New Florida charter school blends classic education with AI and VR
Starting in August, some 1,500 Florida students will wake up, get dressed, don virtual reality headsets and transform into computerized avatars — representations of themselves that enable them to exist in virtual worlds. They’ll then report — online — to Optima Classical Academy, a newly created statewide charter school for grades 3-8 that exists only in cyberspace. Their teachers, also in the form of avatars, will greet them in one of 100 different environments — some as ordinary as a lecture hall, others as unworldly as outer space or as mood-setting as a “throne room” perfect for a reading of Macbeth. Teaching tools range from traditional whiteboards to 3-D models that can make atoms and molecules, for example, appear in midair.
The school is built on a traditional model, with a liberal arts curriculum that immerses children in facts and information at the early ages and teaches them how to analyze and articulate their knowledge as they progress.
The non-profit Naples-based Optima Foundation, which operates three brick-and-mortar classical schools in Stuart, Jacksonville and Naples, established the new VR academy. The organization will choose its inaugural enrollees via lottery.
The VR school was not meant as a gimmick to get students to embrace Shakespeare or study the U.S. Constitution, says Erika Donalds, Optima Foundation’s president and CEO. “I never would have thought to start a virtual school,” she says. “I’ve always thought the best way (to learn) is in person with a well-trained classical instructor amongst your peers.”
The pandemic forced her to think differently. When COVID-19 prompted a statewide school closure in March 2020, Optima teachers maintained daily direct instruction via the internet. They sent home assignments and devised strategies for collecting and grading work. Parents, Donalds says, loved it. “We had parents whose children did not go to our schools asking if they could participate in our virtual programs because the virtual instruction they were receiving … was not adequate,” she says.
Parents, embracing the option of working from home and having their children learn there as well, pressed for full-time virtual instruction. Donalds and her colleagues, including Adam Mangana, a specialist in both VR and classical education, devised a way to shift the classical curriculum — which emphasizes teacher-led instruction, student inquiry, debate and discussion — to the virtual world without sacrificing its instructional model.
Their program addresses many of virtual learning’s perceived drawbacks. Screen time is limited; teachers lead classes from 8 a.m. to noon, Monday through Thursday, with built-in breaks. They structure the remaining hours with assignments and activities. Fridays are reserved for independent assignments, individualized instruction, small group work and teacher planning.
As for the social aspect of school, Donalds, Mangana and other school leaders offered a demo showing how they — or, technically, their avatars — can give joint presentations, sit side-by-side and talk in real time with students (social interaction is so fluid that teachers can push a button and force distracted kids back to their seats).
Donalds doesn’t think real-world learning will become a snooze for kids acclimated to VR classrooms. Ultimately, she says, it’s the teaching — not the technology — that matters.