Jackson Preparatory School

By RUSS UPTON,

With one of the largest Extended Reality Labs of its kind in any K-12 school in the country, Jackson Prep is preparing students for the technology-filled world they are bound to encounter. In April 2018, the school inaugurated its Extended Reality (XR) Learning Lab in the Jesse L. Howell, Jr. library. With an initial installation of 24 virtual-reality stations, the XR Lab allows students to use state-of-the-art hardware and software for a wide variety of educational purposes.

To work at each station, students put on a headset that gives them a picture of virtual surroundings. The students use hand controllers that enable them to interact with the virtual surroundings. For example, the student can point, make a fist, and even grab virtual objects. The setup utilizes an Oculus Rift headset in conjunction with dedicated Alienware PCs.

The stations allow faculty to incorporate XR into their lesson plans. Geography teachers use Google Earth VR to give students a 360-degree view of sites around the world. Students fly through cities and landscapes with a sense of actually being there.

The app, used by History and English teachers, as well as a student taking European History, allows the user to visit buildings, famous architecture, or famous landmarks discussed in class. English classes studying Shakespeare visit the Globe Theatre on the app to help visualize how big the building actually is and imagine themselves attending a performance there.

Anatomy apps allow science teachers to guide students through the body’s organs and systems. “Not too long ago, when students learned about the heart and its functions, they looked at a simple diagram in a textbook,” noted Denny Britt, Jackson Prep’s Chief Operating Officer. “Now, with extended reality, a student can go inside a beating heart, see the valves opening and closing, and learn by experiencing the functions of the heart.”

Within extended reality, students can view the outside of healthy organs and those with diseases. Students can see the outside of a brain and then view the neurons firing from the inside. This amazing experience would be impossible to do any other way. These interactive extended reality programs allow students to visualize their lesson, which leads to better understanding and retention of the subject matter.

Hundreds of other educational extended-reality apps are currently becoming available, and one of the functions of the XR Lab will be to help teachers and students find the best software experiences available for their particular educational goals.

English teacher Nathan Devine said, “XR technology provides what education should: immersion. At Prep, students engage and make unique products. In the past, that might have been accomplished by handing someone a paintbrush, but XR is the next generation of learning—it’s handing a paintbrush to the mind.”

Next to the XR stations is a dedicated laptop where teachers observe their students working. Director of Instructional Technology Laurie Van Pelt said, “The teacher laptop is really awesome because it allows teachers to interact with their students in the same virtual space.” The shared space is an app called Infinite Whiteboard, which allows students to be in a virtual classroom with the teacher. It is password protected, which ensures the class’s privacy. Using that same computer, the teacher can monitor students’ progress in the apps.”

“Extended reality technology will play a big role in not only education but in the professional world in the years to come. The school hopes the extended reality classes and the XR Lab will offer an amazing opportunity to broaden Prep’s horizons,” Norma Cox, Prep’s Director of Library Services and XR Learning Lab Director, said, “Educators are seeing increased engagement levels and improved test scores across the board with extended reality education programs.”

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