AltSchool  Model:  Mark Zuckerberg and Personalized Learning!

Dear Commons Community,

Earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, pledged approximately $45 billion to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a nonprofit that will look “to join people across the world to advance human potential and promote equality for all children in the next generation”. One area of the Initiative’s focus will be personalized learning.  The New York Times has a featured article on the AltSchool, a personalized learning model founded by former Google executive, Max Ventilla.   Mr. Zuckerberg has already committed an investment in AltSchool.  As reported in the article:

“AltSchool, which opened two years ago, has four branches in San Francisco, one in Palo Alto and a sixth on Hicks Street in Brooklyn, which enrolled its first students in September. An East Village location is scheduled to open next fall, and a Chicago location is planned for 2017.

 “Personalized learning” involves the customization of lesson plans to address the needs of individual students, in classrooms where rates of progress and areas of interest vary; technology enhances the process through the use of software and applications that can present various exercises, assessment tools, lines of inquiry and so forth for students. But even given that, meeting every child in his or her own developmental place requires a culture and atmosphere of intimacy, a level of attention from teachers that makes it challenging to imagine the model taking hold across large urban public school systems…

Mr. Ventilla has little use for traditional education.  His complaints are familiar and often fair: The system is antiquated; it doesn’t prepare students for a rapidly changing world guided by technological innovation; we are too reliant on testing; students do too little of what is applicable later. “When, in professional life, are you ever required to sit at a desk, in a room, for three hours filling in answers in bubbles?” he asked rhetorically one afternoon, seated in his Brooklyn office. There is no formal testing to speak of at AltSchool, and little in the way of homework…

Part of the school’s marketing strategy is to make it very user-friendly for parents — if you need to change drop-off or pick-up plans, you can, and you do it on mobile devices. School vacations can happen at the parents’ discretion. If you want to take your child with you on a weeklong business trip to Hong Kong, you can — this is considered another opportunity for learning. A tablet with your child’s lesson plans would go with you, and he or she could study and work wherever you are. AltSchool’s plan, ultimately, after years of data-keeping, self-assessment and reassessment, is to take its best practices and technological innovations to the universe of public schools.

For all of its arguably dubious ideas, AltSchool is serious about the idea that progressive education should not simply be the provenance of the well off. This is a notion markedly absent in the boot-camp model of so many of the city’s charter schools, where learning can too easily be divorced from pleasure, and fear rather than joy is the operative motivator. You don’t need rich parents to get turned on to learning from a river.”

If Chan Zuckerberg decide to become major financial backers of the AltSchool model, it will become an important part of school reform discussions in the years to come.  Of course, scaling up such a model for large school systems will be an enormous challenge.


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