When the startup, AltSchool, was founded in 2013 by Max Ventilla, the former head of personalization at Google, it quickly drew the attention of venture capitalists and within a few years had raised $174 million from the likes of the Zuckerberg Foundation, Peter Thiel, Laurene Powell Jobs and Pierre Omidyar. It garnered gushing articles in a fawning edtech press which enthused about ‘how successful students can be when they learn in small, personalized communities that champion project-based learning, guided by educators who get a say in the technology they use’. It promised ‘a personalized learning approach that would far surpass the standardized education most kids receive’.

altschoolVentilla was an impressive money-raiser who used, and appeared to believe, every cliché in the edTech sales manual. Dressed in regulation jeans, polo shirt and fleece, he claimed that schools in America were ‘stuck in an industrial-age model, [which] has been in steady decline for the last century’ . What he offered, instead, was a learner-centred, project-based curriculum providing real-world lessons. There was a focus on social-emotional learning activities and critical thinking was vital.

The key to the approach was technology. From the start, software developers, engineers and researchers worked alongside teachers everyday, ‘constantly tweaking the Personalized Learning Plan, which shows students their assignments for each day and helps teachers keep track of and assess student’s learning’. There were tablets for pre-schoolers, laptops for older kids and wall-mounted cameras to record the lessons. There were, of course, Khan Academy videos. Ventilla explained that “we start with a representation of each child”, and even though “the vast majority of the learning should happen non-digitally”, the child’s habits and preferences gets converted into data, “a digital representation of the important things that relate to that child’s learning, not just their academic learning but also their non-academic learning. Everything logistic that goes into setting up the experience for them, whether it’s who has permission to pick them up or their allergy information. You name it.” And just like Netflix matches us to TV shows, “If you have that accurate and actionable representation for each child, now you can start to personalize the whole experience for that child. You can create that kind of loop you described where because we can represent a child well, we can match them to the right experiences.”

AltSchool seemed to offer the possibility of doing something noble, of transforming education, ‘bringing it into the digital age’, and, at the same time, a healthy return on investors’ money. Expanding rapidly, nine AltSchool microschools were opened in New York and the Bay Area, and plans were afoot for further expansion in Chicago. But, by then, it was already clear that something was going wrong. Five of the schools were closed before they had really got started and the attrition rate in some classrooms had reached about 30%. Revenue in 2018 was only $7 million and there were few buyers for the AltSchool platform. Quoting once more from the edTech bible, Ventilla explained the situation: ‘Our whole strategy is to spend more than we make,’ he says. Since software is expensive to develop and cheap to distribute, the losses, he believes, will turn into steep profits once AltSchool refines its product and lands enough customers.

The problems were many and apparent. Some of the buildings were simply not appropriate for schools, with no playgrounds or gyms, malfunctioning toilets, among other issues. Parents were becoming unhappy and accused AltSchool of putting ‘its ambitions as a tech company above its responsibility to teach their children. […] We kind of came to the conclusion that, really, AltSchool as a school was kind of a front for what Max really wants to do, which is develop software that he’s selling,’ a parent of a former AltSchool student told Business Insider. ‘We had really mediocre educators using technology as a crutch,’ said one father who transferred his child to a different private school after two years at AltSchool. […] We learned that it’s almost impossible to really customize the learning experience for each kid.’ Some parents began to wonder whether AltSchool had enticed families into its program merely to extract data from their children, then toss them aside?

With the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that the accusations were hardly unfair. In June of this year, AltSchool announced that its four remaining schools would be operated by a new partner, Higher Ground Education (a well-funded startup founded in 2016 which promotes and ‘modernises’ Montessori education). Meanwhile, AltSchool has been rebranded as Altitude Learning, focusing its ‘resources on the development and expansion of its personalized learning platform’ for licensing to other schools across the country.

Quoting once more from the edTech sales manual, Ventilla has said that education should drive the tech, not the other way round. Not so many years earlier, before starting AltSchool, Ventilla also said that he had read two dozen books on education and emerged a fan of Sir Ken Robinson. He had no experience as a teacher or as an educational administrator. Instead, he had ‘extensive knowledge of networks, and he understood the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from big data’.

  1. Those who can, teach. Those who can’t teach, sell software.

  2. alexcase says:

    Great comment, Dan. Will try to remember that one for my next ELT conference.

    • N says:

      Yep, a short and sweet summary of “Ventilla’s ventures” it is! However, I’d think again about using it in ELT conferences. Detached from the original story, it sounds rather cheap and casuist…

  3. N says:

    I think you’ve once tweeted an article about this guy and his school, but this post seems to give a more comprehensive overview of the situation…
    Well, at least he has been able to straighten out his priorities and move on to what he really wanted to do.
    “We learned that it’s almost impossible to really customize the learning experience for each kid.” – it is this naivety of the parents/adult learners that never fails to amaze me. I mean, you don’t need to have expertise in education in order to be able to come to a conclusion like that, do you? I’d say this sad lack of reasoning is one thing that makes this whole edtech hurly-burly possible… What to you think?

    • philipjkerr says:

      Yes, I’ve been following the AltSchool story for some time and I’ve certainly referred to it before in lectures. I don’t think I would single out parents and adult learners for their naivety. It’s entire education ministries around the world that have bought into the narrative, along with the investors, the OECD, World Bank, etc, etc. Part of the reason for this shard belief is that it would be so nice if it were true. Another reason, of course, is that such colossal sums of money have been spent on selling the narrative.

      • N says:

        You are absolutely right – it looks like no one, however high their position and, presumably, competence is, is immune to good old cognitive bias… As for selling the narrative, it seems to be the sad reality of the modern world: you just have to be selling something in order to be considered any good… ELT, in particular, looks more and more like a giant bazaar, with the sellers of coursebooks trying to outshout the sellers of TBLT, the sellers of lexical approach pushing ahead of the sellers of the traditional grammar-based curricula… There are even those who are (rather aggressively) trying to sell the fact that they “are not selling anything”… The sellers of EdTech just seem to be the loudest – but, to be brutally honest, all of them are a bit tiresome… Don’t you think?

      • philipjkerr says:

        I guess that makes me a tiresome seller of skepticism.

  4. This seems remarkably (and depressingly) similar to the ‘Downtown School’ (not its real name) in NYC, whose over-hyped gamification-based curriculum – and its failure – is described by Christo Sims in Disruptive Fixation (Princeton 2017). Could it be the same institution?

  5. philipjkerr says:

    The hubris is certainly comparable!

  6. ddeubel says:

    From my perspective failures in Ed Tech stem from 3 main branches off the big old tree of want. You touched on them. 1. Captains of the ship with no educational background driven more by large data, scalability, tech affordances and costs (long term) than learning outcomes. 2. The inevitable need to make $ and all the streamlining that happens with that and the cutting off of constant innovation/product improvement/customer service. 3. Doing too much, too early. Feature creap. Trying to please everyone and overcomplicating the initial product. I might also add a 4th. Companies that allow the BofDs to drive the product and sales focus.

    Always good to hear cautionary tales like this one.

  7. N says:

    > I guess that makes me a tiresome seller of skepticism.

    Only if that’s what you insist it makes you. To the best of my knowledge, this position has long been occupied by someone else entirely, and he is not the kind of person to give it up to anyone!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s