In May of this year The New Yorker ran a somewhat gushing feature on how the Silicon Valley inspired and funded AltSchool company was ‘disrupting education’. The author had recently been taken on a tour of one of six AltSchool premises, the ‘micro-school’ in question being one of two based in New York, with another 4 located in the San Francisco ‘Bay Area’ famously the home of Silicon Valley.
AltSchools was founded in 2014 by Max Ventilla, a former Google hotshot, and sold to investors including Mark Zuckerberg as ‘technology-infused schools’ that would ‘revolutionise education’. At Google, Ventilla was working on building user technology profiles based on online search history, emails, Google Maps usage and YouTube viewing. His idea was to bring a similar approach to education. While students would still cover the national curriculum ‘play lists’ of lessons would take their personal interests into account as well.
AltSchools are feature video cameras that record lessons and plays, laptops and tablets aplenty, robots, 3D printers and a custom software suite intended to provide a highly customised curriculum based on a child’s interests, ability and even cultural background. The New Yorker stated that AltSchools was planning on opening 5 more schools by the end of the year. Instead, less than 6 months on, Altschools has instead announced that it is closing two of its schools. The company recently stated that new schools would also not be opened for now with the company re-focusing on the software side of operations and a business model of selling it into schools rather than running schools itself.
Despite charging the parents of pupils enrolled in AltSchool $30,000 a year in tuition fees, they have been suffering significant losses. The company has also been having difficulties convincing school districts with limited budgets to buy its technology. With neither branch of the business meeting expectations AltSchools has decided to sacrifice the schools network due to the weight of logistics demands around opening and operating schools and to focus on software sales.
The future of technology in education has long been an area of keen debate and the difficulties AltSchools have encountered brings this back into focus. It is widely recognised that with only 3% of education currently digitalised the sector is behind the curve when it comes to both taking advantage of technology and also in preparing students for the tech-focused economy they will one day have to find work in. However, introducing modern technology into the schools system is both expensive from the point of view of the hardware and software and also in training teachers on its integration into the curriculum. The fact that even the company building software for education has struggled to run schools based on it is testament to the difficulty that bottleneck represents.
Parents of children who have or are attending AltSchools have also been cited as commenting that they believe pupils benefit more from the small classrooms and specialist teaching than the ‘magic’ of the company’s software. With a yearly cost to schools of between $150 and $500 a pupil, it is also outside of the budget many schools can afford.
Hopefully AltSchools’ pivot will allow the company to refocus and make a meaningful contribution to the development of how technology is used in education going forward. Nonetheless, its struggles, despite the backing and finance of some of the biggest names in tech highlight that the challenges involved in bringing everyday school education into the modern world.