American schools have been failing students for decades now, and bolting technology on the side of a bad product isn’t going to fix the problem. Technology may not be a silver bullet, but intelligently applied, it can act as a force multiplier, particularly if it’s part of a complete reboot of how schools are run. San Francisco-based AltSchool is rethinking education from the ground up, and hoping its early learnings will eventually create a platform from which all schools can learn.
Max Ventilla, AltSchool’s CEO, says he founded the company “self-servingly.” His daughter will start at AltSchool in the fall and his son will join in a few years. “I wanted an education for them that got better and better, and that prepared them for the future,” he says. “And I wanted to be able to work with the amazing people that were my colleagues at places like Google, and build an amazing experience not just for my children but for all children,” Ventilla tells NewCo.
At AltSchool’s main office, engineers and programmers work on the company’s platform, gathering classroom data and tracking student progress — on one side of the building. On the other side, there’s a working middle school, one of several AltSchool now runs in the Bay Area and New York. Learning activities are broken down into “playlists.” They’re different for each student and based on personal learning needs. Students have some autonomy and get to choose the order in which their playlists are completed. Technology, iPads, computers, and even cameras are utilized to help students to learn in new ways, but students may also find themselves in a woodshop and other non-tech focused learning experiences. Data is collected on every aspect of a student’s journey, and teachers adjust learning plans in a constant feedback loop.
AltSchool has grown from 15 students in a single classroom its first year to roughly 400 students in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Brooklyn. It plans to open as many as 11 schools by 2017, but it’s also opening up its platform for others to use. Around a year ago, AltSchool began to think more concretely about what would need to happen to start opening schools with others, not just to keep opening schools itself.
Announced at SXSW, AltSchool Open is the company’s plan to partner with other schools, such as private schools that may want to open AltSchool-like programs without formally being integrated with the company. Part of the appeal may come from the potential cost savings; the technology platform handles administrative to organizational tasks.
The goal is to open schools in an increasingly hands-off way, relying on the platform to scale. “We want to be in a place by September 2018 where we’ve learned enough and built enough to be a resource at scale for people opening schools not just in the U.S. but worldwide as well.”
AltSchool has raised more than $133 million. It kicked off Teacher Appreciation Week in 2015 with $100 million in funding from Founders Fund and Andreessen Horowitz and others like Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs.
With AltSchool, Ventilla sees an opportunity to transform one of our oldest industries. If its platform for schools can create a more sustainable form of education that adapts to the needs of teachers, students, parents, and the cost of running schools, maybe it can provide the change our education system needs.
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