The 4 Issues AltSchool Needs to Figure Out to Scale Its ‘Personalized...

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The 4 Issues AltSchool Needs to Figure Out to Scale Its ‘Personalized Learning’ Platform

By Jen Curtis     Apr 24, 2017

The 4 Issues AltSchool Needs to Figure Out to Scale Its ‘Personalized Learning’ Platform

No one can say Devin Vodicka lacks ambition. A holder of numerous Superintendent recognition awards, Vodicka has spent the last five years serving over 25,000 students at Vista Unified in Southern California. Yet that number apparently isn’t big enough; he wants his work to reach even more students.

Earlier this month, Vodicka announced he’s leaving the district to serve as Chief Impact Officer at AltSchool, the experimental microschool system based in the Bay Area. His end goal? Nothing short of “creating the world’s best education and providing personalized learning for all,” he tells EdSurge.

Vodicka’s new position is part of AltSchool’s mission to bring its personalized learning platform across the country. Through the AltSchool Open program, the startup has spent the last year partnering with four selected private schools who will pilot their platform during the upcoming 2017-2018 school year in exchange for user data and feedback. This spring, AltSchool extended the invitation to charter schools, with a plan to bring public schools into the fold by 2019. The long-term goal, Vodicka explains, is to make the technology accessible to all children “regardless of the school they attend.”

That dream is still a long way off. As both Vodicka and his new colleagues acknowledge, AltSchool Open is competitive, time-intensive and expensive. To make it scalable, there’s a lot to still figure out: timing, funding, and even the format of the ever-evolving platform, which has changed dramatically since its first iteration. Here are some of the biggest questions left to answer.

Just how long is this going to take?

The AltSchool experiment began in 2013 with a series of “labs,”—small, private schools with a 1:1 teacher-to-engineer ratio that is unrealistic for most schools in the country. The goal was to develop and test a technology platform that could personalize student learning with constant feedback from educators. By early 2016, AltSchool believed its creation—which combines a student portal (what they call “Portrait”) with customized online activities and assessments (“Playlist”)—was ready to share, and thus AltSchool Open was born.

But Dan Barber, Head of Educator Experience at AltSchool, says implementation has been “painfully slow.” This is no accident. “We’re not a typical edtech company,” he explains. “We can’t just throw our platform over to public schools with a week of notice.”

Barber is not exaggerating. Just selecting the first cohort of private partner schools was a six-month process. Partners then underwent a year of intensive onboarding before the platform was implemented at school sites. “It’s really about understanding the school’s vision and how to support them,” Barber explains. “We sit down with every different cohort and their team. We visit sites. Then we hold summits with school leaders in March going through the same constructivist process we go through with students.”

It begs the question: Given the lengthy process, what will AltSchool’s future relationships with partner schools look like? Barber expects the onboarding process will be significantly pared down, though the final model remains undetermined. “This is much more R&D than a scalable, long-term plan,” Barber says of current onboarding. “It takes a lot of man-power to make this happen”—and a lot of time.

Does the platform even work?

For Devin Vodicka, the slow implementation is part of the appeal. “It’s one of the things that really impressed me about AltSchool,” he explains. “Through feedback cycles and implementation with real kids in real settings, I believe the platform will get to point of quality and impact before going to scale.”

It’s a point that AltSchool’s Chief Operating Officer, Coddy Johnson, reiterates as he explains the rationale for expanding in phases. “These partnerships allow us to make sure we’re getting results and doing no harm,” Johnson says. “We need to understand what works before scaling up in 2020 and beyond.”

That’s a good call, especially since the efficacy of the platform remains to be seen. AltSchool’s labs don't use GPAs or high-stakes testing, preferring to assess growth, engagement and other non-academic measures. Eschewing conventional standards for reporting success makes it tough for parents and educators to compare student performance to state averages. And while AltSchool claims to be on target for their goal of 1.5 years of growth per year, even if true, determining what accounts for their success is difficult. The small class sizes? The socio-economic status of students’ families? Or the platform itself?

What’s this going to cost—and who’s paying?

Pricing also remains a big question mark. AltSchool currently charges families more than $20,000 per student per year to attend. (They’ve also raised more than $133 millions in venture funding.) That’s why the current batch of partner schools are all private: this is the only model AltSchool knows how to operate within, at least for now.

As charter and public schools are brought into the fold, the company is still seeking a pricing strategy that more families can afford. “We’re working on what costs would mean,” Barber explains. “This [current] cohort is in it for partnership. We don’t have to solve costs. At this stage, it’s not relevant.”

That’s among the many things that AltSchool will be counting on Vodicka, who has spent over twenty years in the public system, to help figure out. But he’s hesitant to make any predictions on how much schools and districts could be charged. “This will become an important conversation when getting to the end goal. For now, the focus is on quality of the platform and impact.”

Reasonable pricing will be vital especially since, according to Barber, bringing the platform to public schools is core to the mission. “It starts with lab schools, and eventually we’ll be bringing educational justice to all teachers. It’s in service of giving all educators something they love that can provide a whole child education.”

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