Building Community in Online Learning: Our Secrets

Distance learning doesn’t have to be a drag. Here’s how Prisma creates a community-centered online learning environment.

Prisma Staff
February 28, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

Distance learning doesn’t have to be a drag. Here’s how Prisma creates a community-centered online learning environment.

We’ve all been on a pandemic Zoom webinar with dozens of rectangles filling the screen. Half are blank. Some contain an empty chair. A few show participants nodding along to the sound of the presenter’s voice. Others reveal participants who are clearly multitasking, their eyes focused somewhere else. When we log out of the session, it’s unlikely that we ever think about the other rectangles again.

Any online classroom at Prisma, however, looks completely different. The rectangles are full of the animated faces of a small cohort exchanging ideas with one another and their coach, sharing words of support, dropping jokes in the chat, complimenting a friend on a new hairstyle, greeting each other’s siblings or pets as they meander on camera — in short, behaving like a close-knit community.

How does Prisma contrast so dramatically from other online learning communities?  To start, we founded Prisma on the idea that technology can be used to make education more connected, not to “compensate” for the physical distance between participants. The idea is not to use tools to recreate the traditional classroom. That approach will always lead to results that feel lacking.

Instead, we started by envisioning our ideal learning experience — a school that prepares learners for a rapidly changing world — and  use what’s best about technology to bring it to life.

If there were a recipe for how to foster a strong sense of community in online learning, we’d say it comes down to being very intentional about each part of the community — learners, coaches and parents. Then, with those ingredients in place, it’s all about programming — both academic and extracurricular — that brings them together in a safe space where the magic can happen.

How online learners help build community

A community is only as strong as its members make it. There are so many reasons people want to attend online school, and not all of them are compatible with community building. If an online student is only interested in getting school done as fast as possible and avoid synchronous learning, they aren’t going to be a good fit for Prisma.

In the admissions process, when we look for families to join Prisma, we’re open about the fact that we are a “camera-on” community, where we all get to know one another. We look for kids — and families — who are excited about bonding with a small group as they build a collaborative learning environment that extends to the broader community of Prismarians (the name created by our first cohort in Fall 2020).

Learners also feel a sense of belonging to the larger community; the day you join, you are a Prismarian. It’s a deeply felt identity and, as it evolves with each new cohort, we’re intentional that it continues to reflect our core mission.

How does it happen? First, our classrooms are infused with a lot of laughter. James McManus, High School Coach & Curriculum Designer explains, “Rituals that involve everyone are key — silly rituals, dad jokes, call and responses. These inside jokes become a language that allow the entire cohort to be ‘in the know’ and feel a sense of community.”

This inclusive, spirited vibe is paired with a sincere sense of care and appreciation. In the words of Middle School Learning Coach Cindy Wong, “We acknowledge each other and affirm one another to highlight the positives. This makes it easy to remember that the cohort is a safe space to feel recognized and gain a sense of belonging.”


How learning coaches help build community

We believe in student-led learning, which means our teachers are coaches who inspire growth rather than dictate a path. Coaches work one-on-one with students, but they also serve as a hub to facilitate student interaction, fostering a collaborative, cooperative atmosphere.

When we hire coaches — and we only hire around 1% of applicants — we look for educators who are really great at building relationships with individual learners and then with learners as a collective.

This is how Claire Cummings, Head of Middle School, envisions the learner-coach relationship:

“Prisma coaches spend a great deal of time getting to know learners as people. They ask about the interesting poster in their background. They keep track of when the softball tournaments and music showcases occur and then follow up to ask how they went. They know how many pets every learner has and even their names! Spending this time to get to know each kid as an individual goes a long way toward building community and trust. And it just makes everything so much more fun!”

Each coach leads a single cohort of no more than 22 students that stays together throughout the week, which turns the experience into a “one-room schoolhouse.” Rather than have kids attend many different online courses with different groups, each cohort develops a profound sense of connectedness by spending so much time together consistently — over the course of the school year and, ideally, for multiple years at Prisma. We want and expect each cohort to be its own micro-culture, with its own rituals, dynamics and inside jokes.

Middle School Learning Coach Gwyn Gaafary describes a few of the many rituals that make  her cohort feel like a community:

“We give frequent ‘desk tours’ of our workspace. We do quotes of the week, and everyone thinks of ways to contribute to the most popular one. We often all dress comfy to our Stand Up and call ourselves ‘The Comfy Cohort.’ Every day one learner reads the ‘Prisma Ready Rituals’ in a goofy voice. One student gives us a joke of the day.”

Part of the intentional design of Prisma is how we bring the individual coaches and learners together to form the cohort: We look for diversity, in terms of where the kids are coming from. We even have mixed age cohorts. Within these parameters, we also strive for a good personality blend among the kids — and a good match with the coach. Looking at each learner, we think about which one of our coaches and cohorts would be the best fit for them and for the family.

How parents help build community

If learners and coaches are the puzzle pieces of community, parents are the frame that lends support and structure. We facilitate that role by helping parents stay connected with one another in active social media groups where they share information, and plan in-person meetups, including group vacations and field trips.

They also attend our virtual events, from expert guest speakers who address parenting topics of interest to in-house discussions, where we review the curriculum and host breakouts to help problem-solve common homeschooling challenges.

But parents don’t just stay on the sidelines: In addition to being invited guests to our Collaborative Problem Solving workshops and end-of-cycle Expo Days, we have parents serve as guest speakers for cycles and run special workshops.

Parents and coaches form a partnership in supporting their kids’ education: they keep close contact through ClassDojo where they can communicate regularly, in between their parent-coach conferences, held every 12 weeks.

How our programming builds a classroom community

Course content and design

In some virtual schools, all of the course materials and coursework are designed to be completed asynchronously — which makes it nearly impossible to create a community.

Prisma’s educational model centers around daily, live online classes (ninety minutes or more  in the virtual classroom). That time is interactive, with high student engagement: In these face-to-face workshops, student learning is supported by group work, with an emphasis on collaborative problem solving and peer feedback.

Here’s what Emily Veno, Head of Learning Innovation, has to say about curriculum design at Prisma:

"One of our curriculum team's core values is ‘Learning happens in community.’ By this we mean that it's not just more fun to learn with people you care about, it's more effective! We want every learner to have a community of peers that motivates them to do their best, pushes their thinking into new directions, and exposes them to new perspectives. We infuse these ideas throughout our curriculum: from projects where kids work in groups to design inventions and businesses, to workshops where they team up to solve historical mysteries, to Expo Days where they celebrate each others' progress!"

We recognize that being a productive member of an online community is a learning process, so our curriculum includes lessons on student interaction. In our Collaborative Problem Solving workshop, we teach kids how to work together, how to divide responsibilities or tasks among a group, and how to resolve disagreements and conflicts.

There's also one workshop every day — Stand Up — where the number one purpose is social interaction. As the group gets to know one another through icebreakers, we explicitly teach the skills necessary to develop social presence and contribute productively to online discussion:

  1. How do you work in a group?
  2. How do you share time in a group discussion?
  3. How do you actively listen?
  4. How do you give and take constructive feedback?

Peer feedback is a central pillar to our workshop design. In addition to the feedback they get from their coach, the cohort is actively engaged in supporting one another’s learning at every stage, from the brainstorming all the way to the celebratory Expo Day where students’ successes are center stage. Being part of a learning community motivates the students, inspiring everyone to give their collective best. At the end of the day, our mission is for the kids to learn, and we think they learn better in community.

Extracurricular activities

For kids to be prepared for the future, they need to be excited about learning. If you’re having fun with friends, that’s the ideal foundation for deep learning and engagement.

It all starts from our week-long community building orientation, where kids learn the ropes of Prisma and start to make new friends. (At the end of orientation, we check in with them to make sure they’ve connected with at least one fellow Prismarian — and help facilitate connections if needed.)

That’s why we put a strong emphasis on extracurricular activities: virtual clubs that are learner-led and based around topics of interest, such as nature or Dungeons & Dragons; and coached enrichment activities that are deeper dives into areas like cooking or business. These activities — as well as school-wide, expert-led events — strengthen bonds across cohorts.

Prismarians also have opportunities to participate in many of the fun, traditional school experiences, from dances to a “100 days” party, spirit week and yearbooks. Prismarians also have virtual spaces in which to hang out, such as our offline discussion forums where kids can safely chat, using channels on different topics of interest, posting shout outs and working collaboratively (under the supervision of a coach).

For Middle School Learning Coach Kimberly Harlan, the ways her cohort bonds outside the classroom enhances the learning environment: “My cohort has a dedicated photographer, and we use their images to assemble a book with inside jokes. We also have a popular ‘quote channel’ in our asynchronous discussion board, which is where these inside jokes often take on a life of their own.”

“We model joy.”

Online education doesn’t have to be a lesser version of the traditional classroom. When you cultivate relationships between learners, parents and coaches, within the context of innovative programming that makes community-building its North Star, e-learning can be dynamic and engaging. We’re proud that 99% of Prismarians say they enjoy the community.

If you ask that same question to our learning coaches, you find that the feeling is mutual. Leena Williams, High School Lead Coach & Curriculum Designer explains it like this, “Leading with that positive energy and spirit of love and acceptance is something I love about our coaches, and it truly permeates the culture quickly and effectively. As coaches, we model joy. Seeing the learners genuinely makes me smile, and I am sure to let them know how they make me feel.”

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