AltSchool: a 21st century solution
The advent of technology quickly captured teenagers’ attention; In the US, they spend 9 hours a day consuming digital content[ii]. In such a digitalized and interactive world, schools were left behind. They still assume students can learn by passively watching classes, in one single pace, despite differences in individual learning curves.
Founded by a former Google executive – Max Ventilla – and funded by both Mark Zuckerberg and VC firm Andreesen Horowitz, AltSchool bets on the development of hardware and software to create personalized education plans. The solution creates value and provides a feedback loop among the three main parties involved in the educational process:
- Students have their own playlist – a personalized to-do list where they can find assignments, communicate with teachers and submit their work. The tool allows students to adapt learning to their own pace and is more interactive than traditional formats.
- Teachers tailor content on a student basis, promoting “child-centered learning” and following individual natural interests. The tool provides a comprehensive portrait of a student’s progress in all subjects, including social-emotional development and interests and passions[iii]. Through the software, teachers can assign interactive educational models based on each kid’s needs, track attendance and provide feedback. According to the Teacher’s Dream Classroom Survey, 70% of teachers feel that technology – via their own online resources – enriches the classroom experience[iv]. Because the tools streamline tasks, educators can spend more quality time with students, review their progress and provide them with feedback. By tracking students’ trajectory, success patterns and areas that need support, teachers can better plan and adapt future learning experiences.
- Parents have a view of their child’s individual progress, manage logistics and communicate to teachers though “my.altschool” tool.
Teaching how to grow
Different from other education-tech companies, AltSchool goes beyond an application to support math and reading learning. Instead, it operates its own schools. It started in 2014 with a single San Francisco classroom with 20 students[v] and now runs eight schools in California and New York[vi]. The fast growth demonstrates an opportunity for AltSchool to expand its operations and to potentially sell its license to other schools in the future.
Despite its premium price – around $21,000 per student a year – the founder expects to scale the model down to a point where the price is slightly higher than educating a child in the public system. To do so, AltSchool will have to overcome some challenges and adapt key elements on its current operation:
- Scale x Cost reduction (the chicken and egg situation): different from products, a fundamental property of digital technology states that once an investment in network and/or infrastructure is made, there should be no (or minimal) incremental cost in extending it to a new user[vii]. Thus, it is natural to expect a higher cost during the launch phase, as AltSchool is still working on developing and improving its tools.
- Organizational Components as enablers to value creation:
- People: recruiting high quality teachers, adept at technology and who relate to the company’s vision will be crucial, despite expensive (some teachers at AltSchool earn about $100,000 a year). AltSchool will also have to hire software developers and engineers, roles that don’t exist in conventional schools.
- Culture: should reflect AltSchool’s enablers for growth, such as excellence, collaboration, innovation and autonomy to educators to personalize teaching.
- Critical Tasks: integrating technology with the world of lived experience will be key to provide students with complementary learnings. AltSchool already ensures that the majority of the work is completed off screen[viii], but it could go beyond and develop in-group experiences to incentivize collective learning and interaction among kids.
- Formal Organization: AltSchool should develop processes and establish incentives focused on its platform improvement and students’ performance.
Kids may learn… but are they safe?
While working on scaling its business, AltSchool needs to carefully assess important risks to its operation. Security and data privacy are important hurdles for digital models, according to a study on Industrial Internet of Things[ix]. With a great understanding of children’s behaviors, activities, preferences and passions, AltSchool is developing a unique database that will potentially attract several companies.
To mitigate the risk, AltSchool should leverage its expertise in technology to protect its company from external threats. It is crucial that it develops strict safety controls to avoid external attacks and that it only uses data to the purposes of the school experience or to any other that the parents may agree with.
By focusing on delivering its customer promise on a safe environment, AltSchool will be able to lead the educational transformation we have all been waiting for. After all, who doesn’t want schools to be efficient, fun and high tech?
[i] “Leadership at Every Level: Appreciative Inquiry in Education”, John Hopkins School of Education website, http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/Transforming%20Education/Articles/Understanding%20Why%20Education%20Must%20Change/, accessed November 2016.
[ii] Vicky Rideout, M.A., VJR Consulting Inc., “The Common Sense Census: Media use by tweens and teens”, 2015, p.15, https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/census_executivesummary.pdf, accessed November 2016.
[iii] Tech Crunch, “Altschool Raises $100M From Founders Fund, Zuckerberg To Scale A Massive Network of Schools Around Personalized Learning”, May 2015, https://techcrunch.com/2015/05/04/altschool-raises-100m-from-founders-fund-zuckerberg-to-scale-a-massive-network-of-schools-around-personalized-learning/, accessed November 2016.
[iv] Dan Soulas, “Teacher’s Dream Classroom”, 2016, p.8, http://www.edtechroundup.org/uploads/2/6/5/7/2657242/edgenuity_dream_classroom_report_033116_final.pdf , accessed November 2016.
[v] Bloomberg, “Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley VCs invest $100 million in a start-up elementary school”, 2015, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-05-04/mark-zuckerberg-and-silicon-valley-vcs-invest-100-million-in-a-startup-elementary-school, accessed November 2016.
[vi] “Press”, AltSchool website, 2016, https://www.altschool.com/altschool-opens-new-schools-in-manhattan-and-san-francisco, accessed November 2016.
[vii] Marco Iansiti and Katim R. Lakhani, “Digital Ubiquity: How Connections, Sensors, and Data are revolutionizing Business”, 2014, p.4, https://services.hbsp.harvard.edu/services/proxy/content/56157960/56157962/1158b6f8f146cc2d02207d5ab2521095, accessed November 2016.
[ix] World Economic Forum, “Industrial Internet of Things: Unleashing the Potential of Connected Products and Services”, 2015, p.4, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEFUSA_IndustrialInternet_Report2015.pdf, accessed November 2016.