Florida-based OptimaEd is enrolling students in virtual schools, The New Yorker reported.
The company enrolled about 170 students in its academy this past school year, per the report.
OptimaEd's cofounder Adam Mangana told The New Yorker a good student life is "more decentralized."
Back in 2015, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey predicted that — sooner or later — virtual reality headsets would find their way into the classroom and enable a new, more immersive future for education.
"Classrooms are broken. Kids don't learn the best by reading books," Luckey told the Dublin Web Summit that year.
"There's clearly value in real-world experiences: going to do things. That's why we have field trips. The problem is that the majority of people will never be able to do the majority of those experiences."
Now, an online school called Optima Academy Online seems to be answering those queries, and bringing Luckey's vision to fruition.
The school, which opened last year, is using the Meta Quest 2 headset to take students on "field trips" to far off locations such as a Mount Everest base camp, according to a recent report by The New Yorker.
OptimaEd, the Florida-based company behind Optima Academy, is helmed by conservative education activist Erika Donalds, wife of Republican Congressman Byron Donalds.
Erika Donalds is an adherent of the "classical school movement" that advocates a return to older, established learning traditions of the Western world, and OptimaEd labels its education as "classical."
"I see a huge and growing industry of à-la-carte education options — the ability to customize the experience both physically and geographically," she told The New Yorker.
Due to Florida's school choice program, which offers students vouchers to attend alternatives beyond their district's public school, students can elect to attend Optima over their local option. In April, Florida governor Ron DeSantis also signed a new law that eliminates financial eligibility restrictions in the state's voucher program.
Over the past year, Optima Academy enrolled over more than 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 field trip to Everest
The school instructs students through a combination of virtual reality sessions and online classes. Those from third to eighth grade are given Meta Quest 2 headsets that they wear for 30 to 40-minute sessions up to five times a day, the publication reported.
Outside these sessions, students spend their days completing coursework independently and correspond with teachers online. Instruction for kindergarten through second grade is more similar to 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 these environments to other independent schools, The New Yorker reported.
In one episode recounted in the report, students in a sixth grade science class were taken on a virtual field trip to a Everest base camp.
While the virtual environment was "elaborately staged" with gray tents, sleeping bags, and sounds of wind in the background, the trip didn't go as planned, the New Yorker reported. The students struggled with the lesson, and had difficulties coordinating with each other through various activities.
Research also shows that VR headsets can cause "simulator sickness" or "cybersickness" similar to motion sickness. Studies have also shown that prolonged periods of VR use could even result in "reality blurring," where users have trouble distinguishing between virtual reality and real life, Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told The New Yorker.
The founders suggest that school shouldn't be a student's whole life
One of the drawbacks of virtual learning — and online, remote learning on the whole — can be the absence of human interaction.
Those attending Optima, though, told The New Yorker that it can be a reprieve for students with social anxiety or have been bullied.
Optima's co-founder Adam Mangana told The New Yorker: "The schoolhouse is expected to provide so much. A good life for a student is more decentralized."
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