Summit Friends Facebook to Expand Personalized Learning Platform

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Schools are often at the mercy of the market as they wait for companies to develop tools that enable them to improve learning. But what happens when such hopes don’t materialize?

Some take the reins and start building themselves. That’s what Summit Public Schools, a charter network based in Silicon Valley, did four year ago when it started building its Personal Learning Platform (also called the “PLP”--here’s how it works.) The tool gives students the ability to set their own learning goals, control over content delivery and access to their own data. Unable to find such a tool in 2010, Summit began to build a platform of its own.

“When we started tinkering [with the PLP], we originally thought we’d just build a stop-gap measure tool until something great came on the market,” says Diane Tavenner, Chief Executive Officer at Summit.

The tool started as a string of Google docs and spreadsheets, but Summit needed help to refine it into a full-scale platform for the seven schools in its network. First it hired a full-time engineer. But to open the tool up for the entire world to use, Summit needed more help. So it called up Facebook.

Engineers + Schools Get Closer

“Teachers are so creative, they know what is needed in developing efficiencies and empowering kids. But they are not engineers,” explains Tavenner.

Engineers rarely work side-by-side with teachers. Often times, districts will contract with outside developers to help them build what they want or collaborate with existing vendors. But rarely do schools embed engineers into the classroom to work side-by-side with teachers

Summit did that--and more. They hired Sam Strasser, a former engineer for Microsoft and co-founder of Junyo, as a full-time employee in 2013. He worked worked closely with teachers to design and iterate the platform.

But in early 2014, with a vision of making the tool open and accessible to other schools, Summit needed to enlist more engineering talent. That’s where Facebook came in.

The social-media mega giant company, with a founder who’s already exhibited an interest in philanthropy and school improvement, and Summit entered into an Secondment Agreement, which allows companies to temporarily donate its employees’ time to work for another organization. The agreement gives Summit full time access to six Facebook engineers for free.

These engineers have helped Summit improve the existing features. New features were added to enable parents to access to the PLP to keep track of student work and how quickly students are mastering standards. They also replaced Show Evidence, the tool they once used to store, scaffold, score and collect student projects. The engineering team was able to improve on the functionality of Show Evidence to more fluidly fit its model. “This simplified and dramatically improved teachers’ ability to create and manage projects… It also allows us to store projects on our own system, which enables us to share them with others as part of sharing the PLP,” says Summit’s Chief Information Officer Jon Deane.

“The caliber of engineers [at Facebook], and their ability to create a platform not just for a single network of schools but one that can really extend to other schools is an incredibly impactful partnership,” says Tavenner.

According to her, all ownership of the tool and data captured within it will remain in the hands of Summit. None of this data will be integrated with the Facebook social network or Facebook advertisers.

Opening Up Basecamp

Summit isn’t the first school to build a tool in-house. Schoolzilla, a data warehouse platform that displays schools’ data in detailed graphics and charts, was developed at Aspire Public Schools in 2009. In 2013, the development team spun out into its own B-Corporation. ExitTicket, a classroom response system, was born in Leadership Public Schools in 2012 and acquired by EdStart in March 2014.

Summit isn’t putting its PLP tool on the marketplace just yet.

After spending the summer to gauge interest from other districts, Summit is now ready to share the tool with 20 schools and districts through a program dubbed “Basecamp.” These early adopters will get access to the PLP, including access to all of Summit’s curriculum materials and support for implementing the tool within their respective school models.

Summit will provide one full-time Summit employee for every four schools to guide them on implementing the PLP. This mentor will spend one week per quarter on-site to support, gather feedback, facilitate focus groups and bring data back to help improve the tool. Facebook engineers will be on hand through 2016 to help Basecamp participants deal with onboarding data, adapting the tool for different infrastructure needs and making continual improvements to the tool.

Summit is looking for schools that also offer students self-directed learning time, deeper learning projects and incorporate PD coaching into the school culture. They will also have to meet some basic technological requirements, such as 1:1 computing and sufficient broadband. “We are willing to bring basic resources to help partners here,” Tavenner says. What this basic support will look like is unclear and depends upon what future philanthropic support Summit can drum up for the program.

Tavenner doesn’t expect schools to dramatically transform their operations. Ideally, partner schools will experiment with one grade level of students, preferably 125 students and three or four teachers to start. “We think this is very much a mutual selection process, like entering into a relationship. We have a lot of people who say they want to do this with us. Now we are testing to see if this is real,” Tavenner continues.

Applications to join the Basecamp program are open until December 17. Summit leaders will spend January and February 2015 interviewing candidates and make its decision by the end of February. Participants are expected to spend five weeks of their summer preparing to roll out the tool, which includes three weeks of training onsite at Summit’s Redwood City location.

Game Changing?

Tavenner wants to expand the Bascamp cohort in subsequent years, and is seeking further philanthropic support to further fund the program.

It’s one thing to support 20 different schools. What happens with there are 200? Does Summit, even with the backing of Facebook’s engineering power, have enough resources to serve and support other schools--on top of its own students and parents?

“At some point, we will have to be mindful and thoughtful and look at Aspire and Leadership as models. If it doesn't make sense, and it’s getting out of balance, we might have to spin it out,” explains Tavenner. “We certainly keep that [door] open in the future; we just don’t have to make that decision today,”

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