Education Experts Divided Over the Benefits of Virtual Schooling

Can VR replace in-person learning?

  • Optima Classical Academy says it will introduce the world's first virtual reality charter school in Florida. 
  • Experts say that VR is best for students in limited doses. 
  • More schools like Optima are likely to experiment with VR-only education in the future.
A student wearing VR glasses and a computer tablet.

Cavan Images / Getty Images

Many schools are using virtual reality (VR) in classrooms, but one institution wants to take the idea a step further and provide remote education taught entirely through headsets. 

Optima Classical Academy says it will introduce the world's first virtual reality charter school in Naples, Florida. The school wants to enroll up to 1,300 students in August, grades 3-8. However, some experts say VR is best for students in limited doses. 

"There is so much value for students and educators in being in a classroom together," Debika Sihi, a business professor at Southwestern University who studies technological innovation, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The collaborations and organic conversations that are generated enhance learning and are often difficult to replicate completely in virtual settings."

School in VR

The Optima Academy touts its approach on its website as a "better way to do online school." The school is a tuition-free virtual reality public school for 3rd-8th grade Florida students. 

"We use VR technology to solve the challenges of disengaged, unsocialized scholars," according to its website. "Our combination of VR technology and a time-tested classical education model produces better academic outcomes and scholars that love to learn."

The school also says that it will provide VR headsets, and students will receive live instruction each day, 8 am-12 pm, inside a virtual reality classroom. "Here, they experience an immersive, collaborative, and socially appropriate experience interacting with their classmates, their instructors, and the curriculum in a way unlike anything before," the website says. 

The school promotes the possibilities of learning in VR, saying that students can visit ancient Pompeii, stand in a future city on Mars, or see how atoms work from the inside. "Best of all, they share the experience in real-time with their classmates and instructors," the school said. 

Dennis Smith, the director of education at SeekXR, which provides VR teaching resources for teachers, told Lifewire in an email interview that augmented reality or VR educational content can help bridge the gap between in-person and remote instruction. 

"AR/VR encourages interactive learning and improves student engagement and information retention, especially for visual learners," Smith said. "In fact, students reported a 14% increase in motivation, a 31% increase in attendance, and an 11% increase in confidence when learning with augmented reality." 

Experts Are Skeptical

While the Optima website paints a rosy portrait of the VR learning experience, education experts were quick to point out some practical problems. 

A group of students in a classroom using VR headsets.

izusek / Getty Images

John Pavlik, a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, pointed out to Lifewire in an email interview that wearing VR headsets is uncomfortable after wearing them for long periods. Under some circumstances, VR learning experiences could replace students' learning without VR in actual schools, he said. 

"Otherwise, the best design is immersive VR-based learning in combination with in-person learning," Pavlik added. "It’s also worth noting that in many cases, VR learning systems are used within a physical school environment where students do not need to own, operate or maintain their own VR equipment and can then discuss their VR experiences with classmates and teacher after concluding their immersive learning session."

Administrators from Optima Academy did not respond to requests from Lifewire seeking comment. 

More schools like Optima are likely to experiment with VR-only education in the future, Luke Wilson, the CEO of ManageXR, a device management platform for VR/AR devices, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"VR is proving itself as an incredibly valuable tool for education," Wilson said. "As more schools turn to VR, more and more content is being developed, so there will soon be an endless library of classes and new learning experiences for educators to choose from. At the same time, more technologies will continue to advance so that everything runs smoothly for hundreds of students at once without requiring extra work from the teachers."

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