The Future of Sora
How the School Applies Feedback as it Looks to Expand
by Ciara Sejour
Three Georgia Tech alumni sat in a room, all equally disillusioned by the American school system. So they pondered about what the school of the future would look like. It was fun to think about the things that would have made their school experience more valuable. They bounced some ideas off of each other. "Where would it be?" “What would the classes look like?" "How can we distinguish it from the status quo?" They spent quite some time pondering this, writing down ideas, creating visions, and questioning everything. These three Georgia Tech alums were named Garrett, Indra, and Wesley, and 2019 marked the year their vision turned into a reality.
Since Sora’s founding, its core value of feedback integration has greatly improved its systems. As with any company or program, there’s always the question of what’s next. In the case of Sora, the co-founders have voiced their interest in expansion and real-world opportunities. Sora must consider some limitations when preparing for the future. In the case of Sora, being a virtual school provides barriers in itself, and students have said that the online aspect of Sora has its pros and cons. Nevertheless, Sora looks to continue onwards with its vision to improve education.
The Current Student and Faculty Experience
Landon Dickey, a current Athena Campus student, recalls her school experience before attending her first year of Sora. "Bretford [previous school] was a very conservative, very accelerated school," she says. Dickey thought that her “thought process didn’t fit in.”
Her current Sora experience contrasts this.
Based on the past few months at Sora, Dickey has seen a significant difference in Sora’s school environment compared to Bretford.
"Sora has a great open environment, where I don't feel like I have to fit into stereotypes," she says. Additionally, at Sora, she finds the way students learn match her personal learning style.
Sol Brown, another first-year Athena student, describes their prior school experience as “crazy.” They say that most teachers and students didn't want to at the school and that there were "constant fights" and vaping in the bathrooms.
Similar to Dickey, Brown describes Sora in a different light.
Janna Privette, a first-year faculty member and house advisor for the Prism house, worked as a teacher in an online environment before teaching at Sora.
Privette’s previous role was as a science teacher, where she taught over 200 students at one time. In her previous online school, Privette said she found it hard to implement the project-based learning and personalized feedback approach that Sora implements now. Since the number of students in each expedition at Sora is small, Privette says she doesn't worry about compromising to balance these things.
Brown sees a difference in how the students and faculty act at Sora, stating that the “kids are nicer, and the experts actually want to be here.” Brown also likes how experts really understand the topics they’re teaching, making the learning experience better.
Privette cites small class sizes as a reason for her positive experience at Sora. Above is a screenshot of expedition class meeting. Image credit: Kirstyn Moore
Sora has been a game-changer for many students and faculty. However, challenges arise as students and faculty adjust to Sora, a novel experience for many.
For example, Dickey says that “[she] hasn’t gotten to the rhythm of balancing social life and school.” She says that she would like to see more extracurricular opportunities to hang out with students.
Similarly, Brown laments the lack of opportunities to meet people in person, a downside to online school. These tension points have been addressed with the addition of new extracurricular and social activities.
Reduced student interaction isn't the only issue that Sora faces as an online school. Sora must quickly scale to serve an expanding, increasingly diverse student population; this means frequent iteration and revision of policies, procedures, and curriculum.
Sora does not look like a traditional school, but it abides by the state's high school diploma requirements, so some flexibility is lost.
Feedback continues to be a core way that Sora tackles these issues.
Feedback: A Core Sora Value
Sora’s system highly values collecting and implementing student and faculty feedback.
Sora is a flexible system and is not perfect. Sora constantly changes, from its communication platform Heartbeat to its learning management system Sora Home to the expeditions it offers.
Indra Sofian, co-founder and former head of growth at Sora, says that "when we make these changes we try to make them at the beginning of a cycle or at the end of a cycle so we're not disrupting the flow for students and faculty." In the past, as Sofian says, there used to be iterations to Sora on a weekly basis and they eventually realized that there are “there are trade-offs and risks with iterating on feedback too fast.”
Since there are multiple sources of feedback, from students, faculty, families, and the systems themselves, it’s important to prioritize.
Wesley Samples, co-founder, and Chief Operating Officer at Sora explains the different ways Sora applies feedback: "Let's pressure-test all of these systems, what breaks first?" and “Does this make sense, or is this right for students?"
Samples wants to “pressure-test all of these systems,” such as the smart registration product update, to determine what most needs work. Samples says that recently, they’ve been working to pressure-test the registration system to see how many users it can handle at a time.
One of the ways Sora knows what’s right for students is by working with students throughout the feedback process.
Samples says increased student engagement is a possible improvement to the feedback system: "I would actually love to have some level of student participation at higher leadership levels."
Sora has already implemented student roadmap clubs where students can give feedback on their experiences at Sora and relay this to the administration/others working at Sora. House leadership is also another example of student engagement with staff at Sora.
In the past few years, Sora has introduced new campuses, faculty, and students, and since its founding, it has also raised 23.5 million dollars. Expansion is one of Sora’s top overarching priorities and remains top of mind for Sofian.
"Sora as a global school system is definitely on the horizon for 5 years…Students can really benefit from having access to a global population."
Indra Sofian, co-founder
Even now, Sora is looking to expand. In a recent interview on the podcast “Zanichelli Venture,” a leading textbook publisher, Garret Smiley, co-founder, and Chief Executive Officer of Sora said that Sora will be opening up many new spots for students on their waiting list.
As the school itself grows, options for students grow with it. Sofian thinks that expanding expeditions can be one of those options.
"As the school grows, we get more and more types of expeditions, and they can be more niche, specialized, and deep,” he says. "Instead of being more generalized to serve a small population of students, we can have so many different kinds of deep dives into different subject areas and fields."
Recently with the introduction of roundtable discussions for students this year, students in the Prism house, for example, were encouraged to think of expeditions they would love to be offered in their time at Sora.
Most recently, Zack Boboth, an Athena campus expert, started an initiative to allow students to generate ideas for future expeditions. The top student-voted ideas were selected, and students were allowed to expand on those ideas further in a brainstorming session.
Expeditions aren’t the only way Sora looks to accommodate more students.
While Sora is an online school, they haven’t ruled out the idea of having in-person options. In fact, Sofian mentions that he “would like to have some level of in-person experiences as well, something where you can have some sort of periodic physical interactions with other students.”
The images above represent the results of a student-led brainstorming session focused on creating new expeditions.
Sora has opened up some in-person options for students living in Georgia and has introduced signature experiences (think field trips) for students at Sora. This is a great way of exposing students to real-world experiences, but another way is by teaching students specific skills needed to succeed in the real world.
Samples considers the future of higher education (college/post-high-school) and alternative opportunities for students. He says that higher-ed is trending downward and now companies like Google are offering virtual training programs for people to learn the skills necessary to go into the workplace without the traditional college experience. Virtual training programs are a path for getting into the workforce as the programs are gaining popularity. Samples is interested in seeing how Sora fits into that dynamic.
Samples expressed interest in teaching students the skills necessary to work closely with the Sora product team. He thinks that to help with teaching the right skills needed to work closer with Sora’s team, "we can teach [Sora students] some design skills, or ways to actually do research.”
Currently Sora offers ways for students to demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills through internships with outside organizations, Independent Study Projects, and Independent Experiential Experiences.
Sora has created a system that until only a few years ago wasn't thought to be possible. Sora improves this system every day by implementing student and faculty feedback. Sora aspires to expand its student body, expeditions, and overall opportunities.