When Mark Zuckerberg visited a Summit charter school for the first time, he was impressed. The Facebook co-founder saw students using technology to take control of their education, deciding what they learned and when, and being responsible for their own assessments.
Zuckerberg thought the atmosphere was more like a start-up than a school and asked to meet the team that had designed the software to make it all possible.
The introductions didn’t take long. The team consisted of just one person – Sam Strasser – who, some weeks before, had broken his arm meaning he was unable to shave.
“Mark was confronted by this guy with only one working arm and a mangy beard,” Strasser recalls. “I’m pretty sure he thought, ‘Well, we can do better than this.’”
The personal touch
That visit was the start of a formal relationship between the technology giant and Summit Public Schools, which now has one big ambition: to revolutionise the way schools teach over the next decade.
Before Facebook’s involvement began three years ago, the personalised learning experiment Summit was running was limited to a few of the organisation’s 10 charter schools.
As of September this year, that number had grown to more than 100, with non-Summit schools signing up to use its personalised learning platform (PLP). The growth has been fairly quick, but is nothing to what Zuckerberg anticipates in the coming years. In a Facebook Live talk last month, he said he hoped to see between 500 and 1,000 more schools adopting the system over the next year.
“There are only about 25,000 middle and high schools in the US,” he added. “So if we can help, every year, 1,000 more schools to use personalised learning in this way, in a decade we can look back and be in a situation where the majority of students in this country have a personalised learning experience.
“This is not the kind of thing you can change overnight. But if you take a five, 10 or 15-year timeframe, it’s possible to help teachers at schools around the country, and eventually the world, to do personalised learning.”
Zuckerberg has created a team of 30 full-time staff at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, to work on Summit’s PLP, which is at the centre of school life.
At its heart is the idea that students should be responsible for their own time, be free to follow their interests and develop the independence and resilience they will need to thrive in higher education.
The curriculum for the entire year is mapped out in the system for students to access on day one of school. Alongside each subject is a list of core knowledge (known as a playlist) with links to pieces of text and videos that students work through at their own pace. When they are happy with what they have learned, they take an online test.
When they are not doing personal study – which accounts for about 30 per cent of their week – students are in classes working on projects to apply what they have learned. Teachers may do a 15-minute “lesson” at the beginning of class, but are mainly on hand to facilitate, explain concepts that students might be struggling with and give extensive feedback on the work being produced.
Beyond flipped learning
While Summit draws on elements of the flipped learning approach increasingly popular in many schools, it takes that philosophy to the next level by putting all the learning and assessments expected of students across all subjects in one place.
The students have laptops and can access their PLPs whenever and wherever they like. While this set-up allows for freedom, it also means there is intensive data monitoring of the progress students are making so that teachers can intervene and keep them on track.
Chris Kelly, a history teacher at Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, near San Francisco, has witnessed the introduction of the new system, and admits it can be difficult for staff to adjust. “It was disconcerting initially,” he says. “People are used to working in a certain way, and what we do now doesn’t fit with everyone’s preconceptions. But the important thing is that the students run with it. They are more likely to self-start and ask for help when they need it.”
Summit Prep, the first of the Summit schools, is small, particularly by American high school standards. It has just over 400 students, which is typical for Summit, creating a personal feel. Aside from traditional classrooms, there is a large, open space in the lobby – next to neatly lined-up rows of skateboards – which students use for personalised study and group work.
Edgar Anaya, a 17-year-old 12th grader at Summit Prep, says that taking on the extra responsibility has helped him to mature.
“Coming from a regular middle school, it was challenging to have my education in my own hands,” he says. “I was used to having my hand held through it all. But here you have the whole year there for you at your disposal and you have to work out your way around that.
“It’s been a really good experience. As a senior, I have developed a lots of skills that I will use in college.”
As well as catching the attention of Facebook, Summit has been winning wider praise across the US. The group was recently awarded one of 10 prizes of $10 million to “reimagine high schools”, as part of XQ: the Super School Project, an initiative chaired by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple guru Steve Jobs. “There is a huge gap between what students want for their future and what schools are offering,” she said when launching the contest.
Around Silicon Valley, there are various charter schools experimenting with how to harness technology to personalise learning, but thanks to Facebook’s involvement, Summit has stolen a march on competitors.
The organisation stresses that only schools that approach it and go through a rigorous application process will be able to use its system. The change must come from teachers and schools that want to do something different, instead of being imposed from above by a school board or district.
There is also intensive training, currently delivered free of charge. These elements mean that where it is implemented, the system has buy-in from teachers and is more likely to succeed.
Whether that can all remain in place if the system gains the momentum that Zuckerberg predicts remains to be seen – but there aren’t many people who know more about successfully scaling technology and putting it into the hands of the masses.