Fostering connection in online classrooms

How HTS is building a state-of-the-art online education platform that focuses on student relationships

In the wake of COVID-19, online interactions have become a must. This has caused a transformative shift in education. While some students and families are more committed to the physical experience of being at school than ever, other students and families have fully embraced new online learning options.

Online education for adults was thriving before the pandemic. But there weren’t as many options for young people. However, during the pandemic educators discovered that some students actually thrive more in a virtual school than in a physical one.

Because of the changing attitude toward online options for high school students, new full-time online-only options for teenagers are emerging. These schools and programs bring with them a new and different set of challenges and opportunities.

Students and teachers must navigate a digital landscape that demands innovative strategies to build engagement and meaningful connections. The emphasis has shifted beyond conventional teaching methods to prioritize relationships and building a sense of belonging through connections forged in virtual environments.

Pioneering community-centric online learning

In an interview with Our Kids, Helen Pereira-Raso, Head of School at Holy Trinity School (HTS) in Richmond Hill, reflected on how the school has put relationships and community at the centre of its new online school. HTS Online launched in September of 2023.

Holy Trinity School is a coed school founded in 1981. More than 800 students attend the JK-12 school, located on a 37-acre campus in Richmond Hill, Ontario. HTS Online offers a similar education, notes Pereira-Raso, but for an entirely different set of high school students. Students and families who need a more flexible, high-quality Canadian education, can attend HTS Online from anywhere in the world. A student’s learning is never interrupted, no matter the changes in their life or that of their family.  

Students can thrive online 

The offering at HTS Online goes beyond the online education that many schools offered during the pandemic. Students don’t have to navigate their learning alone at home, without the support of educators and mentors. In fact, personalization and support for every learner is a distinguishing feature of HTS Online. 

“During the pandemic, we were forced to offer education online,” says Pereira-Raso. “We were in survival mode, reacting to what was happening. But as it continued, we saw that certain students were flourishing,” recallsPereira-Raso. “These students were flourishing in a way that they didn’t in an in-person environment. So we started to see our learners in a different light.”

Seeing new possibilities

The pandemic also caused HTS to view online learning in new ways. “As opposed to being a passive learning environment where you’re doing that in isolation, with different ideas and stimuli, we realized that relationships were at the heart of the learning journey and our students’ growth.

"At HTS, we've recognized the transformative potential of fostering relationships and building a strong sense of community in the online learning space. It's not just about academic instruction; it's about creating an environment where students feel connected, engaged, and supported," says Pereira-Raso. “When we build community through connections, our students flourish.” 

Part of the focus on community means that students must enrol for at least one semester, rather than signing up for a single course. The school gets together as a big group for virtual assemblies and other events. Students also have weekly one-on-one online meetings with a teacher-mentor, who helps them personalize their learning plan.

The learning schedule is a mix of synchronous and asynchronous experiences. Students can customize their schedules according to their time zone and cultural context. Students currently enrolled at HTS Online come from several continents, truly bringing a wide-ranging worldview to the classroom.

The students can find each other and their teachers in an online metaverse that mirrors the HTS campus in Richmond Hill. The metaverse enables them to interact in formal and informal ways with classmates. As they move their avatars around the zones inside the virtual campus, they may choose to spontaneously interact by video with people who are close by or take a walk on the HTS trail and forest. 

Opportunities for holistic engagement are key

Students enrolled in online learning need holistically balanced opportunities that stretch well beyond academic instruction. Pereira-Raso highlights initiatives that integrate co-curriculars, physical activities, leadership development, and wellness tracking into the online environment. 

"Physical activity is so important for our students to stay healthy,” Pereira-Raso says, noting that the school offers an online gym class where the class might look like a teacher doing online workouts with students in real time. But students not enrolled in that specific class are frequently reminded to tune into their bodies. The whole school recently did an online yoga class together and it was a big hit.

Students and families who embark on online education in 2023 will participate in the co-creation of new norms in digital education. As the education sector continues to evolve, HTS's approach provides a glimpse into a promising future where technology and community work hand in hand to enrich the lives of students.

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