New View EDU Episode 26: Full Transcript

Read the full transcript of Episode 26 of the NAIS New View EDU podcast, which features Adam Mangana, the chief product officer and a founder of Optima Ed. He joins host Tim Fish to talk about virtual reality's possibilities for schools and education. Adam shares his ideas about the inherent opportunities for greater personal ownership, democratized content sharing, improved access, new financial models, and a more equitable experience regardless of geography.

Tim Fish: In 1994, I connected to the internet for the first time. Some friends and I worked late into the night to install and configure a 14.4 modem and the Netscape browser. That evening, we opened the door to Web 1.0, and I was blown away. 

Years later, the web shifted away from being only a one way delivery tool of information to a two way, fully interactive environment. Web 2.0 ushered in the age of social media. 

We are standing on the cusp of Web 3.0, and many say the changes we will see over the next decade will be even more transformative than what we have seen in Web 1.0 or Web 2.0. But what is web 3.0, and what does it mean for education? To explore this question, I am so excited to welcome my friend, Adam Mangana, to New View EDU. Adam is the chief product officer and founder of Optima Ed, the only education experience company in the world focused on creating American classical and virtual reality curriculum. 

Adam launched the world's first virtual reality charter school, Optima Classical Academy, in the fall of 2022. The school is a tuition free, online school serving students in grades three through eight. Prior to the launch of Optima Classical, Adam served in independent schools, where he has pioneered the use of virtual reality to enhance student engagement and advance learning outcomes. Adam, it is so awesome to have you on New View EDU today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Adam Mangana: Tim. You're incredible. I'm humbled to be here and just grateful for the opportunity to have a great conversation.

Tim Fish: Well, thank you. So let's start off with: What is Web 3.0 exactly? Because I'm sure some of our listeners have heard the term and might have trouble defining what exactly it's going to be.

Adam Mangana: There are a number of buzzwords that are out there right now, right? Web 3.0, the metaverse, I think you did a tremendous job of framing the story from the beginning, right? So you talked about this idea of, of taking our language in Web 1, and being able to send it at the speed of light for free, which is absolutely transformational, right? We had the email, but if you tried to explain to someone how the back end of email worked, it would be very complex for many people to understand. They just know that their language goes at the speed of light for free, and it has transformed the way in which we've interacted. And then you talked about the, the, the web two portion, where we could now have an interaction and there's video and it, and it came rise through the era of social media. 

Web 3 is a permissionless internet in which we can have distributed ownership. And so this is a very exciting opportunity, because web three and the metaverse are actually two different things. The metaverse talks about a three dimensional internet in which we can, and this is something I'd like to discuss too, because I'm doing this work in immersive learning, but web three is really a permissionless distributed internet. So instead of having to go through Google, Facebook, the famed companies to really be able to influence the internet, we're now talking about an internet in which we can have distributed ownership.

And so, you know, folks like the National Association of Independent Schools might decide that there's an opportunity for distribution and shared ownership. And there's all of these frontiers and ways in which the internet can, can be more democratized. And so I think it aligns with the winds blowing around access, which is an exciting prospect for so many who don't have access to the internet today.

So I think the promise of web three offers some, some really exciting opportunities. And I think the folks who are most interested in making sure that everyone has access to those opportunities need to be part of the, the conversation.

Tim Fish: That's such an interesting distinction, this idea that even in Web 2.0, even though there was a lot more interactivity and a lot more live communication back and forth, it all went through a company like Facebook, for example.

And your sense is that in Web 3.0, that's gonna disappear, that it's gonna become complete—much more equalized. Is this, is this in some ways where also blockchain comes in, and the way that we sort of organize transactions and information and ownership?

Adam Mangana: That's exactly right. We have three emerging technologies that I think are going to transform education. Blockchain, of course, being one of them. I would say immersive computing. So extended reality, augmented and virtual reality. And then of course, AI. I think the intersection of those three are going to create real incentives for folks who are operating in the space to take more ownership. I think most people have skepticism around the data and their data and, and understanding that, you know, these social media platforms that have had business models that people didn't realize that they were the product, those social media platforms, that business model is in question now with a distributed internet. And so making sure people have real understandings of the value of their data as we move into a more distributed and permissionless environment.

Tim Fish: Yeah. You know, Adam, one of the things I love about our relationship and about the conversations that you and I have had over the years is around this idea about, what is education really about, and how can technologies like what's coming at Web 3.0 further unlock the potential of young people to learn in new ways?

And so, as we sort of jump into this idea about what can these technologies do for education, I'd love to sorta back it up a little bit and think from your perspective, the question we've asked every one of our guests on New View EDU. What fundamentally is the purpose of school in this moment, at this time? We know it used to always be just about sort of content and content acquisition.

And we know now that the need for wellbeing, the need for understanding the whole student is so much more important. What do you see? What drives you as you think about what the purpose of education is today or the purpose of school? Maybe I should say.

Adam Mangana: I, you know, Tim I'm, I'm gonna maybe offer one of the more contrarian positions—

Tim Fish:—I love it. That's what I love about you, Adam.

Adam Mangana: You know, I, I really wanna make ambulatory learning great again. And so here's my idea here. Here's my crazy idea. I think two of the greatest teachers that have ever lived on earth, Socrates and Jesus, they neither read nor wrote, right?

They didn't know how to read. They didn't know how to write, but yet they are revered as two of our greatest teachers. And what they did was they walked alongside the learner. Right? And I think this idea of walking alongside the learner needs to come back as we move from an industrial model where we're trying to maximize utility. Right? So I would say instead of teaching for excellence, which has occupied the minds of most politicians for the last 200 years, we need to move to a model where we're teaching for genius. And so when you're asking me, what is the purpose of education, it's to optimize human potential. And so we need to come alongside our learners.

And yes, there are timeless technologies that still have relevance. I think the great books are the best empathy machine that have ever been created. And I think they have a place. But I think the delivery model is gonna change. The checkerboard of faces that we have seen occupy zoom schools as we went into the pandemic is gonna move into a social VR platform space, and teachers are going to learn to deliver incredible instruction from wherever they are in the world.

And I think that ultimately will allow for an arbitrage to take place where folks who are tethered to a particular geography no longer have to be reliant on that geography for great access to education. If you think about the American model, which we are all very proud of, one of the limits is that it is very tethered. Your economic opportunities, your access to a great education is tethered to your zip code. And partly that's because we're funded by millage rates, right? So the real estate taxes. And partly it's because of how our country has evolved. Right. And so if we can untether ourselves from geography, I think that creates incredible opportunity for world class education to happen. 

Lastly, I will say that when you asked me the question, the first thing that popped in my mind is Augustine's quote, “The world is a novel. If you stay in one place, you've only read one chapter.” So when you ask what is education, it certainly isn't a state of standing still. And so that's why I want to make ambulatory education great again.

Tim Fish: I love ambulatory education. It reminds me, you know, of anyone who's been hanging around me very much has heard me talk about the mountain and has talked about this idea that great schools are, see themselves as mountain climbers, always on the journey, always hiking together, not static.

And this idea, I love this notion of walking together. That is a powerful concept. And I think about, when you talk about it, I think about times on my own journey, when I've connected deeply with a teacher or other learners, we've often been in this idea of journeying together in our learning. And everything that comes to my mind, however, I think about those as being in person experiences. I literally think about walking literally next to someone. And what you are talking about is we smash your idea of the great books and the classics and this understanding and this empathy, these things that seem and are very human. We smash 'em together with web 3.0 and all of a sudden it's like, wait a minute. We can unlock the journeying together in a new reality.

Adam Mangana: Amen.

Tim Fish: And for a lot of folks, this notion of wait a minute, as soon as a kid puts on a headset, like that freaks me out. Like I'm just, that wigs me out. So help me understand where the virtual world, where the virtual world in your charter school is headed and how does it help to live into the purpose of school that you described?

Adam Mangana: Yeah, no. Great question, Tim. Thank you for that. I think, you know, what is it that I know to be true that maybe others would disagree with me on? If you think about when great minds asked this question before, if you think about like, the invention of the Harkness table, there was an understanding that asynchronous learning, the books by themselves, were insufficient. That there needed to be an expert that could also facilitate conversation. And so if you look at the inevitability of online education and how it's evolved, we've had primarily, basically virtual textbooks and you learn at your own pace and you teach yourself.

And for autodidacts, that's a tremendous model, but most of us are not autodidacts. Most of us need a guide. Most of us need someone to walk alongside of us. Right? Alexander would not have been great if it weren't for Aristotle walking alongside him. And that's one of the things I think, the key insights as Exeter developed the Harkness tables, that there was a facilitator that could track contributions. Right. And so my idea of bringing education to the metaverse was rooted in how do you recreate the common courtesy of connection and the sense of presence that is hallmark in the ambulatory learning model. Right? How do you recreate that in an online delivery model? And virtual reality is obviously the best tool to do that.

And so we are, you know, we're taking Socratic discussions. We're still reading the great books as they are printed analog. We're not reading them in VR. We're not checking our email in VR, right? We're prepared, we're coming to class and we're using that time for great discussion and sense of presence.

And one of the things that we're learning is, it's very difficult to develop a sense of a student's personality. The nuances, some of the idiosyncrasies, in the checker board of faces, but in VR, you can pick up on avatar body language, for example, perspective taking, walking a mile in someone else's shoes, it's a tremendous empathy machine.

And so the conversations become richer, and that sense of connection and leveraging the classroom and your peers as your second teacher becomes more powerful. So, you know, if you think about kind of three teachers, the, the expert and the facilitator or the guide, the peer, and then the location. The other exciting thing is if you're having a discussion, you know, about the Northern Lights and the history of you know, Aurora Borealis, you can actually take the students to Northern Norway or the upper peninsulas in Canada or Alaska, and be able to experience the Northern Lights together and have conversation around that.

And so again, to be able to use place as the third teacher is a really powerful tool to enhance online education. And we're starting from that place. We're not trying to disrupt brick and mortar schools. We just saw that as the pandemic hit, there was really no best in class online education. And so we, the basic thought process was, online education is inevitable and it needs to be as excellent as our brick and mortar counterparts. And so that's what we set out to build.

Tim Fish: So that, that gets me really thinking about this idea of place. And in some of our conversations, which I, I think is so fascinating because of how the virtual space can create place. And in some of our conversations, Adam, you've spoken to me about this notion of the empathy machine. And for me, that was counterintuitive. Again, I talk about this notion of my misunderstanding or my lack of understanding, ignorance, around sort of the metaverse and the notion of connecting in a virtual space. Can you tell me a little bit about sort of some of the Martin Luther King experiences your students have had, for example, and how you've found the metaverse allows students to develop a level of empathy that's impossible to get in a physical world?

Adam Mangana: So, you know, the, just the power of place in general, this was born in rural Mississippi. So I began to do this work about seven years ago in rural Mississippi. And I started looking at some of the research that was coming out of Stanford and Jeremy N. Bailenson's work around perspective taking or walking a mile in someone else's avatar.

Right. And so trying to get a sense of how to, to bridge the gap on understanding something I think we really need today in our society, walking a mile in other folks' shoes. And I began to expose students to virtual reality applications that were designed to have people experience something that was very different from their own personal experience.

So one of the, one of the key experiences was built by a friend of mine, Dr. Derek Ham at North Carolina State, called I Am a Man. And it takes people back into 1968 Memphis from the perspective of the sanitation workers, right before the assassination of Dr. King. And that was one of the most powerful experiences because people have, in rural Mississippi, most of them have been to Memphis, and they've been to Lorraine Motel. And so they had some context and some relevance, but they've never seen tanks in the street. They've never seen picketing. They didn't see Memphis from the lens of 1968 and the hostility there, and the complexity around wages for sanitation workers. So it gave a perspective for many students that they didn't have, and couldn't fully grasp by just reading about it.

And so it was a way of extending their thinking around why the civil rights movement was such a transformational and complex time. And, and it allowed us to draw connections to some of the complexities around police brutality and policing issues today. They could see a parallel between 2018 and 1968. And so drawing those connections allowed people to more appreciate the history of our country and how far we've come, and give more context.

Tim Fish: And how does it, with, and when I'm in the virtual world, how does that increase my empathy in a way that maybe I couldn't get from just watching a video about that environment or a documentary where someone recreates that moment in history?

Adam Mangana: There are really two ways in which I think the tool itself allows for that. One, you can literally enter the avatar of somebody that has a completely different skin complexion, different life story, and be perceived in that simulation as that person. So you're walking a mile in someone else's avatar and you're able to perceive the world from their perspective. That's one way.

The other way that I think is very powerful is that when you are in a 360 experience, whether that be computer generated or photo realistic, you're seeing the entire picture. Imagine most of the media that we consume today is through the lens of a camera and it's capturing two dimensions. And so whoever is capturing that story is capturing it from the perspective that they choose to tell. Where in a 360 experience, the entire story is there. So there's an element of truth in a 360 immersive experience that cannot fully be captured in a video, two dimensional video. Where you're omitting, you know, the back half of that video.

Tim Fish: Well, you know, it's funny when I did the introduction today, I talked about 1994 and when I first plugged in the modem and got connected and went to the MTV website, I think, was the first website I ever went to. And I watched how the picture, the, the front page drew in, and it probably took two or three minutes for the front page of that website to draw in on that Netscape browser.

And I knew in that moment, I was like, the world has fundamentally changed. And if you looked at what I was looking at, it was pretty basic. Graphics were like 16 colors of gray, probably, or minimal colors. No good resolution, took forever to load. And I wonder, is the same true of the metaverse? You know, some folks who have put on, had the opportunity to explore some opportunities like you're talking about, will often see avatars where maybe the bottom half of the body's not there and the movement's quite jerky and the photorealism is not as high. What's happening with 5G connectivity, with increased computing power, with better innovation in the actual headset and so on. What are we gonna see over the next one to six years in this whole world?

Adam Mangana: First of all, I, I love your framing of, kind of, how far we've come. You know, there are few people that realize that like, the first virtual reality headset, the stereoscope, was invented in London in 1839. So, so not 1994, right. 1839. The stereoscope is invented in London. So if you think about how we, how far we've come in, almost, you know, 200 years of evolution of this idea of immersive computing. It, it will be unrecognizable to the folks who began to dream this up, you know, almost 200 years ago. 

But yeah, I, I would say that those elements, the dialup internet world, looking back on it, they were great for their time. You know, it's, it's almost like comparing basketball eras. You know, you hear people talk about Michael Jordan versus LeBron James. Michael Jordan in his era was, was the absolute best. AOL won the era that it was in. So it's, in some ways I think you're gonna see people begin to collect old hardware. You know, first Apple computers. You're already seeing that. People will probably create, you know, some type of NFT to tie value to those. But I—

Tim Fish:—I got my, my first Apple Newton sitting on my desk right to me as a paperweight.

Adam Mangana: You better keep it, my friend. You better keep it. You better keep it. So I think you're wise to keep it. And I think that you will, there'll be ways in which those things will auction for quite a, quite a bit of money as the internet evolves.

But no, I think here's an idea. Here's an idea to, to think about. People are caught up in the graphics or the resolution. But I think the fundamental idea, of the first internet of decentralizing language and shipping it at the speed of light, the new Web 3.0 value proposition is that we can now ship our monetary energy at the speed of light. This is where blockchain comes in. And right now all of that feels clunky because people are like, look, I can PayPal. I can Venmo. But they don't understand that then on the back end, that still takes three and four days to settle.

Right? So as those things are settling at the speed of light in the new internet, you're going to see people begin to create their own micro-lending businesses to emerging markets, you know, places that don't have access to capital. And you're gonna see incredible entrepreneurs come up and rise up from unsuspecting geographies. And you're gonna see hiring arbitrage at scale, where the world really is the oyster for those who are the best positioned to participate in this new economy. The negative externality is, as people are winning in this new web three space, if we don't provide access, you're gonna see, I think, rises in fundamentalism. And you see this in every industrial Revolution. Right? If you look at, we're in a fourth industrial revolution, if you track every industrial revolution, you have people who respond—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction—you have people who respond in the opposite direction.

So it's critical to me, as we're thinking about how this is evolving, that access is at the, at the, at the front of our minds. And you're right. People right now can't fully imagine what all of this technology will turn into. But I think at the base layer, it is a transformational technology because in that distributed ownership, we're gonna be able to send our monetary energy around the world at the speed of light, which means more access to a new and emerging economy. And I think that's very exciting.

Tim Fish: Very exciting. What's it gonna mean, do you think, for education? I mean, in terms of how curriculum works, how teachers really work? Are, are we gonna see more distributed teachers, freelancers who work for many organizations? Right now we're in very much of a, of an education crisis around the teacher shortage and around people who want to be teachers and what it means to be a teacher. You know, do you think that some of this technology is gonna impact the way we even think about how education works from a talent perspective?

Adam Mangana: Yes. Yeah, no, this is, this is really, really a helpful thought process. I think, you know, that that thesis that we began with, which is, if teaching is about maximizing utility, I think we're gonna lose, right. I think if it's about maximizing human potential and going alongside a learner for life, I think that's, that's the model that wins.

And so I think teachers become even more important in the future. And I think there's this dystopian view that we're gonna buy, you know, a physics teacher on Amazon for $79.99. And it'll be some kind of avatar that's powered by AI. I don't think that that's the future that I imagine. I think that I imagine a more entrepreneurial teacher who owns more of their own content and approach and delivery. I also imagine that we will decouple some of the daycare component of school, and we will pump in really great teachers at scale. And so teachers who can impact larger amounts of students will have more opportunity, I believe, in the future, leveraging some of this technology. 

We've already seen signs of it in some of the Eastern countries, in Singapore and Korea, where teachers have become and built businesses around their own expertise and scaled themselves. I think the Web 3.0 world allows teachers to scale themselves in a way that's very different. And so I would say that there will be more entrepreneurial teachers in the future, but domain expertise will be even more at a premium. And the ability to really know your stuff, and really be able to distribute your knowledge in a way that brings value to those who are consuming that knowledge, I think is gonna be more at a premium. 

So I actually have another contrarian view here, which is, the teacher centered approach will be more valued in the future than it is today.

Tim Fish: Oh, tell me more about that, because so much of what we've been talking about is that student-centered approach. This idea that I often call the power of getting out of the way, designing the essential nature of structure, the essential nature of that designed experience. And then once that experience is designed, giving as much agency back to the learner as possible.

So, how do you think the teacher centered element is gonna, is gonna increase in the future?

Adam Mangana: You know, think about the idea of—and this is a very un-flushed-out idea, but people can recognize the basic concept here, the idea of the masterclass, right. If we wanna learn how to shoot a three pointer, right? Will you buy my three point shooting class, or will you buy Steph Curry's three point shooting class?

Tim Fish: Well, Adam, I do love you, but I'm, I don't know that I'd buy yours.

Adam Mangana: That's exactly right. That's exactly right. And so, what does that mean? Is that technology will allow domain experts and those who have proven ability to scale themselves in the future in ways that prior to this technology, they could not as easily, right? With a two dimensional, like if you were watching Steph on a VHS, you might like that. But if Steph can be present with you in the metaverse, looking at your elbow and, and coaching you up, you're signing up for that. And so, you know, some of the greatest teachers in the independent school world are going to impact students beyond their geography. And I think that's an inevitability and that's exciting, because we, we happen to, in the independent school world, over index on incredible teachers, and many of them are committed to serving students who may not be able to afford some of the schools that they're working at. And so you're gonna see an entrepreneurial bent within that world that will allow for more access, which I think is exciting. And there will be details that have to be worked out, right? This isn't just an easy transition here, Tim.

I'm not, it's not all rainbows and, and, and butterflies, but, it is, it is exciting. It is an access play. It could be disruptive to those who are trying to centralize access to great education. But those who kind of understand that this is not about centralization, but this is about distribution and distributed access, those people will win in the next 10 to 20, 20 years.

Tim Fish: Yeah. You know, that's, I think one of the things that is so interesting to me is I think there's a lot of schools right now that are thinking about fundamentally, what does the business model of independent school look like? You know, what do we do really well? Is we, we, I always say we climb into the messiness of kids' lives.

That's what our schools do incredibly well. We see the whole child, we value and hear the whole child. We design around their needs. It's a very personalized and very human experience. And one of the challenges of that, that we've seen, is that it creates a cost structure that limits access. And we are trying, I think desperately, many schools are saying, we want to be able to share the impact that we have figured out how to, our model, our method has transformative impact on young people. How could we take that beyond the 350 kids that are coming to us every day on this campus? 

And what I'm hearing from you is that if we think outside that box a little. If we think about what the daily experience might look like, we might be able to, in fact, take this magic that we find on every campus I visit. I'm not kidding you. I get on a campus. And I'm like, this place is amazing. These people are amazing individuals who are committed to young people. And then, and then when I get into the head of school's office and we're sitting there talking, we're like, woo, we got some challenges that we're facing in the next 10 years. And I think that's the issue that many of our schools are facing. 

So how, like let's click in on that a little bit. How does thinking about web three, thinking about the metaverse, thinking about leveraging new technologies, and holding onto what has always made us so special, how does that open the doors for us to create access for more young people? And how are you doing it today in your virtual reality charter school?

Adam Mangana: Oh, this is, this is a tremendous question, Tim. First and foremost, I think, you know I, I mentioned the most entrepreneurial teachers will win, but I think the most entrepreneurial schools will collect the most entrepreneurial teachers and ultimately win. So, so independent schools still have a huge advantage. And, and do I say like a durable, competitive advantage because they are lean and they move quickly and they are able to adjust to the market in ways in which larger districts can't. So I'm very bullish on the independent school world. This is not in any way a criticism of the business model.

But I do think many of my smartest head friends are saying, Hmm, Adam, how do I leverage virtual reality to expand access? I, I had a great conversation with a head who was thinking about, you know, creating a digital twin of his campus and expanding enrollment through a virtual offering. And so, you know, we kind of joked, you know, that it was the Peloton model, right? So people have different level of, of, of access. 

The other thing that I think we'll see is we'll see some, some cooperation amongst independent schools, because I think we'll see that more families are gonna wanna live a more mobile lifestyle, that they're not tethered to a specific geography. And so you'll start to see consortiums where people are paying a tuition, but accessing many different physical spaces, both virtual, and. So there's gonna be this kind of tri-brid approach, not hybrid, a tri-brid approach—

Tim Fish: Tri-brid! First time I've heard that word.

Adam Mangana: There's gonna be a tri-brid deal where you're gonna start to see schools partnering together and capturing families that are moving around the world and having a world class education. And I think part of that bridge between the physical geography will be this virtual, immersive virtual campus that they can touch while they're in that space.

I also think that from a diversity equity and inclusion perspective, there will be all types of opportunities to put your money where your mouth is in terms of access, because a virtual campus will hack the cost of some of the delivery of excellent content and excellent access to faculty. So you're gonna begin to see schools working to expand. And Tim, our charter school is where my own children go to school. It's a very important element of what we do. It's, it's kind of the non-profit end of, of the for-profit business that I run. But the business that I run is whitelabeling our virtual reality platform for schools to have a…on path, you know, an on ramp into web three and into the metaverse. So there are many people that are reaching out across the independent school world that are saying, how do we do a pilot where we can begin to have great virtual instruction? And how do we begin to look at this as an access move?

And most of them are driven by this idea that we'd like to see students get access to the talent that we have within our community, regardless of if they can not only afford the school, but really the geography that's attached to the school. That's the real challenge, right? Independent schools have always thought about ways in which they could open the door to folks, but oftentimes they're in a, a neighborhood or in a community or in a geography that is very inconvenient from an access perspective. You gotta bus people or, or get people to drive for an hour to get to them. And so this allows people to stay in their community, but get access to great people. And that hacking of time and space is a very unique way to get at some of the access issues that have been pervasive in independent schools.

Tim Fish: Well, that's, you know, Adam, it, it reminds me of what you and I have talked about. When I first started this conversation, I was thinking, virtual reality charter school. And my sense was kids putting on a headset for eight hours a day. And I thought that doesn't feel right. And what I really quickly came to understand is how your design leverages the power of virtual reality connection when essential. And you also do an awful lot in the analog. And in your own life, where you live, with your kids, you are living that balance of immersive environment experience with an analog experience that goes along with it.

Can you speak a little bit to that notion of the importance of balance? Right? That while the tech is powerful, it's not everything.

Adam Mangana: So, you know, your listeners may or not realize I live on a farm in rural Mississippi. I live on a 21 acre farm. And so some of this is really driven by my own selfishness. My, my wife and I had incredible privilege. Had the incredible privilege to, to be educated at some of the best universities in the world. We met at Brown. And then I'm a graduate of the Vanderbilt ISL program. And so, you know, we've had incredible access. And we've been in geographies that have had tremendous, tremendous resources around education. Providence, and then of course, Nashville at Vanderbilt. 

My children are growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, right outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. And there are no real independent schools at all there. And so I had to create what I knew to be an excellent educational model. And I had to do that in a way that would give them access to teachers that would be unwilling to live in rural Mississippi. And so, you know, part of this design was to be able to solve my own challenge.

And the other thing is when we look at this, this model right here, this, this rectangle of glass and, and, you know, this particular technology is far more addictive actually than virtual reality. So if you think about a lot of iPad use, parents have been fighting, trying to get their children off iPads. I never have a problem with my children after school getting back on technology because they've had their fill. There's still friction in the headset, right. It's heavy. We only do 30 minute increments and we do, you know, four or five 30 minute classes throughout a period from eight to 12. And so the thing that I've loved from the feedback I've gotten from parents is, their child is wanting to go outside afterwards. Their child might, you know, be able to label the parts of a plant in VR, and then they go outside and try to find a plant and say, oh, that's the xylem, that's the phloem. And so it's really helped students to more appreciate what is real. What is, as we would say in classical education, true, good and beautiful. Right. Those are the things that students have more appreciated. And I think that that's, that's the design. I wanna make learning more efficient so that people have their time back. 

The other side of that equation is the teachers. Our teachers really have loved to be able to get to know students' personalities. I've never met a teacher who's like, I absolutely love Zoom school. I absolutely love teaching on Zoom. Zoom was engineered as a conference call. You wouldn't have eight hours of conference calls every day. You know, that's not a—that's, even executives. I mean, you think about ambulatory learning, right? Steve Jobs was famous for bringing people to his home and walking them around for meetings. Right? You would not have eight hours of conference calls, even as an adult. So we shouldn't do that in schools. We wanna make learning more efficient. We wanna see a future where people can have their time back. And that's really what we've been able to hack, is creating a model where students can get a really powerful and substantive education without some of the inefficiencies of the industrial age model.

Tim Fish: Yeah. What are you all seeing with research on what happens to learning in a virtual reality space? You know, one of the things you and I have talked about is limited distractions. You know, that you really can't be doing other things because you're in an immersive environment. Has there been research done about the efficacy of that as a learning platform, in terms of students gaining greater understanding?

Adam Mangana: Yes, absolutely. So you know, there haven't been a lot of longitudinal studies, but the ones that I would point our listeners to are coming out of Stanford and Jeremy Bailenson's work. I would also have anyone who is interested look at our white paper. We did, two years up until the launch of the school, we did a pilot with Pomona, California, their school district there. And we were teaching, you know, California standards, and we were doing that alongside a more, quote, “traditional” virtual instruction provider. And what we found is, compared to Zoom school, students learn things twice as fast, retain them twice as long, in our own white paper.

Jeremy Bailenson has even more impressive numbers from the research that he's done at Stanford in terms of retention. And so, you know, there have not been as many studies comparing brick and mortar to virtual reality. And we're gonna be part of a federal EIR grant, hopefully this fall, that will allow us to deploy in a brick and mortar setting. But compared to virtual learning, it's, it's head and shoulders above. And that's, for most people, they can understand logically that zoom school was not gonna be a good option. And so, virtual reality is the superior delivery model for online education. There's no question about that. There is some question about how to best use that in the context of an eight hour brick and mortar school day.

And I would argue that, if you have an opportunity to have a Socratic discussion, you don't need to have everyone in a virtual reality headset to have a Socratic discussion. But if you're trying to save time or save money or, or hack time and space or travel, it's an incredible tool. So for example you know, if we're thinking about giving access to students across the country to be able to travel around the world, to get a more global perspective. There're just limits to being able to afford that. There are limits to being able to, to navigate the current health environment, right, around the pandemics we're seeing, coming up across the world. And so virtual reality is a great way to still provide perspective and a sense of place and access at a much cheaper cost than it would to – not only a financial cost, but a cost to our environment. Right? In terms of carbon footprint, it allows children to be able to have access to places that they wouldn't otherwise have.

Tim Fish: Yeah. You know, it's amazing, when you and I were together in a virtual reality environment that you facilitated with a bunch of other ed tech leaders, and I got the chance to spend some time with you in that space, we traveled to Greece. And we went to the Acropolis and we stood up on top of the hill and, and I, that, that notion of that immersive experience in that photorealistic 3d environment, I feel like I, if I went back now and stood in the same place, I would really know what it looked like and felt like in a way that's quite different than if I had watched a video or looked at images of it. And I think that there's that notion again, back to what we often talk about, that notion of agency, that I had to control to be able to look where I wanted to look, to be able to examine what I wanted to examine, which I think changes the way that I engage with that environment. Right. I'm not, I'm not being dictated by the camera that someone else has.

You know, Adam, this, man, we could talk all day. What a great conversation. You know, we end each of our episodes with a question. What do you hope? When you look out on the next decade? Real broadly, you clearly are an expert in education as much as you are someone who is an expert in technology. And thinking about what learning looks like and what learning design can look like, what are your hopes for education for the next 10 years for young people?

Adam Mangana: Well, I, I'm incredibly bullish on the future of education and I'm really excited. And that hope really brings us back to our initial question, right? I wanna make ambulatory learning great again. And what that means, it's symbolic, right? It's that we are walking alongside our learner. And that we are teaching for genius instead of teaching for excellence. And I, I allow for the fact that there's gonna be some bumps and bruises along the way. But to quote one of our Stoics, you know, Epictetus says we must focus on what we can control, and there's so many good people out there that are focused on relationships and solving for some of the biggest challenges that are externalities from what has happened in the pandemic, that we lost a generation of children. Some, we don't even know where they are. Others, we've seen rises in mental health issues. Right. And so our role in the next 10 years and beyond is to create a model where the relationship, right. I mentioned Aristotle and Alexander the Great. The relationship is at the center. And if we can create that relationship and that sense of connection and accountability with our student and with our teacher, I think that will allow for teachers to be valued again in our society. I think that's, that's my hope.

And I think this technology allows for us to rethink that dynamic and position our teachers, our very best teachers to be back where they belong, as a critical element of human flourishing.

Tim Fish: I love it. I love it. Teaching for genius, more than excellence. Walking alongside our learner. That's, I think, a key, key element that we've been getting at, is this idea that this partnership, this deep learning partnership that we have. The essential role of the learning. I love your notion of the three pieces, the idea of a learner, the idea of the teacher, and the idea of the environment. And what can we be doing to innovate on all three of those to ensure, and to create, the best possible learning experience for young people? And for our, for our whole team at the school, for our entire community?

What a great conversation. Adam, thank you so much for spending time with us. I'm sure this is gonna be something that our listeners are really going to enjoy. You've helped me, as you always do, understand, get a little better understanding of what might be coming both technically, but also what's possible from a learning perspective.

So I am, as always, deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to spend some time with you.

Adam Mangana: Tim, thank you so much for having me. I'm so impressed with the work that you're doing and we're grateful for your leadership at the National Association. Thank you.

Tim Fish: Thank you.