Is AltSchool the Future of Education?

democratizing-info-1484822What do former high level executives at Google, Uber, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Founders Fund, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs, all have in common?  In one way or another they are all involved in or investors in a company called AltSchool they hope will make a profit and save education at the same time.

There is an enormous amount of money and influential names lining up behind AltSchool and its rapid expansion.  What is AltSchool?  According to a press release it wants to “fundamentally reimagine education.”  This is undoubtedly a laudable goal since there appears to be a growing consensus that our current education system fails to deliver.  But this raises the most obviously important question:  How will AltSchool accomplish this?  According to AltSchool:

In 2013, founder Max Ventilla and his team of renowned educators and technologists began AltSchool by asking, how would school look if we designed it from scratch today? They evaluated everything, from what role teachers should play to how technology could complement the physical classroom. What they discovered is that our children can get a completely different education than what most believe is possible.

Today, technology can handle many of the administrative and organizational tasks that consume teachers’ time. School doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all anymore; we now have the ability to personalize academics for each student based on their unique learning style, interests and skill level. Schools can adapt and grow in real time to keep pace with the accelerating changes in the outside world. Finally, teachers can regain their autonomy in the classroom.

So, AltSchool started building schools, each supported by a proprietary technology platform that made all this possible.

In practice classrooms are also outfitted with fisheye-lens cameras and a sound recorder that collects data the CEO and founder Max Ventilla says will be used for R&D to improve teaching techniques and student assessment.  Ventilla, a former executive at Google, says his encounter with Sugata Mitra at a 2013 TED conference deeply influenced his thinking about education.  But what lessons on self-organizing systems did he glean from the research?

There are no report cards or grades at AltSchool rather there are “performance metrics” sent to parents via the AltSchool smartphone app. According to this Bloomberg article a “projector screen in one class has a video game-style leaderboard with points for finished work and good behavior.”  Instead of a standard curriculum the AltSchool propriety technology platform uses “data capture and analysis tools to tailor education for each student. Just as Google shows ads customized to a person’s browsing habits, or Netflix recommends movies based on viewing history, AltSchool pupils get a curriculum designed just for them.”

So is AltSchool really a new approach to classroom learning or is it just gathering data from its “micro-schools” to develop scalable products it can license for profit?  The fact that this venture has raised at least $133 million in financing suggests that at the very least its investors hope to do well by doing good.  Undoubtedly they are some of the most forward technology thinkers and investors of our time.  But these debates miss the big picture: Ultimately AltSchool and other technology-driven schools fail to fundamentally shift the reigning education paradigm.

What AltSchool does is use technology to make student-centered learning both more personalized and collaborative.  The current education model is already student-centered but due to technology limitations it must center on large groups of students simultaneously.  AltSchool seeks to remedy this limitation.  This is certainly an improvement on the current model but not a fundamental departure.  Students still rely on teachers to deliver a curriculum developed by someone else using the latest teaching techniques.  Students still rely on teachers to develop and lead collaborative projects.  And students are still tested, measured, assessed and compared against others.

Beneath the sleek shine of its Silicon Valley exterior lurks the same fundamental dynamics found in traditional schools.  AltSchool imagines education as a product that needs technology in order to deliver it to students with the same accuracy and precision the Rover was delivered to Mars.  Fundamentally this is the same goal as the traditional education system using more powerful and flexible tools.

Sudbury fundamentally shifts the education paradigm by removing itself as the arbiter of the education process and empowering the student instead.  Sudbury shifts from student-centered learning to student-initiated learning.  This is the fundamental paradigm shift that truly reimagines education.  A Sudbury school offers its students access to technology, great teachers, community mentors, fellow students and other education resources.  However a Sudbury school does not tell a student how to make use of these resources.  Students are absolutely free to pursue their own interests in their own way at their own pace using any combination of the resources available to them.  In this way a Sudbury student receives an education not only in what they pursue but in who they are.

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