By Fernanda Baker
SV Ecosystem Manager
Education is a ripe environment for virtual reality (VR), and blended learning initiatives that combine online and physical experiences can significantly improve student outcomes. But there’s a caveat: Many schools can’t afford the cost of advanced VR headsets and platforms.
To discover more about the impact and challenges of bringing VR to the classroom, I spoke with Kai Frazier, founder of Curated x Kai, during this week’s What’s NEXT podcast. She detailed her company’s mission to help underserved schools elevate the student experience with affordable educational technology, and highlighted some of the challenges that come with breaking new ground.
Seeing is achieving
Virtual reality allows users to see things that aren’t really there — to discover places thousands of miles away, or experience events from hundreds of years ago. According to Kai, this type of immersive learning naturally boosts retention.
“When students learn using traditional methods such as pencil and paper they retain new information at a 40 percent level,” she says. “When they use VR they’re retaining it at a 90 percent level for the first time they’re seeing it.”
Researchers from Maryland University reached the same conclusion, noting that “the use of virtual memory palaces in head-mounted display condition improves recall accuracy when compared to using a traditional desktop condition.”
For Kai, exposure to new VR experiences also drives interest in different careers, different opportunities, and better behavior among students. “Once they’ve been exposed to things like that it’s really hard to turn back,” she says.
Improving educational outcomes is critical in a job market that demands digital literacy: While 85 percent of employees say digital skills are necessary for their jobs, just 29 percent feel confident in their abilities.
But as Kai points out, “roughly one-third of families with household income less than $50k with children five to 18 don’t have high-speed Internet at home.” This creates a digital divide in which American workers are falling behind on critical tech skills, while lower-income families and underserved schools often lack the resources to integrate cutting-edge learning tools like VR into the classroom.
Making VR affordable
Kai’s decision to focus on education is personal. In high school, she found herself homeless — “and when you’re homeless and a student, you’re not thinking about your grades. You’re really not thinking about what comes next.”
With the help of a school counselor, Kai got into college, then began teaching history and eventually left to work in museums. She discovered students struggling the same way she had. Kids she taught at a school just down the road from the museum couldn’t even take advantage of its free programming because “the schools couldn’t afford the buses to get them there.”
Kai decided to do something. With no tech background, but a passion for educational technology, she started her VR company. Recognizing that underserved schools couldn’t afford a $500 headset and $2500 computer, she created a basic virtual reality experience for smartphones.
She filmed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C. in 360 degrees, then recorded voiceovers of his “I Have a Dream” speech in English and Spanish. “And then we took it back to the classroom,” she says, “and we could really see the reaction change because for the first time they were included.”
Developing an innovative curriculum
As Curated x Kai gained momentum, Kai quickly identified a disconnect between VR studios, teachers, and students. While studios were focused on creating a refugee camp experience or an astronaut in space dividing fractions, students wanted to see a zebra or a lion. Meanwhile, teachers were more focused on job interviews and soft learning skills.
Meeting diverse expectations meant creating a website to help teachers find relevant VR content and implement it in their classrooms.
But Kai also noticed that people coming to her site didn’t know what do to next. They had no hardware, so Curated x Kai began selling different pieces of hardware, from Bluetooth-powered VR headsets to cardboard headsets, and then created a curriculum around the technology.
“Then we went to VR system kits where kids could have the hardware, it came with a hardware piece, workbook, some Curated x Kai swag, and just enough to get started,” she says.
Scaling the impact
As Kai’s STEM kits started selling, she realized more was needed. “I was failing if all I was providing was content for kids,” she says.
While offering students technology to bridge the digital divide was a starting point, “my big vision goal is to inspire enough kids that they make their own companies so they can solve a lot of the issues that are happening in their communities.”
Kai’s dream required sacrifice: she sold everything she owned to move across the country and start her company. “But what I’ve learned from entrepreneurship,” she says, “is that it’s not about being fearless, it’s about being brave,” she says. “And bravery looks like taking itty-bitty baby steps every single day toward the direction of your dreams.”
For Kai and her company, this means understanding how to overcome the challenges faced by underserved schools that don’t have access to cutting-edge digital technology. It also means creating affordable tools and templates to deliver immersive experiences, bridge the technology gap, and help kids develop the digital skills they need for success.
Originally published at https://samsungnext.com on October 3, 2019.