Facebook Goes Back to School

Facebook is going to school. Not as in the “Facebook” page that just about everyone on the planet “likes.” Instead the company has created a tight partnership with California-based charter network, Summit Public Schools, to build a software platform that both educators and entrepreneurs hope will help students plunge deeply into meaningful learning.

The collaboration, which started in early 2014, veers away from the traditional intensive fact-packed style of learning to emphasize a student-centered, exploratory learning model. Technology comes into play in two ways: It gives students more command over the pace and direction of their own learning, putting the resources they need at their fingertips when they need it. And technology tightens communications between teachers and students, enabling the teachers to act more like “coaches” and less like lecturers, even as they keep an eye on whether students are working their way through academic standards.

Although learning by doing is hardly a new approach, this amped-up version is still evolving. And if the collaboration between the relatively tiny school network and the social media giant proves successful, it could offer some unusual answers to powerfully explosive questions: Who is shaping public education? And how will students learn?

What will make all the difference: Which entity—the school or the company—stays in command of the tools that they are jointly creating.

Here’s why.

Plenty of technology companies, including the giants, have an “edu” division or group: Apple was among the earliest to go deeply into education. Microsoft, Google and many others created packages of products—some paid and some free—for education. Most of the time, such companies built their product for their “primary” customer—either consumers or industry—and then figured out how to morph their offerings for schools. Some of them tried to listen to the needs of the educators; others were more attentive to the difference the sales made to their bottom lines.

Beginning around 2010, technology was becoming powerful and flexible enough that users could imagine designing what they wanted technology to do. Edtech startups began to emerge, some of which have been strongly influenced by users—and in education, that included educators.

Educators, meanwhile, have been battling a welter of challenges: Calls for “improved performance”—by students and teachers—were growing shrill. At the same time, student diversity was accelerating: the kids who came to school had an exploding number of needs, spoke a profusion of languages, and frequently came from families battered by poverty and the economic downturn. Connecting the “classic curriculum” to the lives of these students was increasingly hard.

“The industrial model of schooling [isn’t] working well for anyone—our schools were designed for a very different time and purpose and are simply not able to prepare and inspire every young person to be successful over the course of their lives,” wrote Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund and formerly with the Gates Foundation, in a recent blog post.

At Summit Public Schools in Redwood City, CA, executive director Diane Tavenner created a program where 55% of her high school students graduated from college in six years—double the national average for the demographic of students Summit serves. The outcome made her cry.

“I still remember getting that result,” she recalled, speaking at a conference earlier this year. “Tears were rolling down my face. I had given more of myself to the kids in those classes than I did to my own son. And 55% just wasn’t good enough.”

Budding entrepreneurs, including many who had taught in the classroom or been corps members in Teach for America, began designing technology explicitly for schools and students.

And so did some schools:

  • Aspire Public Schools launched Schoolzilla, a data warehouse platform that displays schools’ data in detailed graphics and charts in 2009. In 2013, the development team spun out into its own B-Corporation.
  • Leadership Public Schools in 2012 created ExitTicket, a classroom response system. It was acquired by EdStart in March 2014.
  • Philadelphia public magnet school, The Science Leadership Academy (SLA), developed Slate, a multi-faceted learning management and student information system that supports communications between teachers, students and parents, and store school records and assignments.

At Summit, Tavenner and her team started down an ambitious path to put students at the center of learning. To support how they wanted students to learn, the educators began to cobble together Google docs and spreadsheets.

After a year or so of relying on an in-house engineer (and former entrepreneur) Sam Strasser, Tavenner and her team realized they needed more engineering horsepower. Through a Secondment Agreement (which allows companies to loan out employees), Summit wound up with a team of six Facebook engineers devoted to working on its Personal Learning Platform, or PLP.

Last year, more than 2,000 students and 100 teachers used Summit’s PLP. Over the summer, Summit threw open its doors for a two-week long “Basecamp” program. Twenty-one educators from middle and high schools schools around the US got a crash course in both the Summit model and in using the PLP, and will spend this year putting the approach into practice in their schools.

So far, Tavenner and her partners, including Facebook, say what they are building is just what the Summit educators have in mind.

“We’ll use feedback from this program to improve the PLP so we can eventually offer it, for free, to any school in the US that wants it,” wrote Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, in a  blog post published today. The PLP, he added, is “completely separate from Facebook,” and does not require a Facebook account to log in. The teams are aiming for a “gold standard” around protecting student data, they assert. For starters, they are adhering to the White House-endorsed Student Privacy Pledge, which Summit has signed.

In the paper she coauthored with Childress, Tavenner says she’s committed to making all the tools that Summit uses free for educators—including the PLP, Summit’s full curriculum, assessments and its emerging Professional Development Platform.

But Childress, Tavenner and their coauthor also warn that the commitment is heavy—and may not conform to the usual cyclical demands of commercial or even political development. “We must be far more patient about the investment (time, money, and energy) needed to design, build and refine better models of schooling,” they write.

That will become the test for the Facebook partnership: Will the company, even with its vast resources, continue to let the educators lead? And how will they demonstrate that commitment to educators, parents and even students, year after year?

In a brief post about the announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges the need for community input and collaboration. He writes. 

Building software that will enable personalized learning for all children is a new and exciting challenge for Facebook and we can’t do it alone. We’re committed to listening to and learning from the education community—teachers, parents and organizations that are supporting personalized learning—and we're looking forward to opening up to more students soon.

It is surely a challenge worth undertaking.

Editor’s Note: NewSchools Venture Fund is an investor in EdSurge.

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