Inside Facebook’s Partnership to Develop Software for K-12 Schools

By Benjamin Herold — March 07, 2016 11 min read
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Perhaps the most unconventional bet that technology billionaire Mark Zuckerberg has made on personalized learning involves his own employees.

For nearly two years, a team of top engineers and product designers from Facebook have been developing a new digital learning platform alongside educators from Summit Public Schools, a 2,500-student charter school network that has won national recognition for its approach to educational technology.

A contract between the multibillion-dollar social networking corporation and Summit, a Redwood City, Calif.-based nonprofit, spells out the goal of their unusual partnership: build a “next-generation model of personalized, student-directed learning for the U.S. public school system.”

Depending who you ask, the collaboration is either a powerful new model for bringing top-tier engineers and educators together to help solve K-12’s problems; a kind of fun, boutique side project; or just another example of Silicon Valley hubris.

Read more coverage of Zuckerberg’s new philanthropic focus, including an exclusive interview with the Facebook CEO.

To learn more, Education Week reviewed documents, talked with both outside observers and people directly involved in the project, and visited one of the 19 “Basecamp” schools across the country that is now piloting the new Facebook-Summit software.

We asked:

  • What, exactly, is the Personalized Learning Plan, as the new digital platform is known?
  • Why should anyone expect it to find traction in a crowded K-12 marketplace, where schools and educators already feel overwhelmed with a flood of new technology options?
  • And what should be made of Facebook’s insistence that it has no business plans attached to the PLP, despite an agreement that leaves the door wide open for potential future commercial uses?

For Zuckerberg, at least, donating Facebook talent to Summit is just another lever he can pull as part of the long-term commitment he and wife Priscilla Chan have made to boost personalized learning in as many ways as possible.

“I feel like we’re backing a hypothesis,” Zuckerberg said. “We think that personalized learning makes sense, but we don’t necessarily know which of the specific models are going to be the one that’s going to work.”

A partnership around personalized learning

The general idea behind personalized learning is that students should follow their own trajectories through school, advancing as they master content and skills that are relevant to their own goals and pathways. Ed tech is supposed to help by making it easier to tailor education to each student’s strengths and weaknesses, interests and preferences, and optimal pace of learning.

When it comes to translating that notion into reality, Dianne Tavenner, the CEO at Summit, a network of 10 charter schools in California and Washington, is one of the select few who has Zuckerberg’s ear.

The relationship began when the Facebook CEO toured a Summit school in January 2014.

Impressed, he asked Tavenner to meet her engineering team, “because that’s something I know something about.”

Zuckerberg was shocked, he said, when Tavenner’s response was, “I’ll introduce you to him.”

“It was like, ‘What do you mean, ‘him?’” Zuckerberg said. “You only have one guy working on this?”

It was true.

Back in 2011, Summit, then almost a decade old, had decided to revamp its instructional model. Excited about the potential of digital tools such as Khan Academy, Tavenner and her team decided to embrace technology and data as a means of providing more customized instruction and helping students take more control of their own learning. Initially, that meant exporting student performance information from software programs by hand, organizing the data into spreadsheets, then manually sending reports to 400 students and teachers each night.

Before long, Tavenner and her team decided to hire their own engineer to build a tool to automate that process, believing that doing so would help give students ownership of their own data in ways that commercially available products couldn’t.

The result, an early version of the PLP, was a promising but clunky tool: It didn’t have a particularly user-friendly interface, wasn’t able to provide student-learning data in real time, didn’t always work, and wasn’t scalable.

“Additional capacity was the greatest thing I needed,” Tavenner said. “Mark was pretty clear that’s one thing Facebook has: good engineers.”

The pair reached an agreement: Zuckerberg would loan Summit a team of three Facebook engineers. They’d remain Facebook employees, but work alongside Tavenner and her team to turn the PLP into a platform that could truly drive Summit’s emerging approach to personalized learning.

Tavenner insisted that Summit maintain the right to use the platform to run its schools, no matter what happened to the partnership.

Zuckerberg requested that the tool be developed with the intent to make it available to other schools around the country, which Summit hoped for as well.

The lawyers worked out the rest.

“It was a very organic process,” Tavenner said.

A ‘huge cultural shift’

Twenty months later, the Facebook detail has grown to a team of 20 engineers, product designers, and user-experience researchers, and the PLP has undergone a major upgrade.

As part of Summit’s “Basecamp” program, teams of educators in 19 schools across the country are testing the software and giving feedback in exchange for extensive training and support from the charter school network.

Among them is Truesdell Elementary, a 600-student preK-8 school in Washington, D.C., that is testing the PLP in grades 7 and 8.

On a brisk morning last month, math teacher Veronica Torres circulated around small groups of 7th graders at the school. Each was at a different stage of a project-based geometry unit that will culminate with the students building their own mosaic artwork.

First, though, the students have to master the ins and outs of angles—a challenge, in part, because the students’ prior knowledge and skills vary considerably.

Before the period began, Torres used the PLP’s teacher dashboard to determine how students had performed on a short online assessment covering basic angles. Students whose names were followed by red boxes ended up at a table in the back the room, receiving extra instruction. Those with green boxes were free to move ahead. Most sat in front of their laptops, watching short videos explaining supplementary angles.

Other software programs and learning management systems offer similar dashboards and functionalities.

The real power of the Personalized Learning Plan, officials from both Summit and Facebook contend, is what lies beneath. Their idea is that the software should embody comprehensive bodies of research on what children should learn and how they can learn best.

That means a student like Santos should be able to use the PLP to see and understand not just where he stands on a specific math lesson, but how that lesson connects to:

  • The larger project-based unit, the full-year academic calendar, and Summit’s complete 6-12 academic curriculum in which the lesson is embedded;
  • Summit’s list of 36 “cognitive skills,” such as finding evidence, and 20 “habits of success,” such as goal-setting, that it believes students will need to succeed in college and the workforce;
  • Each child’s own short- and long-term goals.

“Most [learning management systems] don’t take a point of view,” Tavenner said. “But if you really want to do personalized learning, you have to start with the whole thing laid out for kids.”

Truesdell teachers say that approach has given them a common language for discussing the skills they are trying to cultivate in their students. It’s also helped them to manage the endless flow of paperwork, notes, and assignments that threaten to drown teachers everywhere.

“What the PLP has really provided is a [tool] where we can keep everything in one place,” said Torres, the math teacher.

Despite that enthusiasm, however, Truesdell’s experience test-driving the PLP shows just how fraught the process of trying to integrate new software—and a new approach to teaching and learning—into K-12 schools can be.

This year’s pilot, for example, involves a close-knit team of just six teachers, each of whom opted into the experiment, raising questions about what happens when Truesdell’s leadership tries to get 40 or so teachers in other grades to also use the PLP.

The team also acknowledged some ed-tech fatigue; this is the third consecutive school year in which they are trying out new technology tools, creating a feeling of constant churn and turmoil.

And perhaps most dauntingly, Torres and her colleagues have responded to classroom challenges by scaling back the amount of autonomy they give to their students. In English class, for example, Truesdell 8th graders all worked at a similar pace on the same teacher-selected project about To Kill a Mockingbird, rather than independently finding their own paths through the curriculum, as Tavenner and the Summit-Facebook team intend.

“The hardest part of the whole thing is getting students to own their own learning,” said Nancy Abou-Samra, who teaches English-language learners at Truesdell. “I think there’s a huge cultural shift we’re trying to make happen, and we’ve not quite gotten there.”

One tool among dozens

Challenges aside, Truesdell is planning to add a grade to its pilot program next year, and all 19 of the original Basecamp schools will continue on with the PLP. Summit is also accepting applications for new schools to join the effort, which is increasingly focused on making sure the platform is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of different school contexts and educational approaches.

From Facebook’s perspective, the effort has also been a win—in part, Zuckerberg said, because there is a competitive benefit to the company in giving top talent (such as director of engineering Mike Sego, who is leading the PLP team) the opportunity to work on projects about which they care deeply.

Outside reactions to the new Facebook-Summit tool, meanwhile, ranged from pleasant surprise to outright skepticism.

“What I like about it is that it demystifies the schooling process in a pretty straightforward way,” said Bill Fitzgerald, a software developer who directs the privacy initiative for Common Sense Media. “Anything that lets a child know more about why decisions are being made about [him or her] is a net gain for that child.”

But ultimately, Fitzgerald said, a tool such as the PLP represents a set of assumptions about what students should learn, how they should be assessed, and what progress looks like.

As such, it’s just “one of dozens of methodologies out there for integrating digital, student-centered learning into schools,” said Robert J. Hutter, a managing partner at Learn Capital, a venture-capital firm. So far, the PLP doesn’t stand out, he said.

Trace Urdan, a senior analyst at Credit Suisse and a long-time observer of the K-12 ed-tech market, agreed.

“So much money has already gone into exactly what [Facebook and Summit] are trying to do,” Urdan said. “What about getting behind another platform that’s already out there with some scale behind it?”

It’s a question that gets to the uncertainty over what the end game for this unusual partnership might be.

On one hand, the contract between Facebook and Summit makes clear that Facebook will have plenty of avenues to commercialize its work on the PLP in the future, even though company officials insist no such business plans are currently in place or under development.

Facebook, for example, owns the intellectual property rights to the code it has contributed to the PLP, and it also appears to have the right to use that code base as it sees fit, so long as: a) the PLP itself is free if offered to other U.S. K-12 schools, and b) any other offerings (to higher education institutions, for example) are not co-branded with Summit.

On the other hand, though, Zuckerberg has in fact backed other existing platforms and companies. His for-profit venture-capital arm, Zuckerberg Education Ventures, recently invested $5 million to Mastery Connect, a widely used competency-based digital-learning platform, and $15 million to AltSchool, a network of private microschools that is also developing learning software.

Sego, the director of engineering, said his team has collaborated with both, even though they might be considered competitors.

“I think we all understand that this isn’t something that any one individual or company or school is going to be able to figure out on their own,” Sego said. “That’s one of the things that I love about working in education: everyone really wants to help support each other towards this common vision.”

Zuckerberg echoed that sentiment when asked why he is investing in overlapping products: “We want to see as many good versions as possible of this idea get tested in the world,” he said.

For the 31-year old billionaire, it’s an acknowledgement of the reality that both personalized learning and his own philanthropic career are still in their early days. The race to build the tools that many in Silicon Valley believe will power the schools of the future won’t be won at this preliminary stage, but there’s still plenty of incentive to jockey for good position.

And what does that mean for the Facebook-Summit partnership?

For those with an eye on the big picture, it’s a sign that the PLP is just one leg on a long ride that is only beginning.

“As exciting as it would be if Mark had a [specific plan] to change K-12,” said Hutter of Learn Capital, “this is not it.”

This story has been updated to clarify that the $5 million from Zuckerberg Education Ventures to Mastery Connect was an investment.

Photo: Facebook engineers Ben Alpert, Adam Seldow and Lucy Zhang, standing left to right, talk with students at Everest Public High School, part of the Summit Public Schools charter network, in Redwood City, Calif. Facebook is partnering with the charter school network to create personalized learning software.-- Preston Gannaway/GRAIN

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.