AltSchool: Designing the Future of Learning

Colleen Broderick came to appreciate the pedagogy of wonderful ideas as a professional development leader for EL Education, and she thought hard about a new system of learning at ReSchool Colorado. She gets to do both in a new gig as VP for Pedagogy and Research at AltSchool.

The well-funded San Francisco startup ($173M raised in four rounds) will operate seven tiny P-8 schools in the Bay Area and New York for the 2017-18 school year. Rather than rolling out hundreds of branded storefront schools, the AltSchool team is gearing up to support four partner schools this fall and a lot more in the future.

AltSchool is the third startup for founder Max Ventilla. His social search company Aardvark was acquired by Google in 2010. He went on to serve as Head of Personalization across Google products.

AltSchool LX

The AltSchool learner experience (LX) is akin to a modern Montessori model. It’s a personalized learning environment focusing on whole child development where students move on when ready. Learning is contextualized and expands beyond the classroom walls. The mixed age learning environments ranges from 35 to 100 students.

Max started by hiring phenomenal teachers and trying to backmap from their work. They put engineers in the classrooms to codify practices and found a lot of variances that made it difficult to deliver on the promise of adding efficiency to an educator’s workflow.

The approach evolved to include a foundational curriculum, an understanding of what makes learning meaningful to each student and a learning cycle that encourages learners to take initiative in their learning through the engagement with real-world investigations.

Broderick said that in the next update they “are doubling down on how kids understand their own potential.” Colleen added, “We want to enable them to be change makers in their own community.”

Colleen’s job is to set pedagogical direction, adding clarity and learning science to the vision. She’s building on a commitment to transparency, student voice and choice, and collaborative dialog with students and across the network of schools. While leaving lots of options, Broderick is working on articulating “a learning flow” so that teachers don’t always have to figure out what’s next. Instead, they can focus on using a clear sequence to ensure students are exposed to how the world came to be and to support them in pursuing individual questions within a community of learners.

AltSchool uses the Character Lab framework to describe, cultivate and track progress towards personal strengths.

Platform Network

The platform doesn’t require a single learning model but will most likely only hold value to schools and learning organizations committed to cultivating learner agency through whole-child, personalized learning. Partner schools will be able to use the suite of tools to amplify the strength of their approach. Why the shift from a managed network to platform provider?

“It was never an either or,” said Colleen. AltSchool launched in 2013 with the intent to empower the effects of a 1:1 environment in a classroom of 1:20. Their goal was always to build a scalable solution that supports regular people to start exceptional schools.

Concentrating on a few micro-schools as their research and design centers, rather than opening additional schools, enables AltSchool to cultivate the deep collaboration of developing the technology in authentic learning environments.

“I went to AltSchool to work on the tech solution,” said Colleen. She is eager to understand the intersect of what we know to be true about learning and the role of technology in supporting greater efficiency and more expansive learning opportunities.

“We don’t plan to modularize our tools,” said Broderick. “We’re building a systemic solution.” The AltSchool team will try to keep the solution simple and intuitive enough that it doesn’t require a lot of training.

“We are a project-based school. We use a variety of assessments to understand where kids are,” said Broderick. “For example, we’re able to pull data from third-party tools, like DreamBox and Lexia and include evidence from ILA (inline assessments) developed by teachers to have the richest picture of a learner.”

The platform supports a range of assessment tasks, including performance assessments and emergent evidence. An example of this includes Capture, a mobile app that enables pictures of student work to be tagged to a taxonomy, capturing evidence in the moment and communicating progress against standards.

By next year they hope to have a robust library of projects for teachers to choose from. The 2018-19 school partner pipeline includes private schools and potentially a few progressive charters. After that AltSchool is interested in supporting public districts.

Talent Central

Colleen isn’t the only edu-superstar joining AltSchool lately. California’s Superintendent of the Year, Devin Vodicka joined as Chief Impact Officer. Vodicka led Vista USD to national recognition including our list of 30 School Districts Worth Visiting. He supported development of innovative middle schools (see VIDA) and XQ winning Vista High (on our list of 100 High Schools Worth Visiting). Sam Franklin, from CMU, also recently joined the team as VP Schools and will focus on leveraging the managed schools as lab sites.What Colleen most enjoys about the new role is that she has equal access to educators and engineers, “I’m not a translator, I’m a collaborator.”

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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