Co-authored by Hannah Murdoch
USV’s education portfolio is built around the idea of changing a system from the outside in. By going directly to learners with products and platforms that offer high quality experiences for free or at accessible price points, companies like Duolingo, Quizlet, Outschool, Codecademy, and Skillshare are evolving the learning landscape and expanding access. But the chance to reinvent what school itself means has been a hole we’ve been eager to fill with a model we believe in. This made us particularly excited when our colleague Hanel found out about Sora on Twitter, eventually resulting in us leading the seed round.
Our investment in Sora is predicated on three hypotheses:
- For most students in America, the option on the table for high school is a default, not a choice. For some this works, but for others it serves to convince them that they are not made for school when the truth is that traditional modes of learning weren’t made for them.
- It is possible to build a significant alternative — a network-driven high school that is highly scalable while maintaining superior quality of experience for the students.
- In learning, joy creates results.
Sora puts high school students in the drivers’ seats of their own development with a remote-first, network-based model. Through a combination of small social pods, self-directed projects, and student-run organizations, high schoolers shape their academic and extracurricular experience, as well as the governance of the school. Instead of tests and assessments, high schoolers prove what they know by what they can do – code a video game, wire a miniature greenhouse, or produce a paid ad spot for a company. Students are encouraged to lean into subjects that speak to them and build a project portfolio in the disciplines where they’re most excited. With this new found autonomy over their learning experience, comments like “I’m not good at numbers” most often reveal a slightly different truth – “I’m not interested in math when it isn’t presented in a context relevant to me”. Periodically, industry professionals drop-in to lead group work in multi-week sprints, such as presenting climate change mitigation plans to faculty at UNC or reflecting on ethical dilemmas in written history.
Staff ensure project work is completed on time, with rigor and academic breadth. Over time, Sora students hit all of the traditional curriculum milestones essential for high school graduation, in a more tactile, self-directed manner and without exams as a benchmark of their mastery or creativity. Even in these early days, Sora is wrapping up the final stages of accreditation and is part of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, meaning students graduate with a transcript easily understood by colleges if they choose to pursue that path.
Outside of academics, students actively shape the social infrastructure of the school. They aren’t participants in the program, they are builders of all parts of it. Students create and lead all clubs and organizations at Sora. Roadmap Club is a hallmark of the experience – a weekly forum run on Zoom where students give direct feedback on school policies, suggest changes, and play a role in building the institution’s future.
Research suggests that this approach works. Students who experience autonomous and creative learning environments do a better job retaining information for the long-term. Project-based learning (PBL) more closely mirrors the skills students use in the workforce, and teaches self-directed habits that pay off inside and outside of the classroom. It’s also a solution parents, students, and educators are looking for – 68% of teachers say project-based assignments are a good measure of student learning, in contrast to the 12% who feel this way about standardized tests. Fewer than 20% of parents say memorizing facts & definitions is ‘very important’ to success and only 4% would include ‘scoring well on standardized tests’ among their students’ most important learning outcomes. Students agree – nearly two-thirds think they spend too little time working on projects or assignments that can be used in the real world.
In the past, the time and personalization required to make project-based learning successful has confined this approach to only the best-resourced communities. Consistent with our thesis around broadening access, Sora brings a leading educational approach to students in any zip code, and for a more affordable price than most options – with an eye toward driving it down to $0.
Since March, founders Garrett, Wesley, and Indra have led Sora through a 5x increase in enrollment. The school is working with students across the country and the team is even fielding requests from families internationally. Industry mentors from companies such as Apple and Walmart have joined to give students a first-hand look at career paths of interest to them.
Sora is a bold swing towards a new type of school: a network-driven learning platform that is individualized to each student. We are excited to be a part of it as they continue the work to expand what education can mean.