Classroom Technology

Facebook Moves Into ‘Personalized Learning’ With Charter Network

By Sean Cavanagh — September 16, 2015 4 min read
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The social media behemoth Facebook is bringing its engineering might to the K-12 arena by teaming up with a charter school network to refine a technology-based system for customizing lessons to meet individual student needs.

The Silicon Valley company recently announced it will ramp up work that began last year to help the Summit Public Schools, a nonprofit based in Redwood City, Calif., improve a digital tool called the “Personalized Learning Plan.”

Last year, 2,000 students and 100 teachers in Summit schools were using the tool. But Facebook and Summit officials plan to pilot the personalized learning platform in other public schools around the country, receive feedback on that work, and eventually offer it for free to any school in the United States, Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox said in a statement posted on the company’s website.

In describing the new venture, Cox said Facebook was impressed with the Summit Public Schools’ academic performance and experimentation, particularly its use of teacher-created materials, its avoidance of lecture-based instruction, and its efforts to use technology to help students explore their long-term academic goals and interests.

Facebook assigned a small team of engineers to help Summit improve the personalized-learning system. Yet the platform is operating as a “completely separate” entity from the company and will not require users to have an account through the social-media platform, Cox said.

Facebook, which went public with much hoopla in 2012, has 1.4 billion monthly active users, and yearly revenues of $12 billion. Summit operates nine schools—seven in California, two in Washington state—serving 2,500 total students.

The announced partnership will surely prompt speculation about the potential business opportunities for Facebook, and whether it has broader ambitions for working in the notoriously hard-to-crack K-12 market.

Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has sought to put his stamp on education in other ways. Five years ago, he announced plans to funnel $100 million of his money into transforming the long-troubled Newark, N.J., schools. That effort, which was intended to focus on investment in charter schools, closing failing schools, and other steps, drew praise for its ambitions, but has come under criticism from those who say it has fallen well short of its lofty goals.

Diane Tavenner, the founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, said the seeds of the partnership were planted during a visit by Zuckerberg to one of the charter network’s campuses. The Facebook CEO learned about the personalization platform’s development and offered to help.

Data-Privacy Expectations

The Summit charter network has raised money from private sources to support the creation of the personalized-learning system, and it is prepared to raise more to make it available nationwide, Tavenner said.

She predicted the platform would prove popular in schools outside the network.

“This was a system developed by teachers,” Tavenner said, and educators who try it consistently say, “this is what I want to do.”

Cox said everyone working on the project with the Summit schools will follow privacy guidelines to protect student data. The Facebook official said that Summit adheres to the Student Privacy Pledge, which means that Facebook employees working on the project will follow its principles when handling Summit students’ data.

The Student Privacy Pledge is an effort led by privacy advocates and industry representatives, in which signatories (the Summit network is one of them) agree to protect and not sell students’ personal information and not direct advertising at them based on user profiles.

Bill Fitzgerald, the director of the privacy initiative at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco nonprofit that advocates for strong privacy protections, argued that Summit’s allegiance to the pledge does not mean much, on its own. He added that the real test will be the terms under which data are collected and used, and the judgments made by those who design the system for personalization and “algorithmically mediated learning.”

Typically in personalized learning, learners interact with a technology platform, get a series of options based on those interactions, and the system makes judgements based on students’ behavior in the system, Fitzgerald noted.

The question, as it applies to how Facebook will help Summit design personalized learning, is what “logic are they using to define the user’s set of choices?” he said.

Facebook is already immersed in the K-12 world in some ways, Fitzgerald said. He pointed out that many school groups and parent-teacher associations rely on communications through Facebook, giving the company a potentially significant audience for advertising.

“Facebook has been in education for a while,” he said. “Awareness of the education space is in its DNA.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Facebook Moves Into ‘Personalized Learning’ Partnership

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