Education Funding Opinion

‘Mass Personalization’ Drives Learning Experiment at AltSchool

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 29, 2017 10 min read
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Updated, 7/31/17

AltSchool gained attention as a technological wunderkind with the all-seeing cameras mounted on its classroom walls. The cameras are there, but big data technology is the least radical of its ideas. These folks want to democratize education and make it exponentially more effective.

Still, the AltSchool headquarters in San Francisco virtually shouts out “we’re a tech startup.” It’s a repurposed garage with roll up doors, stand up desks and enough computing power to launch a revolution, which is its aim. Conscious of the technology, I began an interview with AltSchool president and co-founder Bharat Mediratta by pulling my little digital recorder from my sport coat pocket and quipping: “This is the entire technology department of ‘On California.’” To which he responded, “Sometimes banging two rocks together is the best technology for the job.”

Seeking Exponential Change

AltSchool builds and uses a lot of technology, but technology is only a tool to produce what Mediratta thinks will be an exponential change in learning: mass personalization. These two words don’t fit together until you understand that Mediratta and AltSchool founder and CEO Max Ventilla spent more than a decade at Google, designing and personalizing the user experience that gets smarter about your wishes as you use it.

Mediratta, who calls himself Bart—even in India there’s disagreement about how to pronounce Bharat—says he’s the least accomplished person in his family, but at Google he had the title Distinguished Engineer, which probably makes him among the top techies in the world. Bart explains how Google has personalized its search function so that it guesses what you want even before you fully enter it. “In most of the world if you type in ‘W,’ you get Walmart; in San Francisco you’d get Warriors.” (I tried this from my computer in Los Angeles; Walmart popped up first, but after I typed “wa” Warriors appeared. By the time I finished this article, Google had learned my preferences sufficiently that my typing “A” got me AltSchool.)

Like other successful Silicon Valley executives, Mediratta is attracted to “humanity sized” problems, like feeding the world or responding to global warming. He’s looking for the kind of leverage that integrated circuits brought to information processing, and he believes that Moore’s Law of exponential change can apply to learning.

Solve the ‘2 Sigma’ Problem

To do this, AltSchool is trying to solve Benjamin Bloom’s 2 Sigma Problem. More than three decades ago, the educational psychologist found that students who were tutored performed better than 98% of students in traditional classrooms. Delivering large scale personalized learning qualifies as a humanity sized problem that if successful would replace the batch processing system schools have used for more than a century.

AltSchool’s approach is to refresh two ideas that are also a century old: laboratory schools and progressive pedagogy.

Down the street from the AltSchool headquarters, one of its seven lab schools meets in an office building across the street from the Moscone Center Yerba Buena complex. On the first floor, two primary age students with tablets and earphones work quietly on a big brightly colored rug while others work pencil and paper at their desks.

John Dewey would have been a happy visitor, Stanford professor Larry Cuban has written. After a visit to AltSchool, Cuban, who has been a skeptic about the transformative power of technology, wrote: “I think how unusual this partnership between educators and the technologist side of a school really is.”

Behind the Scenes Tech

There’s no more visible technology at Yerba Buena than in most American schools. I watch Anne Mayoral lead a science lesson in which students needed to create water filters that might work in poor countries. I saw lab books, numerous potential filter components, such as sand and coffee filters, but no virtual science. But there’s a great deal of technology behind the scenes.

Upstairs, fourth grader Myles Gardiner works on his laptop. On his screen are a set of lessons, which AltSchool calls cards. Cards are the building blocks of instruction and aggregate into units that are aligned with both Common Core standards and a developing set of social-emotional learning principles. “Parents are very keyed into growth mindset,” said Patrice Greenglass, who left public school teaching for a job at Myles’ school.

Myles’ cards form a Playlist, which is his personalized learning agenda and part of the technology platform AltSchool is developing. Teachers create, sequence, and remix the curriculum to create the list, and students can manage their pacing. Playlist enables educators to deliver personalizable content in an efficient and scalable way through organizing activities for the whole class, groups of students, or individuals. It has the potential to promote student agency through enabling students to choose and engage with their Playlist at an individual pace.

Myles’ work and progress become part of his Portrait, which combines the best features of a traditional report card, an assessment against standards, and the rich detail of a folder of student work. But all this is electronic, easily seen and analyzable, both to improve Myles’ learning and to understand the trajectory of whole classes and schools.

Myles and His Playlist

Myles picks which cards to work on first, and explains that he had a conversation with his father about which things he needed to work on, and that the two of them had worked on some harder math problems at home, and maybe he could talk with his teacher about jumping ahead to some harder stuff.

In his conversation, Myles illustrates key AltSchool design principles. Learners progress at their own pace, but not in a vacuum. Playlist is part of a platform of tools that support personalization and a learner-centric environment. As Rajiv “Raj” Bhatia, who is in charge of building the technology platform, explains, “every student has a unique leading edge.” The system being developed facilitates pushing that edge, increasing student ownership of their work and learning that transcends the classroom into the home and community.

The Share module of the system provides feedback to both teachers and parents on a daily basis, as Myles’ conversation with his father illustrates. Greenglass, a middle school teacher, can send a picture of student work home. “All parents are busy,” she said, so it’s important that information to them be in a form that is easy for them to digest. Examples of student work and assessments go home, as do snapshots of their children enjoying school. Both can be sent home with a click of a button on her phone or computer and are available to parents on the school’s mobile app.

Student ‘Portraits’ Taken Daily

Portrait gives teachers a view of their students on any given day and also a progression showing their progress over time. Compared to most school data systems, AltSchool is creating rapid feedback. As Bhatia explains, “What’s useful data for you and how can we show it to you at the right time?”

Two other features of the platform—Inbasket and Library—expand teacher capability. Both technologists and educators found that the system created overwhelming feedback for teachers, and Inbasket was developed as a way of organizing the flow. Library is a rapidly expanding pedagogical resource, some developed in house, of lessons and projects that AltSchool educators can use to form units and cards for students.

Platform development is part of the AltSchool laboratory concept. Founding AltSchool as tiny private schools sidesteps virtually all the institutional rigidities of public education. “Before you scale you want to control the number of variables, hence we pick partner schools that are like us,” Mediratta said.

For every educator at AltSchool, there’s a technologist and someone handling back office functions, an impossible level of research and development support outside of a laboratory environment.

12-Month Contracts for Teachers

Greenglass, who had previously taught in New York City and in San Francisco Unified, provides a glimpse of how teachers interact with the platform and help develop it. She, like all AltSchool educators, is on a 12-month contract, and summers are largely devoted to working with the technologists to improve the platform and make it more teacher friendly. During the school year, she spends an hour a day with her technology “buddy.” Sometimes this involves originating new software ideas or critiquing their operations.

The technologists listen to teachers more than they talk to them. Mostly, they learn from teacher insights. “I’m stunned,” Greenglass said, “everything I do is considered smart. You feel like you are really creating something.” As Stanford professor Cuban wrote, “That partnership is uncommon in schooling today, both public and private.”

AltSchool is idealistic, but it’s also a company, albeit a public benefit corporation that is legally required to consider the results of its actions on its stakeholders—including students, parents, and partner schools—as well as shareholders. It’s raised $173-million from some very big venture capital names including Andressen Horowitz and Founders Fund. Venture funders are usually itchy to see returns, but Mediratta says his are at least somewhat patient. “We have been very strategic about our investors, looking for those driven by our mission,” he said.

Move Beyond the Lab

Nonetheless, this year AltSchool laid down some tracks to move beyond laboratory status. It announced a first round of partner schools, choosing three that were close cousins to its labs, all private and independent. They include: Berthold Academy, a Montessori school outside of Washington, DC, the constructivist Greene School in Palm Beach, Florida, and Temple Beth Sholom Day School in Miami, whose pedagogy is based in the Reggio Emilia philosophy. A fourth, Philadelphia-based Kohelet Yeshiva Lab School, has since been added.

Ben Kornell is in charge of growth. He’s looking for a few good schools to become AltSchool partners next year, about 10. “Over the next two-three years we are all in on quality,” he says, “then we can scale.” Kornell came to AltSchool this year from Envisions Education as part of an executive hiring spree designed to expand beyond the original laboratories.

Other new hires include Sam Franklin, who came from the Pittsburgh (PA) Public schools, Laura Hughes Modi, who had worked at Airbnb, Colleen Broderick, most recently at ReSchool in Colorado formerly with Expeditionary Learning, and Devin Vodička, superintendent of Vista Unified.

Vodička’s name grabbed my attention because I had interviewed him earlier this year about the power of network organizing at Vista, which had been successful in gaining one of the coveted XQ Institute grants. He’d shed his suit and tie for the AltSchool informality only about three weeks prior to my visit. His excitement about networks came with him, and he said he’s looking forward to the platform’s expansion into public schools, which is expected in the next two years. “We’ll find early adopters. Interest is high; they are already asking,” he said.

Vodička and Carolyn Wilson joined me for the visit to Yerba Buena school. Wilson, who is director of education, was among AltSchool’s first employees and remembers creating a student’s first playlist using Google Docs before the platform development had started in earnest. The school’s progressive pedagogy gives her hope. She’d worked at Accelerated Schools in the 1980s, loved what she and they were doing, and fell into despair during the No Child Left Behind era.

As we rode to the school, they each talked about the relationship between the hands-on experiential learning that characterizes the schools pedagogical beliefs and technology. Wilson told of a teacher who told an engineer about a pedagogical problem she was facing, and who was presented with a solution in two hours. “You would have thought that she had won the lottery,” she said of the teacher’s reaction.

Vodička added that most tech development is done in a vacuum, but “here everything is worked through with real kids.”

Both believe exponential change is possible. As we walked into the school, Vodička said, “Best chance that I’ve ever seen for a moon shot,”

Photos: Carolyn Wilson and Devin Vodička at the AltSchool headquarters. Yerba Buena students build water filters in hands-on science lesson. Myles Gardiner and his playlist. Photos by CTK.

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