Educators and policymakers are increasingly looking to personalized learning as a strategy to improve student learning and engagement, but designing and implementing effective personalized learning models is challenging, requiring schools to simultaneously tackle issues of technology, human capital, and how they use time. Elliot Sanchez founded mSchool to help schools and community organizations make personalized learning experiences available to students. Launched in fall 2013, mSchool has since grown to serve hundreds of students in schools and community-based settings. Sanchez, 27, was raised in the New Orleans area, attended Loyola University in New Orleans, and began his career teaching in a New Orleans middle school. He lives in New Orleans.
What does mSchool do?
We make personalized learning incredibly simple. We help make sure the right lesson goes to the right student at the right time and make sure that happens effortlessly. That allows us to bring really high-quality personalized learning to students in all kinds of programs: afterschool, during the school day, and during downtime when kids aren’t participating in other learning opportunities.
How did you come up with the idea/model for mSchool?
I was teaching at Booker T. Washington alternative middle school in New Orleans. I had the same problem every teacher has: I had 30 students who came into my class at 30 different levels, learning at 30 different paces, and I had to try to design one lesson for all 30 of those kids--but no one lesson is right for all of them. A few years later I started working in research and policy at the Louisiana Department of Education. I saw that even when we used technology in schools, the average result for students weren’t improving. When it came to technology, most schools were focused on “finding the right solution"--but there is no one right solution. The real goal should be finding what’s right for each student. And as we get more and more good options, this gets more complex. MSchool helps schools and other education providers find the right solutions for each student.
Why did you start out working in community centers rather than schools?
We started there because that was a place where we could reach students immediately. Schools can be hesitant to try to new things, but community centers were looking for things for students to do. We realized that if we did our job right we could make learning as fun as the other things typically do in community centers: as fun as basketball, or foos ball. We started in July and about 6 months later we realized the students were learning 3 times faster than in a traditional class.
After our first year, schools saw the results, and we’ve had more demand from schools to incorporate this into the school site and day. But our goal is to make it so simple you don’t need all the things you’d find in a typical school in order to provide quality instruction.
What are some of mSchool’s accomplishments to date?
We started beta testing phase last year with 30 kids, but as soon as we saw the results we opened it up to more students. People came to us asking for the program. After we saw our results, we applied to be accredited as a place where students could get academic credit in math--not just afterschool enrichment--and we were accredited by the State Department of Education for 150 kids. If they could show the same mastery we wanted them to get the same credit. We have some students who are getting credit and some getting remediation
This past February, we opened the program up more broadly, and doubled the number of students served in the first 4 weeks. We currently have over 20,000 students on our waiting list in 25 cities across 4 continents. We’re looking for people who really want to provide a high-quality learning experience to kids, no matter what location or setting they’re in.
We realize that our program needs to be flexible so that it can work without all the infrastructure you have in a regular school day. Since the beginning we’ve been working to take the best parts of the math program and package them in a way that’s simple to roll out. We have computers in a box we can send people. The software is online. We’ve also developed a social-emotional curriculum over the past four years that goes along with it, because we realized that providing students with tools to think about their learning has a huge impact on their success.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge early on was figuring out what students really needed. We could have students come in and take a test that told us what they understood, but it never told us what they need to be successful. We did a lot of learning about what was working for students, where they needed practice, where they needed extra support to work together, etc.
How did you come to work in education?
As a college student I volunteered in the local public schools, so I saw what the New Orleans school system looked like, and there were a lot of things I thought could be better. Then Hurricane Katrina happened and I, like everyone else in the city, came back to an entirely different landscape. Children who returned to the city had a lot of symptoms of PTSD, and there were huge missing pieces in the education and social support system that needed to be completely rebuilt.
At the same time, Jonathan Kozol came to speak at the university, and I realized that I had an amazing opportunity to take part in rebuilding New Orleans and working to build a more equitable system for our students. After college I started working at Booker T, and then I spent some time working in KIPP schools before moving to the Louisiana Department of Education.
Beyond your work with mSchool, what do you see as the opportunities and potential pitfalls of personalized learning more broadly?
The big pitfall is that we start to get focused on technology or solutions for their own sake as opposed to focusing on what really meets the needs of students. Technology is making a lot of things possible for the first time, and people are excited to explore those things. But I don’t know that we’ve been critically reflective about what’s best for kids.
In terms of the opportunity, I believe that we’re a short time away from having school systems where we can be confident that every student is getting the basic understanding they need to flourish: In the near future, we’ll no longer have to worry so much about getting students to basic proficiency and remediating deficits, so we can start from day one on diving into the deeper applications of what we want children to know.
Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
One of my idols in education is Sugata Mitra and his work with the Hole in the Wall computers in the developing world. He set up computers in rural villages across the world. He didn’t leave instructions, there was no teacher, no classroom. In a few days these students--with no prior experience--had learning not only how to get on the internet and get information, they’d figured out how to hack into the computers. So much of the conversation in education is about how do we as educators bring students tools--but this work is a fantastic example of how much potential students have to drive learning themselves.
What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?
The world is moving so quickly--it’s hard to say. I hope that mSchool is able to help tens of thousands of kids across the world access fantastic education even in places where you normally wouldn’t expect it. That we’ll help kids learn new skills and explore possibilities in exciting ways we haven’t begun to think of yet.
What are some of your hobbies outside of work?
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but before my career as an educator, back when I was 12 years old, I was a nationally ranked competitive magician. The first business I started was performing at restaurants and birthday parties in high school. It might seem like a strange place to start, but a lot of those entrepreneurial skills have translated over to my work in education.
The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.