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The VictoryXR Show: Adam Mangana Joins Steve Grubbs to Discuss OptimaEd and Virtual Reality Spatial Learning

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February 20, 2024 | Steve Grubbs


  • OptimaEd, led by Chief Innovation Officer Adam Mangana, is revolutionizing education through virtual reality spatial learning.
  • OptimaEd offers both full-time school of record VR education and asynchronous coursework, attracting homeschool families and offering flexibility in learning.
  • VR allows the learning space to act as a third teacher, similar to the Magic School Bus
  • Students learn faster in VR and OptimaEd is able to choose the best teachers due to the high interest from staff to teach in VR

Watch at https://youtu.be/Jrx0j6dZZAw?si=jM31PF7lTHgvtbbO

Steve Grubbs: Welcome to the VictoryXR Show. I’m Steve Grubbs, your host, and I am extremely excited about our guest today. There really are few education institutions who are doing as much pioneering, innovating in the virtual reality spatial learning area as OptimaEd. And our guest today is their chief innovation officer, Adam Mangana. Adam, thanks for joining us. 

Adam Mangana: Steve, thank you so much. I am honored. And I remember maybe back in the day, you coming on a podcast of mine, and I was like, just super humbled that you thought enough of me to have you on yours. 

Steve Grubbs: Well, what you guys are doing and what you’re leading is, A, it’s the future that most people haven’t figured out yet. What you are—you are the guy, you’re the revolution that’s playing out in plain sight, and people don’t even see it. 

And the reason I say that is because everybody would agree with the statement that remote online learning is growing, and it’s growing faster than residential learning. But the problem that you and I both understand is that if we’re going to have online learning, there has to be a hands-on component. There has to be an in-place presence component. And there are millions of students in online education, but very few have figured out what you guys have figured out. So talk to me a little bit. First of all, describe OptimaEd to our listeners, and then let’s talk about how you are using virtual reality to educate students. 

Adam Mangana: I love it. Yeah, so very simply, OptimaEd is a virtual instruction provider, but our domain expertise is used so eloquently put as spatial computing. And so we recognized that the internet was moving into three dimensions. 

At the same time, interest rates are going out of control. Commercial real estate has incredible amounts of pressure. We are navigating pandemics and school shootings, and all of the things that kind of incentivize people to evaluate their current educational model. 

And so Augustine says, “The words printed here are concepts, so we must go through the experiences.” What better way to do online school than to have the common courtesy of connection that you can offer in a social VR platform like the ones at VictoryXR builds? 

Steve Grubbs: Awesome. And you guys have really, I mean, you started just three years ago in 2020 and you already are at about 1,000 students. I mean, that’s pretty impressive growth. Talk a little bit about A, what students like about OptimaEd and B, some of the drivers of that growth. 

Adam Mangana: Yeah, tremendous question. So, I think you would agree with this. When we’re talking about the status quo in online education, right? You have the checkerboard of faces that the teacher has to manage across 25 different classrooms. 

And what we knew to be true that other online educational providers, I think, missed is that when you’re in a social VR platform together, you’re engineering an experience that the teacher’s back at the center. 

And so we have really two tracks that people are attracted to. Our full-time school of record, our VR school, the world’s first version of that full tuition-free VR school. People like relationships. They like the accountability. They like the ability for their child… And most of our customers are homeschool families. They’ve reached the top of their domain expertise and they want to trust an institution that has a serious academic program. 

And what they really want is that, what I described, that common courtesy connection that you can only have when you’re present together online. And then our other track is our kind of asynchronous coursework. 

And that’s where flexibility and concept-based instruction really shine and the ability for somebody to take a really abstract idea like a cell and be able to enter that cell and interact with the parts of that cell and make the learning sticky. 

So, there are really two tracks, two different motivations for wanting VR as a solution for online school. One would be relationships and the way that we foster relationships. The human experience is at the very center of that delivery mechanism. 

And then the other one is flexibility, VR hacks time and space like no other tool that we’ve seen. And so the ability to create that flexibility is very powerful. 

Steve Grubbs: So let’s talk about remote versus presence, because that’s a big issue. I think you might have attended school, I know it was one of the Ivy League schools, was it Princeton or… 

Adam Mangana: Brown.

Steve Grubbs: Brown. So you were a residential student at Brown University and I’m sure like me, you found a lot of value in being together. Now I will be the first to admit that I found less value in being in the classroom and more just being on campus and just being around other students. But talk to us about and first of all your K-12 and not higher education, but talk to us about how you, the value that you’re able to provide students. 

And if you could describe to our listeners, some who may not be that familiar with group, synchronous virtual reality classrooms, talk a little bit about how you utilize that to bring students together, even though they may be a thousand miles apart. 

Adam Mangana: Yeah. No, that’s an incredibly powerful experience. And you mentioned, we began to pilot this in 2020. The world kind of pivoted to Zoom and I mailed VR heads at Zoom, from the perspective of running a school. 

And we were looking to solve the loneliness problem, Steve. And so when you think about what conducts, what makes a really good academic experience, you have academic press, you know, the ability to meet a student where they’re learning needs are, and you have this idea of pastoral care that somebody is caring for you. 

And it’s very hard to create that care in a flat two-dimensional delivery mechanism. One of the things that I noticed right away as we began to deploy is we could now have three teachers, right? We had the domain expert at the beginning, kind of front of the classroom. We had the here, right, that student who was present together with other students, learners interacting and benefiting from each other’s collaboration. 

And then we had the location as the third teacher. And so that is a really powerful idea because now we can really live out the promise of Magic School Bus, right? We can start out and what might look like a traditional classroom, but why in the power of spatial computing would you actually stay in what looks like a box with desks? You’d want to go to the bottom of the ocean or back into ancient Rome or on the moon or in a science lab. 

These are incredibly powerful use cases. You think about the power of language acquisition, right? And language teachers know instinctually the power of context for making learning sticky, right? What better way to learn Latin than to be in the Vatican? These are really influential ways. 

The other thing that I think you figured out, and we figured out is the arbitrage that exists. It’s very hard to recruit teachers to teach in Zoom school. We’ve found it really easy to recruit teachers to teach in the era of spatial computing. 

And that has been incredibly compelling because we have a very long waiting list for faculty, and we’ve been able to pick the very best faculty. So, I think what’s promising is in the era of spatial computing, I think the teacher becomes even more important. Now, the teacher also becomes more efficient. And so I think those market forces are going to drive more and more schools to create digital twins, something you know very a lot about. 

Steve Grubbs: Our guest today is Adam Mangana, Chief Innovation Officer of OptimaEd. Adam, I’m going to push you just a little bit further on this issue of social. So, on Zoom, students can all come together. You could have 30 students. They all have their own little box. They can talk, they can socialize, they can chat, and they can be together. How is what you’re providing different than the type of group interaction that they get on a Zoom call? 

Adam Mangana: Yeah, great, great, great question. Zoom was engineered as a conference call. And so for those of us who have spent time thinking about pedagogy and thinking about education deeply, we wouldn’t conduct eight hours of school on a conference call. That seems to be an absurd idea, but that’s where the technology was. And I’m reminded, you were talking about a revolution not being televised, I’m reminded of that image of 1968, the mother of all demos where you see kind of a very flat two-dimensional screen. And it’s the first version of what becomes Microsoft that we see demoed. 

And then you see juxtaposed a week later, right, the sort of Damocles and the VR demo. And we have this pathway in 1968 where we can choose between what is two-dimensional and what is immersive. And of course, what was pragmatic at the time because we just didn’t have the compute power was to go with the kind of the mother of all demos route, the two-dimensional delivery mechanism. And we’re in the same place in the way we consume online schools. 

The first version of online school was developed as corresponded courses, and then we had the ability to embed video, and so now we have these video chatting, but that’s not the native and natural way for us to interact and learn together. 

We want to be present together. Now, what I think being online provides, we don’t want people to live in the digital space for 24 hours a day, but what we want is to make work more efficient so that they can more appreciate the natural world and more appreciate relationships in person. 

And so I’m raising my two children on a farm in rural Mississippi. They are able to do what has traditionally been an eight-hour school day in about three and a half hours, and then they have time to work on the farm. 

They have time to be engaged with co-curricular activities. They have time to be entrepreneurial. They have time to be present with friends in a way that they weren’t able to do when we were running around in car lines and trying to navigate the slings and arrows of just commuting traffic. 

I think that it is inevitable that more and more people are going to try to make work and learning more efficient and actually make more time to appreciate these social relationships. So, we don’t want to recreate Alabama football necessarily in VR, the stadium experience, but we do want to take things like what you guys have developed with chemistry labs and we want to be able to try experiments that would be risky or dangerous in real life and we want to be able to go to the moon or enter inside of an atom. 

These are things that you just couldn’t do otherwise. So, the promise of VR learning on the social front is massive, but it doesn’t mean that children aren’t going to interact in the natural world. 

Steve Grubbs: All right, Adam, after students finish a course in OptimaEd, are they going to be smarter or dumber than their counterparts in the real classroom? 

Adam Mangana: Well, this is a tremendous question. We were very fortunate in year one to be able to have outcomes that were stronger. And so the reality is virtual reality learning concept-based instruction has been proven scientifically to be more effective. 

I still think teachers matter. I think that part of the secret sauce of what we have put together is not only delivering the platform, but training the teacher. I think Alexander doesn’t become great without Aristotle coming to his home and I think the ability that VR has to attract and optimize really good teachers that are committed to the pedagogy. 

Because as you know, the VR teaching and learning is different. It’s different in that you have to have more facility with the platform. You have to be able to understand the use cases for what I’m calling concept-based instruction, teaching things in a concrete—taking things that are abstract and making them concrete. And so we spend a lot of time training teachers on how to use the tool. And that training has led to better outcomes, just measurably better outcomes. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, there’s a lot of different data that we look at. But one piece of data is the PWC study from 2021, led by the amazing Jeremy Dalton. And that study showed that students learn four times faster than in a traditional. classroom and why. There was a study at a Taiwanese university where they put a device on the head of students who were learning in a traditional classroom and in virtual reality and then it would show how much the brain cells light up, and in VR the brain was extremely active, whereas mostly in the traditional classroom it was a lot more sedate and fewer brain cells lighting up. 

Adam Mangana: Steve, I couldn’t agree more. I think you would be proud of this stat. You know, in our very first year of operation, we had the highest civic scores in the state of Florida, and that is maybe a contrarian idea, but the idea that in this era that we could scale really high-quality civics education, feel to me like a national emergency, right? And so to be able to have people learn about the true history of our country and do that at scale, I think is such a gift that virtual reality can provide. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit about Florida because you know of all the states, they may well be—I mean they’re right up there with a few of them, but very close to the most progressive when it comes to school choice laws. How have those school choice laws in Florida played to the benefit of students who want to learn in virtual reality? 

Adam Mangana: Yeah, you know, there’s a movement afoot in the country. I do think Florida has…I’m very proud of the work that Florida has done to empower families and empower learners and give them the opportunity to make choices. 

One of the artifacts of that success has been the Education Savings Account laws, universal ESAs that allow for funding to follow the students, so parents can make choices and purchase the kinds of educational options. 

And what’s exciting about that is it democratizes access to great teachers, especially in a virtual instruction provider context. Now, no matter what geography you live in, you can have access to a world-class curriculum and world-class teachers. And we would hope that every state would allow the opportunity for a student, regardless, whether they live on a farm like my two children or whether they’re in an inner city, that they can have access. 

And that’s something that I think has drawn the two of us together is the commitment to access, whether it be through the lab work that you all are doing to provide to underprivileged kids or the work that we’re doing to provide the world’s first completely tuition-free school of record and VR coursework. 

Steve Grubbs: Now you say tuition-free, but obviously you have to have money. So when you say tuition-free, what does that mean for parents who might be interested in this? 

Adam Mangana: Yeah, thank you for this opportunity, Steve. So, because we are an approved virtual instruction provider, if you’re a resident in the state of Florida, you’re able to attend our school just like you would a public school, tuition-free. And there are two different ways you can do that. You can enroll in the online charter version of our school, or you can take your ESA dollars that have been awarded to you, and you can use those funds to purchase coursework. So, there are two different mechanisms. 

And the really exciting part for our team at Optima is that regardless of what your zip code is, regardless of what your income is, if you happen to be a resident of the state of Florida, you can attend our school completely tuition free. And it includes a VR headset. 

Steve Grubbs: Oh, perfect. I’m going to come to hardware in a minute. But do you have students that are….I mean, obviously, your children are outside the state of Florida, but do you have other students outside of the state of Florida and how do they pay? 

Adam Mangana: Yeah. So what’s exciting Steve is that there are a number of states that have made universal ESAs available. And so we have primarily marketed in states that have allowed for students to use ESA dollars, because that virtual instruction provider application is a 900 page application. Some states don’t even have a mechanism to become a virtual instruction provider. So, you know, our mission is to make it accessible. 

We have had one offs, especially in northern states, where people have said, hey, you know, we don’t have the political environment for ESAs, but in private school tuition is so expensive. What could you do for us? And so in those examples, we have allowed folks to attend our school as a tuition payer. And for six full-time courses, I think our tuition is right around $7,000, which is pretty accessible for those who are living in the northern states where private school tuition are median $25,000. 

Steve Grubbs: So $7,000 a year, is that correct? 

Adam Mangana: That’s correct. That’s correct for six courses. 

Steve Grubbs: $3,500 a semester. So, if you figure a semester being roughly five months, then you’re roughly $700 a month. 

Adam Mangana: That’s right. And to be frank with you, of the 1,000 students, we may have two in that category. So we haven’t really marketed that, but we don’t want any of your listeners who want to attend the school to not have a pathway. In all of the states that are paying tuition, which happened to be Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we are looking for options to try to find a public option so that those students won’t have to continue to pay. But if you want to attend now and you don’t live in the United States or you live in a state that doesn’t have ESAs, you can attend in a tuition format. 

Steve Grubbs: Great, great, awesome. And this is not the end, but I do want our listeners to be able to get more information. Where would they go to get more information about OptimaEd? 

Adam Mangana: Love it. We actually would love you to go right to the school’s website, www.optimaacademy.online. And you can learn everything you want to learn there. You can schedule a demo, you can learn about ESA programs. So, OptimaEd is comprehensive, OptimaEd, which is the umbrella company, but Optima Academy Online is comprehensive and will be helpful for anybody interested in exploring. 

Steve Grubbs: Great. All right. We’ve got time for two or three more questions. So one that I’d like you to wax on a little bit is you give us two good use cases for learning in virtual reality. 

Adam Mangana: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There are so many great use cases, but one that is particularly unique to our school, because I was a classics major computer science minor, I am committed to preserving ancient languages. And so, you know, to teach Latin, which has lost a lot of popularity, comes to life in virtual reality. To be able to learn in context, to be able to translate great works, to be able to go back into the same locations that Marcus Aurelia and Epictetus wrote in to understand the context of their world. It’s the closest thing we can come to, Steve, to a great book. 

So that’s maybe a contrarian answer, not one that many people would think of. But you imagine not only the context, but taking declensions, breaking them up, teaching grammar, a well-ordered language, and teaching it conceptually, where students can actually build on those, that language acquisition, physically in that digital space. It’s a very powerful way to teach ancient languages. So that’s a really exciting use case that would be unconventional. 

One that might be far more conventional, but your listeners may not know about, is the idea of being able to tie large language models to avatars and really individualized student interventions. 

So, taking a student who may be struggling with a particular standard, loading those standards into a large language model, and then having that student interact with an avatar. That’s where this is going with individualized instruction. 

And then to be able to record that and have a learning guide or coach that might be human, audit that process, it’s going to create a lot of flexibility. So, those are two use cases that are underwater, you know, welding or going to the moon or something that you may have heard from so many of the other incredible experts that we have. I tried to go for something that might be more unique. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I like that. And we just rolled out AI Conversational Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. And so, students can meet her in the Montgomery County courthouse. So, most high school students read To Kill a Mockingbird. And so, we really worked to bring it to life so they can sit and have that conversation, ask her about our motivations and what different parts of the book might mean. 

And so, that is really just where we’re going, all of us. It’s something that’s really, really special for learning. And we think we’ll really give students a love of learning, not just, you know, like, I got to go learn this. 

So, let’s talk about a little bit about hardware. Do all of your students use the same headset or different headsets? What are you doing on that front? 

Adam Mangana: Yep, as you all know very well at VictoryXR, it’s wise to be hardware agnostic, but there are just some realities to where the market is in a place like Florida because of Pico’s affiliation with it’s parent company, it’s very difficult to deploy Pico headsets. Not that we have anything against Pico headsets. 

So we’re primarily deploying meta headsets, although we have a few folks who are using HTC, but we’re 99% Meta Quest 2 and 3 in Florida and for the most part in other states. Philosophically, we’re hardware agnostic but in practicality, especially when you’re working with public entities, we have to make sure that we have all of the security features in place that we need and we have alignment philosophically with the government that we’re serving in this context. 

So that’s why, but there are many great headsets outside of Meta. It just so happens that practically Meta at that two hundred and ninety nine dollar price point that really is like the, for lack of a better term, the Chromebook of six Degrees of Freedom VR headsets. 

And so there are many other great options out there. We don’t work for Meta, but we love them. And so like I said, we would be open to anybody who was a tuition payer to use whatever headset they’d like. 

Steve Grubbs: And do you have any issues with students getting dizzy or nauseous in their headsets? 

Adam Mangana: You know, my experience, Steve, when we’ve put probably, you know, you guys are probably the only ones who put as many folks in headsets as we have. My experience has been that that is completely connected to agency. So what VR does really well is it replicates reality. So, if you’re moving someone around, or if you’re on rails and inexperienced, the chances of you being motion sick are much higher than if you’re in a social VR platform, having the agency to move yourself at your own pace, which makes a lot of sense, right? 

People get motion sickness if they’re riding in a car. And the problem has been the use case that most people rolled out when they rolled out virtual reality was, what, a roller coaster, which was the very worst thing that we could do to introduce people to this incredible technology. 

So, I would say to your listeners, if you are able to create environment where the user has agency and can move themselves, it is much less likely that they would experience motion sickness. 

Steve Grubbs: Yeah, I would agree 100% with your conversation, with your analysis. So last question, talk to me a little bit about your best hope for the future of where this is going. 

Adam Mangana: Oh, my goodness, that is an absolutely incredible question. I think you and I are completely aligned about this incredible future, where those of us who have spent our life’s work really trying to be evangelists for this technology, could give the end user the gift of time. 

Ultimately, I saw you with your beautiful wife in New York, and you know, the ability to have more time with her, right, for me to have more time with my kids. If we could leverage this incredible tool to make learning more efficient, to make travel more efficient, to make work more efficient, to give people more time, to more appreciate what God has put on this incredible earth, that feels a lot better than what we’ve done. 

And I think even maybe 20 years from now, we look back on riding in a box. And going to walk into a box, a taller box, and spend the vast majority of our life’s energy living in boxes and cities, then we will probably look back and think that’s absurd. 

And the future I see is that cities are these incredibly dynamic social places that magic can happen because the work that needs to live in that box can be happening from anywhere. 

Steve Grubbs: Awesome. Okay, so I’m going to summarize that if they want to learn more information, they will go to www.optimaacademy.online

Adam Mangana: You have hit it right on the head, www.optimaacademy.online, and we would love for your listeners to try a course out. 

Steve Grubbs: And what if they want to communicate with you? They have a follow-up question specifically for Adam. 

Adam Mangana: Absolutely. I can be found on all of the social handles. I am most active on LinkedIn, but I will also be honored to give your listeners my email, amangana@optimaed.com

Steve Grubbs: amangana@optimaed.com. Got it. Well, I’m going to just finish by saying congratulations on your finish being a semi-finalist at the YAS Prize. I know that there were over 2000 applicants and your organization, OptimaEd, and my organization, VictoryXR, both made it into the top 33. So, we are thankful for that, and I suspect you are too. 

Adam Mangana: Oh, my goodness, and humbled to be in a category with you guys who we admire greatly and think the world of. 

Steve Grubbs: Well, Adam, thanks for joining us today. You’re doing amazing things at OptimaEd. And to all our listeners, thanks for listening to the VictoryXR show and watch next week, we have an amazing guest coming.

Steve Grubbs is the CEO of VictoryXR, the global leader in immersive, spatial education. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s colleges of business and law and served in the Iowa Legislature as Chair of the House Education Committee in the early ‘90’s.