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Florida company offers virtual reality alternative to public schools

  • Florida-based OptimaEd is enrolling students in virtual schools, The New Yorker reported.
  • The company enrolled about 170 students in its academy over the past school year, according to the report.
  • OptimaEd co-founder Adam Mangana told The New Yorker that a good student life is “more decentralized.”

In 2015, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey predicted that sooner or later virtual reality headsets would find their way into classrooms and enable a new, more immersive future for education.

“Classrooms are broken. Children don’t learn better by reading books,” Luckey said at the Dublin Web Summit that year.

“Real-world experiences clearly have value: going to do things. That’s why we do field trips. The problem is that the majority of people will never be able to do the majority of these experiences.”

Today, an online school called Optima Academy Online seems to be answering those questions and making Luckey’s vision a reality.

The school, which opened last year, uses the Meta Quest 2 headset to take students on ‘field trips’ to remote locations such as a Mount Everest base camp, according to a recent report from The New Yorker. .

Erika Donalds and Byron Donalds

OptimaEd CEO Erika Donalds is married to Republican Congressman Byron Donalds.

Kevin Wolf/AP

OptimaEd, the Florida-based company behind Optima Academy, is led by conservative education activist Erika Donalds, wife of Republican Congressman Byron Donalds.

Erika Donalds is a follower of the ‘classical school movement’ which advocates a return to the older, established traditions of learning in the Western world, and OptimaEd calls her education ‘classical’.

“I see a huge and growing industry of pay-as-you-go education options — the ability to personalize the experience both physically and geographically,” she told The New Yorker.

Through Florida’s School Choice Program, which provides students with vouchers to attend alternatives beyond their district’s public school, students can choose to attend Optima over their local option. In April, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also signed new legislation that eliminates financial eligibility restrictions in the state’s voucher program.

Over the past year, Optima Academy has enrolled over 170 full-time students across Florida. That number could double this fall as Optima expands its virtual reality services to Arizona and parts of Michigan, The New Yorker reported.

A trip to Everest

The school instructs students through a combination of virtual reality sessions and online courses. Students in grades three through eight are given Meta Quest 2 headsets to wear for 30-40 minute sessions up to five times a day, the publication reported.

Outside of these sessions, students spend their days taking their classes independently and corresponding with teachers online. Teaching K-2 is more like a virtual school where classes are both live and pre-recorded, according to Optima’s website.

Optima Academy offers about 250 custom virtual environments and also sells access to those environments to other independent schools, The New Yorker reported.

In an episode chronicled in the report, students in a sixth-grade science class were taken on a virtual field trip to an Everest base camp.

Although the virtual environment was “elaborately staged” with gray tents, sleeping bags and wind noises in the background, the trip did not go as planned, The New Yorker reported. The students struggled to follow the lesson and had difficulty coordinating with each other through various activities.

Research also shows that VR headsets can cause “simulator sickness” or “cyberworld sickness” similar to motion sickness. Studies have also shown that prolonged periods of VR use could even lead to “reality blurring”, where users find it difficult to distinguish between VR and real life, said Jeremy Bailenson , director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, to the New Yorker.

Founders suggest school shouldn’t be a student’s entire life

One of the drawbacks of virtual learning – and of online and distance learning as a whole – can be the lack of human interaction.

Those who attend Optima, however, told The New Yorker that it can be a respite for students with social anxiety or who have been bullied.

Optima co-founder Adam Mangana told The New Yorker, “The school is expected to offer a lot. A good life for a student is more decentralized. »


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