What You Should Know This Week

AltSchool’s $100 million. Each week, Educating Modern Learners picks one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and helps put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). This week (the week of May 4, 2015), Audrey Watters looks at a massive round of funding raised by the “micro-school” startup AltSchool.

The “micro-school” startup AltSchool announced this week that it has raised $100 million from what ed-tech industry blog Edsurge calls “a host of Silicon Valley’s blue bloods.” Investors include: Founders Fund, Andreessen Horowitz, Silicon Valley Community Foundation (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan’s donor-advised fund), Emerson Collective (an organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow), First Round Capital, Learn Capital, John Doerr, Harrison Metal, Jonathan Sackler, Adrian Aoun, and Omidyar Network. The influx of money (which includes debt funding to help the startup build more schools) brings the total raised by AltSchool to $133 million.

The startup runs a chain of private schools (tuition costs around $21,000-$27,000 per year) that boast a high level of technology usage. As Wired describes it: “Students get their own iPad or Chromebook, depending on their age, and their own weekly ‘playlists,’ queues of individual and group activities tailored to the specific strengths and weaknesses of each kid. Meanwhile, AltSchool’s technology tracks each student’s progress – and setback – every step of the way.”

We covered AltSchool last year here at EML, questioning the startup’s claims to be offering a technology-infused “progressive education.”

The press coverage from this week’s funding announcement – many stories repeated the founder, former Google exec Max Ventilla, and his claims the startup is “Montessori 2.0” – do little to assuage any doubts about that.

“Inside the School Silicon Valley Thinks Will Save Education,” gushes Wired.

“Everything is instrumented through technology,” Ventilla told Bloomberg Business.

“We’re working to have a maximal surface area for learning – a school system that’s not only scalable, but doesn’t have the traditional supply constraints, like local administrators,” Ventilla told Buzzfeed.

From NPR: “This classroom is also outfitted with fisheye-lens cameras, for a 360-degree view at all times, and a sound recorder. And the company is prototyping wearable devices for students with a radio frequency ID tag that can track their movements. Why all the intensive surveillance? Safety and health are two applications, but right now, Ventilla says, it’s mostly R&D. One day, all these data could be continuously analyzed to improve teaching techniques or assess student mastery.”

This last element – the constant surveillance of students – was just one of the things EML took issues with when it covered the startup last year. How can one reconcile that with progressive education? Does a school that surveils every aspect of a child – via audio and video and perhaps additional monitoring devices – trust the child?

The branding of AltSchool as progressive education is something to watch. Its investors are powerful, as is the narrative that the technology press willingly parrots. Schools need fixing. Silicon Valley engineers – not teachers – will fix them. (For what it’s worth, the majority of AltSchools’ employees are not educators; they are, indeed, software engineers.)

Image credits: Mike Mozart

2 thoughts on “What You Should Know This Week”

  1. Bill F

    There’s so much about this model that is disconcerting.

    Beyond the simple narrative that software engineers can save schools or the troubling notion that surveillance is somehow a positive, the $21,000 – $27,000 tuition means that AltSchool is anything but scalable or a model worth replicating.

    Not only is that a sum that far exceeds per pupil spending in any public school, it virtually guarantees that AltSchool will serve students from elite families, bringing none of the challenges of poverty into the schoolhouse.

    Given the impact that poverty has on learning, that skews any kind of results that AltSchool produces.


  2. Mark L

    I can see why there is a rush to invest in ALT Schools. There is a lot of money in education. At the same time, I would not place my bets on this venture. It seems to be based on the premise that technology can more or less replace the teacher in the school environment. Frankly, they might succeed in replacing education as it mostly exists today. Our schools operate on a mechanistic model based on the mass production paradigm for which they were designed some 100+ years ago. I could see advanced computers automating that model of education. The problem is that model is not working for the 21st Century global economy. Leading educators are moving to radically different ways of teaching, really facilitating learning, that focus on students doing things, not memorizing things. That type of education takes full advantage of technology to replace the traditional role of teachers as conveyers of knowledge, but it depends critically on teachers as insightful guides to learning. It requires adapting to the students, not the other way around.

    The ALT School model appears to be an automate what we have model. That is fairly common in many industries, but with limited success in today’s dynamic economy. The more effective model is to leverage technology to empower people to do more, by essentially taking over the more rote functions and leaving people to think and innovate. I don’t see computers serving that role any time soon. So, ALT Schools may be creating a better way of doing school just when the whole definition of school is changing. If our schools do not make that transition, then our country will sorely suffer, and probably not be able to afford the ALT Schools model. If our schools do make the transition, the ALT Schools model will be left behind.

    Nevertheless, there is a lot of money in education today, so we can expect enormous power to not only make something like ALT Schools work but to even retard the needed change in education if that is necessary to preserve the business model.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *