interface evaluation. These two case studies were previously presented to reinforce the compatibility of HCI methods in the classroom—especially in disciplines where they are not commonly mobilized [4]. In this article, I present a case study, reflecting on student projects in a fourth-year journalism course.

back to top  Course Structure

The purpose of the immersive journalism course is for students to design and prototype an interactive digital prototype of a journalistic story. The course is offered to fourth-year journalism students and is open to graduate students as well. Leading up to the course, students have received training in journalistic storytelling across multiple platforms, including radio, television, documentary, print, and online. Although students come to the immersive journalism course with some experience working with desktop publishing software, most of the students taking the course have no programming experience and are unfamiliar with augmented or mixed reality. In the course, we focus on AR as a storytelling medium. Students spend the first part of the course familiarizing themselves with how prominent news outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times are already using AR in their stories.


Students are introduced to a variant of the iterative design methodology, called the critical play framework [5]. In this variant, games scholar Mary Flanagan proposes modifications to the existing iterative design model and reframes it in a way that systematically provides designers with opportunities to include rhetoric as a design goal. Where the traditional model focuses on the cycle of design (e.g., prototyping, usability testing, and the subsequent redesign of an interactive prototype), Flanagan’s model identifies opportunities at each stage in the design process for alternative design goals to be integrated into practice. This model augments the design process in a way that addresses intervention, disruption, and social issues. Specifically, the model identifies opportunities for persuasive storytelling and alternative design methods. Figure 1 shows the slightly modified version of Flanagan’s model that we applied in the classroom.

ins03.gif Figure 1. Flanagan’s Critical Play Iterative Model of Design (modified version) [5].

back to top  Augmented Journalism

The course begins with an overview of journalistic AR and VR stories—examples of how newsrooms are currently exploring these technologies to put viewers in the story and interact with past and current events. Working in small teams of two to three students, seven groups propose a current event that they want to explore via AR and prepare a proposal document. Student projects largely lean toward local news stories that lend themselves well to location-based AR content. In addition to proposing stories about student life on campus, students have also taken advantage of the fact that we are located in the nation’s capital; thus, many stories pertaining to the federal government are also local stories. Following feedback on the proposal, ideas are then iterated upon via workflows, sketching, and interactive wireframe development in PowerPoint. Through a series of short workshops, students in the course are introduced to some of the more intermediate PowerPoint skills needed to produce their interactive prototypes, namely animations, hyperlinks (between different slides), adding audio, and slide transitions. Finally, students work through instructor-led workshops on a simple AR prototyping tool called HP Reveal. Emphasis is placed on the storytelling affordances of AR as compared with other digital storytelling technologies (e.g., hypertext, serious games, etc.). This emphasis helps students design their stories, with a focus on user experience.

We need to ask ourselves how HCI pedagogy can be mobilized to democratize AR.

HP Reveal allows users to assign AR content (two-dimensional photos or videos) to images, which act as triggers for the HP Reveal app. Although it is a useful tool for prototyping AR, there is a significant usability-functionality trade-off: HP Reveal cannot be used to create an AR experience with any sort of game mechanics, interaction, user interface, or connected narrative. However, students are able to use it to easily implement location-based AR stories on campus. This requires students to consider other ways to leverage the application to support journalistic storytelling.

back to top  Case Study

Here, I present a case study describing one of the group projects from the most recent offering of the course. One of the groups wanted to create a location-based AR story to educate players about the impact that upcoming provincial funding cuts would have on marginalized students on campus. The proposed cuts would significantly modify the funding model for service centers, university student government, and student-run programs on campus. Impacted services include but are not limited to the student food bank, the gender and sexuality resource center, the wellness center, and the student disability awareness center. The journalism students wanted to put the player in the role of one of five avatars representing the diversity of the student body. These avatars included students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and visible minorities, including LGBTQ and indigenous students, as well as students with disabilities. Once players had chosen their avatar, they would visit various service centers on campus and trigger AR content to educate them on the impacts these cuts would have on them, based on their avatar’s identity (Figure 2).

ins04.gif Figure 2. Screenshot of AR prototype. Short video interviews, text, and images are triggered by scanning the marker at locations throughout the university student center. Images and interview footage were created by students in Carleton University’s journalism program.

Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned usability-functionality trade-off, HP Reveal did not support this type of nonlinear narrative structure (it can be used only to pair a single marker with a single video), so the students had to find another way to support a choice-based, nonlinear narrative experience. In order to overcome this limitation, students decided to use the physical space on campus to implement their narrative. At the start of the game, players would walk up to five scannable icons on the wall, representing each of the five avatars. Scanning one of them with the app would trigger instructions specific to their avatar’s story, guiding them to the next physical location on campus. Once they arrived at each location, they would scan their avatar’s marker and learn about the impact of the funding cuts on their avatar, as well as the next location in the story. Markers were set up at the service centers themselves, which are located all over campus. In this way, players are immersed in a mixed-reality news story that links the facts of the story to the very people and places that are affected.

Once the AR prototypes are developed, students conduct qualitative usability evaluations with their peers in the course. This typically involves developing a set procedure for each participant to follow, recording observations, and concluding with a brief interview or survey to collect feedback. Students are then required to analyze these results and incorporate this feedback into the final version of their prototypes. For all of the students, this is not only their first time designing AR journalistic stories—it is also their first and only experience with HCI research and design methods. The design of this course provides students with the opportunity to engage with both theory and praxis, the process of “practicing” theory [6]. Developing a deeper understanding of the different storytelling affordances offered by AR helps students to understand how their journalistic skills apply in an ever-evolving digital medium.

back to top  Lessons Learned

Implementing AR news stories presents two issues: First, as AR is an emerging technology, many journalism students are unclear on the meaning of AR and its capabilities. Second, and relating to the first point, it is not yet clear to journalism students how to best use this emerging medium. Immersive storytelling media like AR allow journalists to bring audiences closer to the story. Yet theoretical and technological barriers necessitate an HCI approach to support effective storytelling in AR.

The most significant lesson learned in developing and teaching this course is the need to help students understand how to prepare interactive journalistic stories. This necessitated a reframing of the reader as a user. Journalism students are highly skilled at researching a story and crafting a narrative from a variety of complex data sources. Readers of traditional journalism stories are more passive than users of interactive newsgames. Guiding students through simple usability evaluations helped them to appreciate the relationship between storytelling affordances and interaction design in order to present a news story effectively in AR.

back to top  Reflection

As a community, HCI researchers can support many fringe-discipline initiatives by identifying new ways to help nontechnical students sidestep technical barriers to focus on more meaningful design activities. AR has the potential to help journalists share stories through immersive storytelling and connect the audience to the story in ways that traditional media cannot. Furthermore, it provides journalism students with an opportunity to explore the impact of digital storytelling on their own narrative practices. However, existing technological barriers make it difficult for novice users to engage meaningfully with this medium. Democratizing interactive journalism in this context requires a unique interdisciplinary approach that leverages HCI pedagogical methods. The impetus to share these stories goes beyond the journalistic principles of truth telling; effective fact-based storytelling via immersive technologies represents the next logical step in journalism, as the discipline continues to evolve in an increasingly digital society. I firmly believe that HCI is needed in journalism to support this narrative shift, as illustrated in this case study.

back to top  References

1. Parker, J. ‘You become a witness’—Nonny de la Peña’s immersive journalism. Ochre. Jan 26, 2015;

2. Aitamurto, T., Ananny, M., Anderson, C.W., Birnbaum, L., Diakopoulos, N., Hanson, M., Hullman, J., and Ritchie, N. HCI for accurate, impartial and transparent journalism: Challenges and solutions. Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems ACM, 2019, W22.

3. De la Peña, N., Weil, P., Llobera, J., Giannopoulos, E., Pomés, A., Spanlang, B., Friedman, D., Sanchez-Vives, and Slater, M. Immersive journalism: immersive virtual reality for the first-person experience of news. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 19, 4 (2010), 291–301.

4. Teather, R., and McArthur, V. Teaching user interface evaluation methods with games. Proc. of Games, Entertainment, and Media. IEEE, 2014, 204–207. ISBN: 9781-4799-7546-7

5. Flanagan, M. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. MIT Press, 2009.

6. Shaffer, D.W. Pedagogical praxis: The professions as models for post-industrial education. Teachers College Record 106, 7 (2004), 1401–1421.

back to top  Author

Victoria McArthur is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her research focuses on inclusive design in digital media and qualitative methodologies in HCI. Presently, she teaches courses in journalism, media production and design, and HCI.

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