Saturday, March 5, 2016

Silicon Valley Wunderskool

When we last met Altschool, it was May of 2015 and the new Silicon Valley educational disruptor startup was getting all kinds of press courtesy of some combination of good connections and the contribution of a buttload of Zuckerberg money. Now Rebecca Mead at the New Yorker is letting us know how Altschool has been faring since then.

The short pitch for Altschool is tech-based boutique micro-schooling for rich kids.

When I read about it last May, Altschool immediately reminded me of the free or open schools of the sixties. My aunt, a wonderful woman who had been traditionally trained as a teacher, opened one in Connecticut. The basic idea is that if you place students in resource rich environments and let them follow their interests, education will happen. Altschool is able to really, really up the ante on the whole rich resource portion of the idea, but putting technology in the hands of every child.

The other half of the Altschool idea is to put tech in the hands of the teachers. From Mead's observation of a pre-K class:

Several children were playing “restaurant,” and one girl sat in a chair, her arms outstretched as if holding a steering wheel: she was delivering food orders. “I’m taking a shortcut,” she announced. A teacher sitting on the floor told her, “That’s a good word—you used it correctly.” Then she took out her phone and recorded a video of the moment.

Altschool was founded-started-conceived by Max Ventilla, a former Google project manager who wanted to create a better school for his own tiny human.

The more Ventilla thought about education, the more he thought that he could bring about change—and not just for his own children. Instead of starting a “one-off school,” he would create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about. Ventilla’s vision fit the prevailing ethos of middle-class child rearing, in which offspring are urged to find their enthusiasms and pursue them into rewarding nonconformity.

All of this was evident when Altschool had its media moment last spring. What was perhaps less evident was just how thoroughly immersive the technological recording and data-collection for students would be. Altschool uses another version of a Competency Based Education model, with learning broken up into many small cells that students must demonstrate mastery of. This allows for a huge level of individualization.

But the demonstration of mastery isn't a matter of stopping school for some sort of test. Instead, teachers are supposed to hunt learning down and capture it.

“We are really shifting the role of an educator to someone who is more of a data-enabled detective.” He defined a traditional teacher as an “artisanal lesson planner on one hand and disciplinary babysitter on the other hand.”  

There is a huge software component to Altschool, and that development is ongoing, with software engineers on site and meeting regularly to discuss, debug, debrief, and plan.

In fact, by the time you add up teachers, leaders, software engineers, visiting experts, etc, all deployed for a small number of students, the adult to tiny human ratio is something that poor urban schools can't even dream of. Altschool really is the answer to, "If smart, rich, well-connected people could create a school from scratch, what would it look like?" Altschool is funded by tuition, which is also far above the wildest dreams of any public school's per-pupil spending.

There are issues here. It will come as no surprise to most folks that Mead observes some incidents of technology not working as it's supposed to. How do you move forward if the tech is down and it is the whole spine and soul of your program?

There is a huge-- huge-- amount of data and images and video and just stuff collected for each child, and that's a bit troubling. Okay, maybe a lot troubling.

And as Mead observed, and my aunt learned fifty years ago, sometimes when you turn students loose in a rich environment to follow their own interests and impulses, you get something that's not very much like education at all. What Mead calls the "rabbit hole of the internet" only makes it more problematic.

And while the model is rising and advancing with hopes of more schools opening, it's not clear that anybody has figured out how such an expensive model can be spread to anyone other than the children of the rich. These are not the children most in danger of being lost in a standardized, one size fits all world.

There are things to like about this model (individualization, a reduced need for testing), but things to beware as well (data mining, tech dependency), and most especially, some critical issues that need to be addressed if Altschool is ever to be more than a pricey boutique (cost, scaling, and the eternal question-- how to split the difference between not caging curious kids while still prodding students forward who can use a little prodding and direction). I'm not yet convinced that Altschool is a real answer for US students, but it's a more interesting solution than one-size-fits-all test-driven baloney. We'll see.


  1. But isn't just about any form of school better than the "one-size-fits-all test-driven baloney" that we currently have? I'd be satisfied if my children had received the K-8 education that I received in the 1970's in California.

  2. Agreed, there's much to like about letting curious kids pursue their interests. I'm no fan of the stultified, content-free curriculum that lots of public school kids put up with.
    But the endless documentation I find troubling: the pix, videos, etc. - not only because of data mining, but because it's hard to see how the relentless recording of everything children do and say won't make them self-conscious.

    And in the end, this is about getting the alpha kids out of the system. Everything from Silicon Valley is tainted with that Ayn Rand conviction that the most important thing society can do, in and out of education, is to get out of the way of the Idiosyncratic Genius. Well, most of us aren't idiosyncratic geniuses. We want to be part of the culture; we want to serve; we want to contribute; we want to belong. In Ventilla's world, about 90% of the population is, and will always be, invisible.

  3. I really like the idea of Altschool. It's very much like what my wife and I set out to do for our own two children when we decided to unschool them in their early years.

    Of course, it cannot possibly scale, especially the tech part, but we would be well-served, I think, to adopt way more of the hippy philosophy your aunt had in mind and which tech billionaires actually prefer for their very own tiny humans.

  4. This sounds a LOT like Montessori education, if the Montessori crowd were obsessed with technology (which, of course, they absolutely avoid it as a general rule).