Optima Academy Online Logo

A School Without Limits: Young Patients Travel Far to Learn Without Leaving Their Bedside

Published by Stanford Medicine Children’s Health on August 23, 2023 by

Illness and hospitalization can lead to a loss of school days and education for children, and it can create social and learning challenges due to prolonged or intermittent absences from school. Fortunately, at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, young patients have been able to stay on track in the Hospital School, where the doors have been open since 1924. But attending the Hospital School is not possible for every hospitalized child—some are too ill or immunocompromised to learn in person with their Packard Children’s peers.

For those patients, virtual reality (VR) lessons at the bedside brighten their school day and are another educational tool to enable deeper learning and allow students to experience the world beyond the classroom walls—like learning about the solar system as they virtually fly past Saturn’s moons without ever leaving the comfort of their bed. The VR lessons are part of the Immersive Technology Education program launched by the Stanford CHARIOT program, an internationally recognized group from mixed subspecialties that uses immersive technology, including virtual reality, to reduce anxiety and pain in pediatric patients and improve their well-being.


Faith Collins takes Israel Rangel-Narvaez, 10, on a virtual safari to teach him about the differences between African and Asian elephants.

In collaboration with the hospital teachers accredited by the Palo Alto Unified School District, Faith Collins, a former elementary school teacher, visits up to 10 student patients from ages 8 to 18 every school day, providing an hour of supplemental instruction with VR headsets. Collins loads her virtual reality devices with math, science, and history lessons and leads children on cognitive field trips far away from their hospital room. As the Stanford Medicine Children’s Health CHARIOT program educational technology coordinator, she spends time with each patient to tailor an education plan, which could be about ancient civilizations or animal adaptations, for example. “All of a sudden, you see a spark in their eye and the curiosity to learn more begins,” she says.

For one patient, Collins fitted a VR headset around the student’s head, placed a remote VR controller with a series of buttons in each hand, and launched a science program where they could explore different environments, all from their bedside. Within moments, the student was gazing at the northern lights. The child gasped with delight as they looked up at the wide-open Alaskan night sky.

“In our metaverse classrooms, there’s no such thing as a standard school day,” says Collins. “VR class makes learning feel like an adventure, no matter how limited the young patient’s world is inside the hospital. We were able to discuss the water cycle from the foot of the world’s tallest waterfall.”

Each time Collins brings a headset to the bedside of a sick child, she also brings a sense of normalcy. “Keeping up with schoolwork and maintaining the everyday activity of going to school gives hospitalized kids a reassuring sense of routine,” says Collins. “Parents tell me a VR lesson is the first time they’ve seen their child smile in a long time.”

Studying in groups

While most teachers prepared for this school year on campus, Collins trained online with VR education experts from OptimaEd on how to bring groups of students into a virtual setting. In a jungle, she teaches her patients virtual math skills on a whiteboard, and the classmates can solve the equations together, just as if they were in a classroom at home.

“In the metaverse classroom, hospitalized students feel safe because they remain anonymous and can create their own computer-generated character, or avatar, and look however they want. A patient undergoing chemotherapy who has lost their hair may give their avatar a wild hairdo,” Collins says. “You pop on a headset, and you have your long, blue flowing hair or your purple mohawk, and you’re floating above the Eiffel Tower, and you forget that you’re in a hospital bed.”

Learning as a part of healing   

In addition to working with students this fall, Collins is conducting a study with the CHARIOT research team to measure the impact of educational VR on a child’s hospital stay compared with a typical day without learning. The aim is that someday all hospitalized patients will have access to the educational, emotional, and social benefits of school, with the assist of virtual reality. “We know that children thrive while learning,” says Thomas Caruso, MD, PhDpediatric anesthesiologist at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health and co-director of the Stanford CHARIOT program. “It improves their wellness, and we want children to heal both physically and emotionally.”

As the Hospital School opens its doors this academic year, Dr. Caruso is thrilled to see the VR lessons as part of patients’ curricula and an additional resource tool for the teachers to optimize their academic mission. “Accelerating programs that are already in place at the hospital with novel immersive technologies is another part of the healing process for each of our young patients,” he says, “so they can stay on top of schoolwork and reap the cognitive, psychological, and social benefits.”