Classic education meets virtual reality


There are several interesting cross currents running through education at this time. On the one hand, there has been tremendous growth in mainstream education, with more and more families turning to schools that eschew fads and focus on the timeless lessons of the Big Books. At the same time, educational technology has experienced tremendous growth, with more and more families and schools using computer, tablet and phone resources to help educate children.

At a developing school in Florida, the old meets the new. Optima Classical Academy, scheduled to open next school year, plans to use virtual reality and e-learning to teach classical education. Sounds pretty wild, right? I sent a few questions to Erika Donalds, President and CEO of the Optima Foundation, which founds the school, and she graciously answered them. Our slightly edited conversation is below:

Mike McShane: Can you give us an overview of the Optima Foundation?

Erika Donalds: I created the Optima Foundation after having done a mandate within my local school board. At that time, I concluded that the problems in our education system could only be solved with a strong free market where parents can vote with their feet. Prior to serving, I volunteered with other parents to start a charter school in my community, and learned that many families are unhappy with the education options currently available, even in the most popular school districts. research. I wanted to make sure that every family who wants or needs something different for their child can access it. I decided to quit my career in financial services in order to put my expertise in the service of compliance, operations and finance to provide high quality choice schools, focused on the classic education model and grounded in virtue, to parents all over the country.

The culture of our organization is centered on “service,” which is one of the Seven Pillars of Virtue that we teach our students. I have hired some of the most talented people I know to run the business operations of our charter schools, each a multi-million dollar company. We do this in the service of our principals, allowing them to focus on the servant leadership of their teachers, who in turn can focus on serving students and families. Optima’s mission is to provide the maximum amount of time and resources to trusted academic professionals who do the most important work in education, directly addressing the needs of students.

McShane: What attracted you to classical education?

Donald: I have three sons who are each very different. When my second son started kindergarten at our high performing neighborhood public school, it just didn’t work out well for him. I started looking for other options and discovered classical education. My son’s attitude towards learning has completely changed. He was enthusiastic about all the knowledge he was acquiring and loved to recite poetry to me, share the lessons of the great books he read and recite the virtues he was taught. In researching this knowledge-rich, virtues-based program, I have come to believe that it is far superior to the progressive education program in traditional public schools, including those I attended. growing up. My son knew more about history, geography, grammar and literature in 2sd grade that I did not know in my thirties! Not only did he benefit from superior academic experience, but moral character and civic virtue were infused throughout the program. I just knew we had to bring this proven program back into the mainstream of American education as a major component of modern education reform efforts.

McShane: You argued that schooling should be dissociated from childcare, can you explain that?

Donald: In this new, more flexible working environment, parents’ childcare needs are not all the same. Some families need full-time care during a traditional working day, others only part-time, and others outside of working hours. In the age of technology and personalization, why shouldn’t education and childcare be provided à la carte to provide maximum flexibility for families? If a mother’s only free time with her kids is 8-10 a.m., wouldn’t it be better for them to start school after that (and have babysitting) while mom is working? Our goal is to match families with similar childcare needs, to provide a more flexible, but higher quality form of virtual education, and to help families maximize their most valuable asset: their time together.

McShane: Tell me about your new school, the Optima Classical Academy.

Donald: Optima Classical Academy is the first and only classical virtual charter school. OCA will be available tuition-free for Grades 3 through 8 students across the state of Florida in August 2022. What makes OCA unique is the classic model, currently unavailable in any other public virtual option, the virtual reality classroom; and finally, a focus on student autonomy.

Classical education offers a rich knowledge of content that fosters a natural love for learning and reflection. Students learn about historical events, people, stories, fables, poetry, scientific facts, and mathematical evidence. They read classics like whole books in depth and learn to approach books with both the motivation to learn and the courage to question. The principles of morality and civic virtue, today absent from most classes in public schools, are fundamental in the classical curriculum.

Every day at the OCA, our researchers will receive live instruction in the Metaverse – our virtual reality classroom that could be anywhere from the ancient theater of Pompeii to a prehistoric waterhole. Fellows have an immersive, collaborative and socially appropriate experience with their instructor and peers unlike any other virtual school available.

OCA is organized to allow students to work on the material and the program independently, without a host at home. During the pandemic, parents were frustrated with the help needed just to move from one activity to another

McShane: How long will a child spend in virtual reality?

Donald: Scheduled live sessions total approximately three hours per day for four days per week, or approximately 10 to 12 hours per week. The rest of the program is experienced either online in two dimensions, outdoors on projects and homework, or traditionally, as with paper books. Each component of the classical education model was evaluated to determine the most effective delivery method (live, asynchronous, online, or analog) as the curriculum was built. The virtual reality component provides online students with a “classroom” experience, where they can receive instruction, interact with their teacher and peers, and build relationships unlike the “Zoom School”.

McShane: What will their experience look, sound and feel?

Donald: OCA Fellows will be transported from their homes to a virtual classroom environment like no other. In the traditional online broadcast model, students are viewing a two-dimensional screen with the “faces checkboard” and the sound is constantly lagging behind. Teachers manage over 20 different classrooms while students manage distractions at home. On our virtual reality platform, students are immersed together as avatars in a traditional looking and feel virtual reality classroom and can be transported back to any relevant learning environment. for the lesson. For example, while our 3rd schoolchildren read The whipped boy, they can be in a castle setting, more closely aligned with the context and the frame of the book. Marine biology studies can be done underwater. A study of the United States Constitution may include a visit to the Constitutional Convention. This additional element of learning leads to deeper understanding and better Socratic discourse.

McShane: Why has no one created a virtual reality school yet?

Donald: Before the pandemic, virtual reality headsets were prohibitively expensive and had to be connected to an expensive computer. Thanks to advancements in technology, reasonably priced standalone headsets are now available, improving access and scalability. We anticipate that our VR school will be the first to offer a full VR curriculum, but we won’t be the last. Numerous projections suggest that we will have one billion VR headset users by 2027. Education leaders around the world are analyzing how COVID-19 will change the education landscape, and we believe more learning virtual, including VR, and greater flexibility of access will be part of these changes. However, at Optima Domi we also ask what needs to reliably remain constant despite all the changes that have taken place in a post-pandemic world. We want to maintain a love for Great Books and focus on teaching civic virtue. The only way to teach virtue online is to use the common courtesy of connection that only virtual reality can offer.

Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity

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