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Students Work to Guide Future of VR Learning in High Schools

A new company has grown out of academic work at Virginia Tech and is now working to develop innovative ways to help high school students benefit from VR lessons, beginning with Spanish classes and branching out.

While the world at large seems to agree that virtual reality tech will play a major role in the future, few sectors have established best practices for how the emerging capabilities should be used.

With this in mind, a group of students who met at Virginia Tech have formed their own company aimed at creating products to fix this — at least as it applies to the use of VR in high schools. The company is called Redshift Education Inc., and it’s more than just an idea. The students and their new business venture recently won a $20,000 prize for their vision and their work, doing so via the second annual American Evolution Innovators Cup.

Maria Jernigan, founder and CEO of Redshift, first became aware of the need for this work as a student at Virginia Tech. She has since graduated and become a high school Spanish teacher, working on the company at night and on the weekends. But as a college student, she was able to pursue funded research opportunities related to something called project-based learning, which is a teching method wherein students gain knowledge or skills via long-term responses to real or simulated problems and challenges. Jerningan said she saw the chance to marry the discipline with VR, and from this, the company ethos was essentially born.

“We believe high school education should be about more than just rote memorization,” Jernigan said during a recent phone conversation. “So, we’re in the business of building projects that help students understand why what they’re learning in the classroom matters in the real world.”

What does this look like logistically? Well first of all, the company has plans to eventually create tools for all teachers of all subjects. In order to focus the scope of the work, however, they’ve started by targeting Spanish instruction. With this in mind, imagine a VR Spanish lesson that puts a student in a real-life scenario that requires use of the language.

It is often said that the best way to learn a new language is to go somewhere one needs to speak it. That’s the central concept of much of the work being done by Redshift at present, informed, of course, by project-based learning in classrooms.

One example Redshift has crafted is a VR scenario where the user has to help their younger sister prepare for her quinceañera using Spanish. The scope of the school project goes beyond just VR, requiring students to also look up information in advance on real Spanish language websites, watch videos and study the history and traditions. The VR is used in support of larger Spanish training.

Using VR in Spanish learning has vast potential, and to this end, developers have created something that can grade users' pronunciation, verb use and other deployments of the language. They are now working to introduce personalized feedback on collaboration and proble-solving skills.

Mark Carman, whose title with Redshift is networking magician, said that even though a large part of what they're building revolves around the use of VR, it’s important to keep in mind that the goal is to not just have students walk into school every day and put on a headset. The idea is to use the VR in ways rooted in project-based learning, where over the course of many weeks they craft projects, do research and develop a final performance or deliverable. The VR is, basically, just a portion of ongoing educational efforts. Carman, it should be noted, is currently a student himself, finishing up his own degree at Virginia Tech.

As for the future of the project, the team is currently working to build out full libraries of Spanish VR lessons for use in actual classrooms. Jernigan said the $20,000 of Innovators Cup prize money will help with that.  

“Our motivation is instead of getting school work done so we can go out and party at night,” Carman said, “It’s get school work done so we can work on Redshift at night.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine