Behind the scenes at AltSchool: schooling reimagined

4th March 2016 at 00:00
altschool, max ventilla, ed-tech
In a blink-and-you-miss-it building, squeezed between a scrapyard and a fitness centre in downtown San Francisco, you can steal a glimpse of what some are heralding as the future of education. Richard Vaughan visits the for-profit AltSchool

In a small white room, a group of students sit quietly working under the guidance of two teachers. It seems, at first, to be like any other classroom. But then you notice the viewing gallery; then you are told about the team of software engineers peering through the one-way glass and then you are shown the small army of computer programmers and designers working diligently at their computers behind the back wall, a mere brick-width from the lesson.

This is the headquarters of AltSchool. The company has seven schools and in each, the teacher is king. Spending too much time on admin? No problem, software will be developed to do it for you. Marking becoming too onerous? Fine, send a message to the back-office and a solution will be with you in no more than two days. Unsure as to whether one of the students really got the learning objective? Don’t worry, every movement of the student has been recorded – we’ll analyse the film and check it for you.

It sounds, no doubt, like a promised land for teachers and a very good deal for students, too. But scratch beneath the surface and not everyone may like what they find.

“AltSchool has always been a big ambition,” explains AltSchool CEO and co-founder Max Ventilla (pictured, opposite). “It wasn’t just creating new instances of schools; we would also create a new model for education – an updated Montessori, 100 years later.”

His “Montessori 2.0” became a reality in San Francisco just over two years ago, and it now has six schools in the Bay Area and one more in New York.

All are “micro-schools” – a campus could be just one or two classes or at most three or four (with 22 students and two teachers in each class) – catering for lower- and middle-school pupils, or ages 4 to 13. Children are taught in mixed-age groups.

The philosophy behind the school is to carry on the child-centred learning propagated by Montessori, but to utilise the power of new technology to enable teachers to take the personalisation of a pupil’s learning to ever-higher levels.

It’s proved a popular idea. AltSchool has been labelled as the “saviour of education” and “schooling reimagined”. Some of the biggest players in Silicon Valley are falling over themselves to get involved: around $100 million (£70 million) has been given to AltSchool from investors, including Facebook’s co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.

This money is added to the $30,000 (£21,000) students pay to attend the schools (there are currently 325 students in total attending AltSchools). But what does technology-powered personalised learning look like?

On a visit to AltSchool’s Fort Mason campus, a former 24-hour fitness centre nestled in a chic part of San Francisco just a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate Bridge, things don’t initially live up to the hype. A five-year-old boy is bouncing on a trampoline in the foyer between classrooms, counting each jump. His classmates, meanwhile, are doing stretches on soft mats, while a girl hops along the hallway. It’s not exactly PE 2.0.

Indeed, for a school that is attracting interest from some of the biggest global tech companies, there appears to be a distinct lack of technology being used by pupils.

“There is this misnomer that AltSchool is completely changing schools,” reveals Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education. “You will see the classrooms look very similar to what you would expect [in any school]. We don’t believe that because it’s 2016, children learn differently. We base our ideas on what has been proven and also visionary ideas of how children learn and what they need to do to learn effectively. We’re not about learning on a screen. The pupils spend between 10 and 30 per cent of their day on a screen.”

The lower-school classes look much the same as any infant school, but the higher up the school you go, the more technology plays a role. The middle-school class is split, with one group being taught in a usual “chalk and talk” manner, whereas the other group are silently getting on with work on their Chromebooks with headphones on. But it still doesn’t seem revolutionary.

Wilson says that’s because the technology only really comes into play behind the scenes of the school, as a support function. Its role, according to Wilson, is to give teachers “superpowers”.


Personalised lessons

Some of these “superpowers” may, at first, seem familiar – for example, a teacher’s ability to personalise learning. Every child has their list of assignments, a timetable and a calendar on what is called their “playlist”. This playlist is essentially a work cloud, which is accessed by both the students and their teachers.

What’s “super” about it is that teachers can use it not to teach general lessons with personalised feedback, but to ensure that the very lessons themselves are personalised.

“In conventional schools you teach to the middle,” says Wilson. “We personalise by progress and pace, but we also personalise by students’ passions. And, finally, we personalise by students’ approach to learning and we think this will be one of our biggest contributions to the education field.”

If, for instance, a student learns better through audio books rather than by reading, this will be picked up by the school’s various assessments and the student’s playlist will be altered accordingly.

How the school assesses such a disparate group of learners is equally unconventional. Traditional testing of academic progress is a very small part of the process by which teachers tailor the learning for individual students. Third-party testing is implemented sparingly, and used as a “chisel rather than a sledgehammer”, Wilson says. The tests are given three times a year, and the results – fed back in no more than two days – are used primarily to inform the teacher’s instruction.

But the aim at AltSchool is not just academic progress. The school places just as much emphasis on the social-emotional development of pupils.

“What we’re doing is very much progressive, Socratic approaches that have been around forever but have been difficult to put in place efficiently without technology,” Wilson says. “Technology allows us to document what is happening so we can analyse what the student needs.”

The process is more than a little controversial. Indeed, it has raised fears of an Orwellian approach to learning.

When the children work on their laptops, every keystroke and mouse click is recorded. What is more, every classroom is fitted with something called “Altvideo”, which records every second of every day of the child’s time in the classroom. Every utterance, gesticulation or non-involvement is recorded as precious data to give teachers an insight into how the child is doing in class.

“The purpose of Altvideo is kind of like another way of documenting and assessing,” says lower-school teacher Kate Moriarty. “So if another teacher and I are working with a student and there is an “Ah-ha!” moment that we are not able to document on our computers, we can revisit it so we can have it as part of their learning progression, or you can share it with their parents.

“As a teacher you are really on all the time, you are focusing on 22 students, so it is hard to try and stop and reflect yourself. Altvideo allows you to have that reflection later, which as an educator is really important and we’ve utilised that.”

To access the video, teachers just send a message to the product, engineering and development (Ped) team and the footage of the exact moment is sent.

The Ped team, Moriarty says, is in constant dialogue with the teachers across all of the schools. In addition to developing the technology to monitor students’ emotional and academic progress, this is also where the teacher shortcuts for admin, marking or other “workload” tasks are developed. One major superpower that AltSchools provide is the ability for teachers to make life easier for themselves.

“What the Ped team does is lighten the load for teachers,” she explains. “So, they will talk to teachers and there will be really time-consuming, tedious things that teachers do, like the way you assess or grade. So, if you can automate it, or give a teacher the opportunity to go on their phone and quickly document something – that saves a ton of time.”

The Ped team is the group of developers and designers sitting behind the classroom in the AltSchool headquarters. And it is there that you begin to realise: this is more than just another chain of schools looking to expand on the back of a quirky pitch around technology. The reason that AltSchool monitors its students and teachers – indeed, the reason every interaction is captured on Altvideo, every assessment is recorded by teachers, every learning development of the pupils is scrutinised – is because AltSchool is not just a school provider, but also a technology company. The classrooms are essentially giant research and development labs. And its pupils, it could very well be argued, are the lab rats.

The company currently has one computer engineer for every teacher on its books, and they are in regular dialogue with one another about how to improve the technology that they develop for their schools. This obviously benefits the schools, but the idea is that the software products that the data informs could eventually be either licensed out or adopted by schools outside the AltSchool stable for their own data – for profit.


For profit, for good

That word is toxic in education, but Ventilla stresses that AltSchool is not just about making money, it is about changing the way that education works: profit is a part of that, but some of the money will be ploughed back into the company to try and make that dream a reality.

It’s a business model that Ventilla devised with his co-founder – and chief technology officer – Bharat Mediratta. Their pedigree, in the tech world at least, is almost peerless. Ventilla was head of personalisation at Google, helping to set up Google+, but also helping to personalise your Google searches. Mediratta ran the search infrastructure, “making sure that it was always there, and working fast”.

They decided to leave their lucrative roles at Google to, in effect, do to education what Google has done to much of the rest of the world: suck in as much data as possible about how people work – in this case, pupils and teachers – and develop technology to make it better.

So is AltSchool a business or a school provider? They say that it is both and that their objective is just as applicable to each: to personalise education.

“Because we’ve made the bigger investment, we can build out the tools to make personalised education a reality,” says Mediratta. “In the next 10 years, personalised education is going to overtake this space. It is going to happen, the question is who is going to do it? What we’re trying to do is push the curve.”

While there have been plenty of schools and myriad ed-tech companies that have tried to capture and utilise pupil data to better inform and personalise education, they have barely shifted the needle in terms of innovation. But no one has attempted it on an entirely root-and-branch scale, opening schools that can then become test beds for educational tools.

There’s a danger that, in this scenario, the students become cogs in a machine set up to make money, but Ventilla bristles at the idea. There are, he says, “far easier ways to make a buck” than trying to do it by improving education. But for technology to have a meaningful role to play in education, he says, profit must play a part.

“If you believe that technology has a role to play in education, meaning hardware and software that people build, if you believe that’s important to the education of people for tomorrow, you cannot take the profit motive out of it,” he says.

“We can have an argument that technology has no place in schools or the only useful technologies used in schools should be developed for businesses and happen to eventually trickle down once they have become proven – I’d be happy to have that discussion with you, because I think there are numerous pitfalls in technology being used incorrectly.

“But if you think that technology does have a role to play, I think it’s very naive to say we should get technology but it should come out of thin air.”

Ventilla emphasises that the AltSchools offer an exceptional education – and adds that anyone who believes that the children are suffering in the pursuit of profit is mistaken.

“In terms of the linear, standards-based progress in infrequent and pretty crappy testing, we do well – 80 per cent-plus of kids do more than a year’s worth of progress relative to where they came in. But I’d like to move beyond that,” he says.

AltSchool, he says, wants to prepare children for the next 30, 40 or 50 years and to create schools that meet the need not just of the student, but of the family and of society as a whole.

“That’s a different thing we’re optimising for and in two years its not like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve nailed it,’” he says.

The eventual aim is to create a completely new school ecosystem, of which AltSchool will be a cornerstone.

“Google is not the internet; Facebook, Cisco, Amazon are not the internet. But they are all central pillars of and catalysts for an ecosystem that increasingly is the oxygen that people breathe in terms of very important sectors,” Ventilla says.

“Our ambition is to move in the way that Amazon has moved: from being a particular instantiation of a product experience to a broader platform that people can use to carry out a certain type of constrained activity, to ultimately being a pillar of just the broader ecosystem. That’s the end game here.”

What this means is that he wants AltSchool to become the defining model of how schools could work, which could be adapted to fit any educational philosophy. So you could have Maker versions of AltSchool, or heavily traditional models of AltSchool. The ultimate aim is to reach a point where the “unit” of education is not the school or the classroom, but instead the individual student, which would be made possible by adopting the AltSchool approach.

Within the next five years, there could even be an AltSchool – or an iteration of it – functioning as part of this new ecosystem in the UK.

With the business speak and transparent financial objectives, it would be easy to suggest that Ventilla and his company are in education just to open private schools and flog ed-tech products, but that would be doing both him and the company a huge disservice. It is a far more considered and sophisticated set-up than that. And, as Ventilla says, it is still too early for us to judge it properly.

“Facebook started as a bulletin board for kids in Harvard; 10 years later, the whole world has changed. If Facebook was forced in year one, two or three to get internet access for everyone in Africa, it probably wouldn’t have ever gotten there. For me, I draw a lot inspiration from that Bill Gates quote: ‘We tend to overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in 10.’

“There’s a reason why we gave ourselves 10 years. If 10 years in I can’t give you straight answers, I will chalk this up as a failure.”


The AltSchool tools

The “playlist” platform, called Tetrapod, is used by teachers to set tasks and assignments will be available for other schools – or even an entire school system – to use. The platform also allows teachers to create and share lesson plans.

“Progression” is essentially a real-time dashboard that measures every aspect of a pupil, from their academic progress to social-emotional progress, using classroom sensory data and assessment information, as well as teacher interactions. The data is then fed back to inform the teacher of a child’s progress.

Parents are able to log into a “parent feed”, like Twitter or Facebook, and see what work their child is doing and what messages the teacher has left. It also allows parents and teachers to communicate with one another.

Perhaps the most interesting innovation, however, will be the creation of a tool allowing staff to set assignments for parents, continuing a child’s learning outside of the classroom.

The AltSchool business plan

Phase one: Creation of the AltSchool micro-schools and establishing the new model of education.

Phase two: Expansion of the AltSchool “ecosystem” but with a variety of different schools offering a range of models of education, such as a Montessori version, or a DIY version.

Phase three: Comes into effect after about 10 years, once the ecosystem has taken on a life of its own beyond what AltSchool has done itself. By this stage, AltSchool is just one pillar among many. At that point, existing schools migrate to make use of and benefit from this new ecosystem in the same way that the New York Times utilises the internet.

“The way to be truly successful – and this is what I learnt from [Google founders] Sergey [Brin] and Larry [Page] – is if you build a very successful business that is tightly aligned with what is good for your users that is profitable, then it can grow,” says AltSchool co-founder and chief technology officer Bharat Mediratta.

“It has to be a better model, one that is quantifiably better and that people want to pay for so we can very readily spread this model as far as we can.”

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