Personalized Learning

With New Personalized-Learning Software, AltSchool Moves Into Public Schools

By Benjamin Herold — January 24, 2018 5 min read
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In November, ed-tech company AltSchool came under fire for its investor-driven pivot away from operating its own schools to selling software.

Today, the Silicon Valley company announced the first big outcome from that shift: California’s Arcadia Unified and Menlo Park City districts will become the first public school systems in the country to implement AltSchool’s personalized-learning platform.

The announcement marks the entry of another high-profile company into the crowded K-12 personalized-learning market.

In an interview, Arcadia Superintendent David Vannasdall described his district’s decision as a major step in its efforts to operate less like a traditional bureaucracy, and more like a startup company of its own.

“There’s a lot of fear right now in public education,” Vannasdall said. “But we’re trying to create a successful model for what public schools can look like, that is competitive with the charter and private schools that are now getting taxpayer money.”

Founded in 2013 by former Google executives, AltSchool has attracted more than $175 million in venture capital from such Silicon Valley luminaries as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, of the Emerson Collective. The company initially made its mark by opening a small, multi-city network of high-end private “microschools,” which the company used as test labs to develop the software it now hopes to sell to public schools across the country. In the middle of this school year, the company said it would shut its Palo Alto campus and consolidate several others, affecting a few hundred families, many of whom were upset at the unexpected changes.

Arcadia and Menlo Park will pay $5,000 per teacher in the first year of their agreement with AltSchool, and $2,500 per teacher each year thereafter. The districts join a handful of private schools in Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as centers operated in a small group of Colorado public schools, as the earliest third-party adopters of the company’s platform.

A New Operating System for Schools?

Vannasdall described Arcadia as a well-regarded, high-performing district that decided several years ago what it was doing wasn’t good enough.

“We were at the top of the ladder, but the ladder was in the wrong place,” he said.

The district began piloting AltSchool’s software with a small group of students and teachers earlier this month. The plan is for the platform to become a central learning hub used by all the district’s 3-8 graders within the next three years.

In an interview, AltSchool Chief Impact Officer Devin Vodicka described the platform as akin to a comprehensive new operating system for schools—whatever curriculum they may be using.

“It addresses each phase of the teaching and learning cycle: planning, engagement, and reflection,” he said. “But we’re content-agnostic.”

The software is meant as a hub where students can access assignments, take pictures or make recordings to demonstrate what they’ve learned, turn in their work, and keep track of their progress. Teachers can collaboratively plan lessons and projects for individual students, as well as communicate with children and parents.

In some ways, it functions more like a traditional learning-management system than some of its competitors billing themselves as personalized-learning platforms.

Summit Learning, for example, allows students to take customized paths through an established universe of lessons and projects. And Teach to One relies on algorithms to recommend how each student will learn each day. AltSchool’s tool, on the other hand, allows teachers to curate lessons and activities from a wide range of sources in a single place.

“Many [districts] have developed their own content, and they’re proud of it,” Vodicka said. “The idea is this platform enables each [school] to be the best version of themselves, and that is going to vary from location to location, based on the unique needs of each community.”

A spokeswoman from Summit Learning said she did not have sufficient information about AltSchool’s platform to comment.

Criticisms of Personalized Learning

Such enthusiasm aside, AltSchool has received considerable criticism across a number of fronts.

One big reason: data-collection practices the company has deployed in its own microschools. As Education Week reported in-depth in 2016, that included fisheye ceiling cameras and constantly running audio recorders to harvest massive volumes of data on its students—practices critics describe as highly problematic surveillance.

On Tuesday, though, Vodicka said that in the microschools it directly operates, AltSchool has discontinued those practices, and they are not part of the software the company is now seeking to sell to schools.

“The team has recognized that the utilities of some of those [data] is less than they had hoped for,” he said. “We will continue to try new and different things, but we are committed to sharing only those [technologies] we know have a positive impact on students.”

Vodicka also said that while AltSchool’s platform does not currently include an algorithm-driven recommendation engine, he expects that “over time, as there are more data to make use of, those types of [functionalities] will be possible.”

The personalized-learning movement overall, and AltSchool specifically, have also been criticized by some observers for its philosophical and practical approach to classroom instruction. In a recent blog post, for example, former AltSchool teacher Paul Emerich wrote:

We were tasked with the never-before-done vision of individualizing every child's education. The workload was immense and unsustainable. And even when I felt like I was doing what we set out to do—curate educational playlists of cards that were specifically chosen for them—I didn't feel like it was entirely effective."

In response to such concerns, Vodicka said that “teachers work incredibly hard in any setting,” but that he has faith that personalized learning is the correct direction to move schools, and technological assistance will be necessary to make such approaches sustaintable.

AltSchool has also come under intense fire from parents at the schools it recently closed, many of whom expressed anger that the company prioritized investors’ wishes over providing a consistent educational experience for their children.

Vannasdall, the Arcadia Unified superintendent, said he was aware of those concerns, but untroubled by them.

“AltSchool was very transparent with us,” he said. “They made it clear that they were in the business of providing a platform, and they weren’t in the business of [running] schools.”

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the centers using AltSchool software in Colorado are in public, not private, schools.

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

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