Groundbreaking Florida school to offer mostly VR-based instruction
By Emilio J. Lopez
Miami, Jan 13 (EFE).- Zoom videos are as antiquated as a fax machine at Naples, Florida-based Optima Classical Academy, a classical virtual charter school that is a pioneer in the field of VR-based teaching and learning.
Students of that school, whose inaugural classes are slated for August 2022, will spend much of their time attending synchronous sessions in which they and the teacher will gather in real time via a virtual reality social platform created for that purpose, Adam Mangana, executive director of the company – Optima Domi – that launched the school last week and supplies OCA’s curriculum, told Efe.
The coronavirus pandemic, with its many waves and variants, has posed a major challenge to schools worldwide and forced them to seek out ways for delivering continued effective instruction.
But whereas most have opted for videoconferences that have users staring at a two-dimensional screen, the Optima Classical Academy will offer much of its instruction via a “metaverse” in which teachers and students interact via avatars, according to Mangana.
The students pursue a plan of studies at their own pace. They sometimes carry out projects and tasks during scheduled live VR sessions, but they also work with printed material so they have the experience of studying from a physical text, he said.
Tuition-free, online enrollment is now available for Florida residents interested in the Optima Classical Academy, which is billed as the “world’s first and only virtual reality charter school.”
Initially, enrollment is open to up to 1,300 students in grades 3-8 for the 2022-23 school year, although VR classes are to be extended through the 10th grade for the 2023-24 academic year.
Students at the school will participate in three hours of VR sessions daily (in 30-45 minute blocks) for four days a week, according to Mangana, who has 15 years of experience in the field of educational technology.
The school-provided Oculus Quest headsets the students will use will offer them 360-degree vision of their classroom spaces from home and allow them to observe “objects” in three dimensions.
The classes are taught in a totally immersive virtual reality environment in which their personalized avatar is transported, for example, to a “classroom” in Pompeii, an ancient well or the depths of the ocean, the pioneer in VR-based education said.
But the OCA’s vision is a mixture of new and old, with its students to be offered a classical curriculum centered on the Great Books and its approach to the study of subjects such as algebra, art, mathematics, Spanish, musical theory, the sciences, and US history blending tradition and innovation.
Asked if virtual reality has been shown to increase classroom attention, the expert mentioned a recent study showing that students who use that technology learn concepts twice as fast and retain them for double the amount of time.
Optima’s technology has been designed to meet the learning needs of today’s students, Mangana said, adding that digital natives yearn for immersive experiences and can easily become distracted both in classrooms and in distance learning environments when they are not fully engaged.
Equally important, he said, is that the response from parents to this VR-based classroom experience for their children has been overwhelmingly positive nationwide.
This step toward VR cyberlearning systems comes at a time when Covid-19 cases among US children are increasing exponentially, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It also coincides with the recent publication of a study by the website MyElearningWorld.com that revealed that 43 percent of all parents in the US say the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant has made them more concerned about sending their kids to school. EFE