New School Model Combines Virtual Reality With Classical Education

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Classical education is a trusted model of learning. Virtual reality is a new technology still being fully developed. Despite the view of some that the two could be in conflict with each other, Erika Donalds disagrees. 

“Classical education … is content-based, and [virtual reality] is the perfect way to deliver that content,” says Donalds, president and CEO of the Optima Foundation

Donalds established the Optima Foundation, which has grown to be a network of charter schools, to give parents better education options for their children. After the pandemic, Donalds realized that some parents and students preferred an at-home model, but online education fell short of providing students with a strong education. 

Virtual reality allows teachers and students to meet live in a virtual space from home, she says. 

Through virtual reality, children “actually go to Mars, they go to the lunar landing, and they’re there when it happens in virtual reality,” Donalds says.  

Donalds joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss the ways in which virtual reality can add to and expand classical education. 

Also on today’s show, we cover these stories: 

  • The U.S. leads the world in known monkeypox cases.
  • Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, says “highly credible whistleblowers” accuse the FBI and the Justice Department of intentionally covering up negative information on Hunter Biden.
  • Conservative groups urge senators to vote “no” on a bill intended to codify same-sex marriage in federal law.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: Education is changing very, very rapidly. And with such woke ideology being pushed on our young people in public schools, there are more education options needed now more than ever before. And here with us to talk about the changing education landscape and what we can learn from America’s education pioneers is Erika Donalds, the president and CEO of the Optima Foundation. Thank you so much for being here with us today.

Erika Donalds: No, I’m so happy to be here.

Allen: I want to begin by asking you to share a little bit of your own story. How did your own passion for education begin?

Donalds: Well, I am a mom of three boys. I was a CPA and in the investment management industry for 20 years. And I exercised school choice like most middle-income families in America do.

I picked a home in an area where I wanted my kids to go to a great public school. My first son went there, did well. Everything was fine. And my second son went, and it was a disaster. And I thought, “Well, these are two kids from the same home, and this is an A school. So what’s the problem?” Yeah.

I started meeting with teachers, meeting with administrators, and finding out that they were not flexible to try to accommodate the different learning needs that my second son had versus my first son. And they really threw their hands up and said, “There’s nothing else we can do.”

And he didn’t have special needs. He’s just a smart kid who wants to stay busy and wants to keep learning. And he would get into trouble when he was bored, just like a lot of kids in America are.

And so I found out that we didn’t have enough school choice when I needed it. And I couldn’t afford private school. And there were no charter schools in my community because the schools were “so good.” And I really found that there was a problem with education choice for a family like mine, whose zone public school didn’t work. And I paid this huge premium for a home in this community.

I helped to start a charter school at that time. At the same time, when I was putting private school on a credit card for one of my kids, I knew I couldn’t afford it for three children at the time. So starting the charter school as a volunteer parent was a great experience, but I learned that I was not alone in my need for school choice.

And speaking to parents in my community, we ended up starting that school with 400 students and 400 on a waiting list. That’s what prompted me to run for school board thinking there’s just problems in the public school system that maybe I can help solve.

I spent four years there finding out that change in the public school bureaucracy is very difficult. So I left there and decided I would go back to what really felt good for me as solving the problem, and that’s providing education option in the form of charter schools to my community and other communities across the state.

Allen: So is that when the Optima Foundation was born?

Donalds: It is.

Allen: OK. So share a little bit about what you-all do there.

Donalds: Toward the end of my time on the school board, trying to figure out what am I going to do to continue to try to help kids in a more meaningful way, I started a nonprofit to help raise money and start schools of choice in communities that don’t have them. And I thought I’ll continue my investment management work and the career that I had built over 20 years and do this as a hobby, what I did as my public service on the school board.

But again, when you get into this work, you find that there’s such a huge need for education choice. And it’s not just in low-income communities. It is literally across the spectrum, and especially in the middle-income communities because charter schools and school choice vouchers, scholarships have been really focused on low-income communities across the nation.

So they’ve had more choice develop in urban communities, whereas the middle-income communities, where I call the gap families who make too much to qualify for these scholarships, but not enough to afford private school, they’re the ones who really were feeling stuck in their zone public schools.

So we started our first charter school in 2019 in Stuart, Florida. We’ve started a school ever since every single year. Second one in Jacksonville in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. Third one in Naples, this past school year. Fourth one, a second Jacksonville location this fall. And also, out of the pandemic was born a virtual reality school, the first in the world, that is now going to be offered nationwide this fall as well.

And they’re all based around a classical, liberal art style of education—something that is not readily available, especially in the public school realm, and that we find parents are really clamoring for.

We’re serving 3,000 students this fall, and we have about 2,500 on waiting lists for those schools. We really can’t build them fast enough to meet the demand.

Allen: Wow. OK. So I’m very curious to hear about what virtual reality education looks like because you have several brick and mortar charter school locations, but now you’ve branched into really new territory for the field of education, using virtual reality. What does this look like?

Donalds: And it’s so far from our classical brick and mortar schools because our brick and mortar schools don’t even use technology in the classroom. They are technology-free. Parents love that. They don’t want their kids on screen. So it’s very analog, very back to basics.

But during the pandemic, when we went remote, we endeavored to create as close to the in-person experience as possible for our kids. We didn’t want them to have learning loss. We filled their day from 8 to 3. We had live learning every day from our teachers. We sent home paper books and workbooks to make sure that they continued to have that experience. And then we looked around and thought, “Nobody else is doing this? No one else is trying to replicate the in-person experience using remote learning?”

And we had parents calling and asking to participate in our online program whose kids didn’t even go to our schools. And when we discontinued online learning and had everyone back in-person 100%, we had a lot of families that wanted this to continue and thought, “I want to school at home. I want to be more a part of my children’s education,” homeschool, if you will, but I’ll call it school at home because we were providing the teaching. We were providing the curriculum. We were really leading the students, but it allowed them to be at home and have a little bit more flexibility. And families really want that. So that’s how Optima Classical Academy was born.

And I happened to be introduced to Adam Mangana, who’s my partner in this endeavor. And he had been working in virtual reality education for almost a decade and with a team of people. And it is not a replacement for brick and mortars, not a replacement for in-person as much as it is a replacement for Zoom school.

And for the current state of virtual education and distance learning that is asynchronous, it doesn’t build relationships. It doesn’t have a live teacher where you’re in a classroom every day, but it also allows us to take children back to Independence Hall, which is something that we’ve built, and watch the Constitutional Convention, and be a part of the experience that they will never forget.

They actually go to Mars. They go to the lunar landing, and they’re there when it happens in virtual reality. So it’s not trying to replace what we know is great about in-person experiences, but adding that virtual reality element, instead of a flat screen, instead of Zoom, or instead of the traditional virtual education.

This is a way that students can really experience learning. And the studies have shown that it helps them to retain the information better and it retains it longer. And you’re able to cover more information in a shorter period of time.

Classical education liberal arts is content-based, and VR is the perfect way to deliver that content—again, in short doses—and also allowing a teacher to have relationships with students in that virtual reality space.

It’s absolutely amazing, but we’re doing it in a smart, and very methodical, and intentional way that doesn’t take away from what we know is great about classical education and education in general.

Allen: Yeah, yeah. So as we’re talking about virtual reality, for those that aren’t very familiar, this is literally kids putting on, and folks may have seen them, the white headsets that cover your eyes, and you’re transported into the moon landing. You gave that example, or a classroom. And now, all of a sudden, you’re also seeing other people around you, correct?

Donalds: That is correct. A lot of virtual reality people have experienced thus far is what we call on rails. So you’re basically watching a movie. You’re not experiencing, you’re not be able to interact. Some gaming. People can put something on and interact with the game, but it’s a one-player experience.

The metaverse that we’ve built—this is not the metaverse that’s Facebook. It’s not the metaverse, if you go in, you can meet strangers. No. We’ve built a school. And when our students put on these headsets, they’re locked into that school. They’re in a classroom with other students and with their teacher, and they’re able to have a social experience, as well as a learning experience. It looks like they’re in a classroom when they’re in 360 degrees, in the headset. And the headsets are now more affordable. The technology’s more accessible for us to be able to use it for education.

So we have replicated the classroom experience in VR, far superior to the checker board of faces that teachers were dealing with, and have been dealing with in-virtual education for many years, and also superior to the in-person education that some students are getting in their government-run schools that parents are very dissatisfied with.

So these kids don’t have a brick and mortar classical school offered in their communities. There’s kids in rural communities who will never have a charter school there, the way that we’re able to offer them in many of our other areas, but they can access a liberal arts education outside of their zone public school, outside of the woke ideology that’s being taught there, and the gender fluidity that’s being preached there, and the lack of true historical knowledge that these students are coming out of these schools with.

We’re able to offer this very rich content-based education in VR and virtually for free in the state of Florida, at least so far. And we’re going to other states to offer it as a public option as well.

Allen: Wow. OK. So students are still able to interact with one another, to raise their hand, ask their teacher questions, all of that, but in this virtual space?

Donalds: That’s correct. And they’re doing that every day, four days a week, in very short intervals, 20 to 30 minutes for the first half of the day. And then, the second half of the day is asynchronous, meaning they’re using their books or workbooks that we send to them or they’re doing online learning in a learning management system canvas is what we use. But their day is full from 8 to 3. So they get a full school day.

Remote learning got a really bad rep during COVID because it wasn’t really remote learning. It was remote, not learning. The kids were at home. They weren’t given the tools that they need to continue learning in a robust way.

This is actually going to be the gold, really, the platinum standard, if you will, for virtual education going forward because before the pandemic, virtual education was growing exponentially, before the pandemic. And it wasn’t because people thought it was high quality. In fact, all the studies say that it was low quality, but parents were choosing that delivery method.

They have more flexibility in their jobs. They’re working from home. And they want their children to have that same flexibility, but they need a high-quality option, like what we’re able to provide. And we can’t allow progressives, frankly, to run away with virtual education and virtual reality education. They’ll get there as well. We have to provide an option for these families, and this is one way we can do that.

Allen: OK. So what would your response be to those who would say, “Well, it’s really dangerous to have a child living a part of their day in a virtual space, in a space that isn’t reality”?

Donalds: Actually, we believe the way that we are doing this helps children to appreciate real life. It’s not escaping from real life. It’s showing them the parts of a plant in three dimensions and allowing them to label the parts of that plant in three dimensions, experience that in VR, makes them want to go out and find that plant in real life and go, “Oh, my gosh, I did this in VR. I see that the real thing is so much better than what I saw in there, but now I have this knowledge. I experienced it in a way that I retain it.” So it really is making them appreciate the reality.

When we take them to Independence Hall and they hear the debate in the Constitutional Convention, it makes them appreciate the politics of today and how healthy politics, political debate should look. So it’s really not trying to teach them to escape from reality, but to appreciate what we have in our country, in our world, in mother nature, and things like that.

And it is in short intervals. There may be people who use this in ways that are escaping reality. That is not what we’re doing. We’re being very intentional about it in helping kids to learn things and to love learning, and then to go out and use that great learning in their real-world experiences.

Allen: Yeah, yeah. So you are truly pioneering a new style of education. And I’m curious, who are the individuals that have really been your inspiration in the field of education to say, “You know what, I’m going to try something that really hasn’t been done before”?

Donalds: Well, I absolutely love Betsy DeVos. We were just here celebrating her and the launch of her book and her courage to get up and tell the truth about what’s going on in our education system, but not only that, to do something about it.

I read her book and I was so inspired by all the things she’s done over the course of her life that she … didn’t have to do. She was very successful and accomplished in other areas and did not have to spend all this time in this very difficult field, helping children who don’t have options for their schooling.

And then today, we’re here to celebrate Mary McLeod Bethune, who is now in Statuary Hall, celebrated by Florida. And she’s a school choice pioneer. I mean, she started a school for young black girls in Daytona [Beach], Florida, because they didn’t have a school choice option that was going to fulfill their needs. And she went out raising money, just like we still have to do today for our school choice options.

As I was reading about her as well, thinking, well, not much has changed because we have to go around raising money, philanthropic dollars to start these schools, to give people the options that they don’t have in their communities. And it’s the same thing she had to do 100 years ago. And we shouldn’t have to do that, really.

We need everyone to have the option. We need parents to have the ability to use the public dollars to go to the school of their choice, in the school that’s going to meet their needs. And if we have that marketplace of dollars out there, that parents are able to vote with their feet, we’re going to have plenty of supply that is diverse and available to meet the various needs of students, learners all over our country.

And we’re on our way there, but it really, those two, I mean, going back into the past, and someone who’s really made an impact today, I think those are two people that are really courageous and did whatever they needed to do to help kids, regardless of the people who were against them.

In Mary McLeod Bethune’s case, of course, racial discrimination, people who didn’t want her and black girls to have an education that would give them a lift up.

And for some reason, even today, a white woman is lambasted for trying to help young, mostly minority and poor children to have the education that’s going to give them a leg up. I mean, it seems like nothing much has changed, unfortunately. But thankfully, many more children are getting that opportunity, and that will just continue to grow.

Allen: Yeah. Share just a little bit, as we’re closing, about the future of education, and specifically classical education. I love that you are taking classical education into areas that it maybe hasn’t been before. Share a little bit about what you see happening in the field of education in the next five or 10 years.

Donalds: Well, I think there is going to be more, and there continues to be a resurgence of the classical or the liberal arts education because people understand that that’s what works. It worked for thousands of years before America started changing education into all this progressive nonsense and all the fads that have really ruined our education system.

So it’s getting back to what we know works. And people just recognize that that’s the right thing to do. The great books, the classics, the Singapore math, the phonics, it’s the things that we built our country on. And the best minds of our history, we’re taught this way.

And the ability to implement that outside of the traditional public school system is what’s bringing the resurgence because the traditional public schools are all doing the same thing. But we can start charter schools, and we can start private schools, and we can start learning pods, and we can use what we want to use, which is the classical model of education.

But really, that’s not the future in and of itself. The future, to me, is a customizable education experience for every child. It’s the universal [education savings accounts] in every state of the country where parents can say, “I’d really like a classical model of education for some of these core subjects. I want my child to read the great books. I want them to have explicit grammar and phonics, but I would really like them to have more of an experiential science curriculum. I’m going to take them to my local community science center for their science course. And they’re going to have something that’s more project-based there. And they’re going to learn in a different way. And then maybe for math, they’re going to teach themselves because they’re really good at math and they don’t really need a teacher. I’m just going to give them the materials, and they’ll be able to do math on their own.”

Customizing the entire education experience, I think, is the future. It’s where we need to go. It’s what we need to sell to families and to legislators when we’re talking about the type of school choice policies that need to be in place to really set us up to be competitive in this global environment.

One-size-fits-all is really what most people’s option is. And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in any industry. I mean, think of all the ways we can get groceries today. We can order them on Amazon. We have Instacart. We have Uber Eats. We have go to your local grocery store. You have Whole Foods. You have farmer’s markets. Because people have the money and the freedom to buy it and get it in any way they want, and the market responds to that.

Can you just imagine what education could do if the marketplace were open and competitive, and how we could meet the needs of every child in very different ways, for every subject, for every hour of the day? That’s my vision for education.

And I really applaud Arizona and West Virginia for going universal on ESAs and saying, “Hey, come here. Be innovative and give our children, our families, what they need.” Looking for Florida to be that next state for universal ESAs, but I think that’s the way of the future.

Allen: Yeah. And ESAs being education savings accounts that give those tax dollars into your own bank account, essentially to say, “Hey, you can use this for your child to send them to whatever school that you think is best for them.”

Donalds: That’s right. It can be used for tuition, it can be used for curriculum, or a mix of those things, or special services. And parents, they know what is best for their children. And when we give them the power to make those decisions, they will be the best ones to make those decisions. And we’re going to see an insurgent of better education, better outcomes, and more equality when we have that.

Allen: Yeah. Erika Donalds, thank you so much for sharing with us about the work that you’re doing. Tell us how we can follow your work, how we can keep up and learn more.

Donalds: Sure. The Optima Foundation, which powers these different schools and different school environments, is optimaed.org. You can see all the work that we’re doing there at optimaed.org.

Optima Classical Academy, which is that virtual reality school that’s launching this fall, is at optimaclassical.org. And families can actually register there for full time, for individual courses. It’s available for free for any student in the state of Florida, grades 3 to 8, and across the country. There’s a tuition-based model, but hopefully, we will be coming to a state near you to provide it in a public manner.

So yes, you can find the Optima Foundation at optimaed.org. And we appreciate all that The Heritage Foundation does and all of their support for school choice and education freedom.

Allen: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you joining us.

Donalds: Thank you.

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