Deirdre Moore | October 2017
Could AltSchools Be the Future of Education?
I am not ashamed to say that technology intimidates me and worries me. What I fear about technology in education is that we use technology for the sake of using it without ensuring that it is actually benefitting our students. Between the way my district uses computers for testing students in writing who cannot type to computer learning games that I fear aren’t teaching much, let’s just say I have a healthy skepticism about technology in the classroom and the future of education.
I must admit, however, that I was intrigued by a story I heard on the BBC program “World Hacks” about some lab schools known as “AltSchool” – named both for an alternative to traditional schools and referring to the alt key on the computer keyboard. Started in San Francisco by Matt Ventilla, former Google executive, the schools embrace technology as a tool for educators, not a replacement for them. I was very heartened by this quote from the founder in an online article from Fatherly:
This isn’t about e-learning, and it’s not about handing a kid a tablet and moving away. In fact, part of our motivation and what we see as an opportunity as “technologists engaged in education” is not to just create some app or incremental functionality that superficially changes the experience. Rather, we’re creating a kind of backbone by which content and services and other technologies can make their way into the average classrooms over time and be used for students and educators to interact with each other in a more directed way.
When I explored the website for the AltSchool, I was impressed to see Project Based Learning, group collaborative work, singing, painting, woodworking, PE incorporating cooperative play and individual physical challenges, meditation, and morning meetings. The website claims a holistic approach to education and that is what it looks like – not at all what I expected from a school founded by an IT guy! I was also struck by students being interviewed and from text on the website that emphasized “mistakes” as learning opportunities. One young lady talked about how she used to compare herself to others and worry about getting things wrong. Now she feels more comfortable in school because she is working at her own pace, setting and assessing her goals and reframing mistakes as a chance to learn.
The school website explains that the schools use Portrait, a tool that “tracks student trajectory toward competency by incorporating scores from third-party assessments, teacher narratives, samples of each child’s work, and internal educator notes.” All of that real-time data is available to teachers at all times to inform instruction. The students receive Playlists to guide their personalized learning. “Educators create, sequence, and remix curriculum units to curate Playlists where students can view assignments, communicate with their teacher, and submit work generated on- and off-line. Education teams provide feedback and assessments that update students’ Portrait in real time.” All classroom activity is being captured by cameras received by teams of programmers to help improve their algorithms which serve to guide the teachers in creating Playlists and which the founder hopes will eventually be sophisticated enough to suggest appropriate curriculum for students as well as the best learning groupings of students in the classroom. Teachers also watch the footage to critique their own teaching and lesson plan development. I love the idea of teachers being able to collaborate with engineers and programmers to merge great teaching pedagogy with technology developed intentionally for the way students learn.
The AltSchool claims that students are learning at a rate 1.5x that of average students due to the use of more personalized learning and increased student agency that comes from that. Ventilla hopes to have his system ready to sell to every school in America within 10 years. His hope is that not just the wealthy who can afford to send their children to one of the lab schools, but that every child in America could have access to this kind of personalized learning. I worry that large school districts with larger class sizes would not be able to duplicate those kinds of results but I am excited by the possibilities that such “smart” software could provide. We could be looking at the schools of the future who are flexible enough to help prepare our students for the fast-changing world in which they live.