NewCo Shift Forum
It’s not easy to rethink education from a blank sheet. But that’s what AltSchool is built to do.
Max Ventilla, CEO of Alt School, is reimagining education through a “full stack” platform that includes technology, classrooms, and new approaches to curriculum. Hear more about Alt School in this short video, below. A full transcript, edited for clarity, is also included.
Max Ventilla: I left Google and started a search company, which they bought back, and then I was, among other things, the person running personalization across Google. Working at Google you become very addicted to the intersection of social impact, technology and business.
In early 2013, I left with many of my colleagues on this mission to enable every child to reach their potential. Teaming up very early on with career educators, we act from the conviction that in the future, education quality can come from scale, not from scarcity.
The approach that we should take starts with our own kids. This is my daughter, Sabine, who is now almost six in AltSchool, and her younger brothers will be in AltSchool for a very long time. The difference here is the kind of lab school that they’re going to be in is one that is actually building a platform that can extend, and make an experience that’s better even for them as more children are included in that.
This is the key technical problem, we would say, to solve in the education space. The space is pretty unequivocal about this being the kind of grail. How do you get the result of a 1:1 student teacher ratio in a normal 20:1 classroom, a 30:1 classroom?
How do you allow the student to learn all the things they would need to know in the traditional environment, but in a way that gives them agency, in a way that is tailored to them, in a way that prepares them for a life where they’re going to have to drive their own experience?
What makes this problem harder in schools is what we’d call the local maxim of traditional education. If you imagine you’ve got this curve where on the vertical quality of education is improving — in a generic sense we could kind of define it specifically — but as you increase personalization, quality increases.
But then all of a sudden, it reaches this peak which we would think of as the best that traditional education will get without breaking as you try and really move to personalize for each child. There’s this valley for schools to get to where we want, which is a more progressive, more future-forward education that, frankly, has been practiced in niches for over a hundred years.
The question is, how do you make that scale? It’s not just about increasing personalization. It’s doing it in a big enough leap for the vast majority of schools that still operate in a very traditional way to get beyond that dip, which schools really have a hard time abiding, because you’re talking about kids who are only going to be fifth-graders once. For them to get a worse education for two or three or four or five years, it feels pretty unacceptable. What makes this situation a little dire is that we would argue that already the quality bar demanded to do what all schools need to do to prepare kids for the future, is above the top of that kind of traditional education curve.
This is terribly overdue. What we’ve said at AltSchool is, we can’t just have a bunch of incremental additions for the big large district public schools, it won’t get us over that. We need some folks to take what we’d call the hard technology approach.
What we mean by that is, as opposed to taking something small and scaling it very big and then building out the kind of major value, which is the route that you would obviously take in sectors like consumer Internet or enterprise software or media. You have to take this other route in education where you actually spend many, many years doing R&D and building up to a critical mass of value before you start to focus on scale, which is obviously the ultimate ambition.
If you’re not reaching vast numbers of kids, why are you doing it in the first place? That’s an approach that you would take in biotech or clean tech or automotive, in sectors where if you don’t perform for your customer, there is a major cost, even to the point of death.
Historically you have not seen in education and ed tech that other route, lots of R&D for many years before you start to scale, for a variety of reasons, most of them, I’d say, related to capital. When we think about taking that route, that route hasn’t even necessarily been possible for very long.
When you think about being able to build on enough of the technology infrastructure that exists, being able to adopt best practices that you don’t develop, and research that has already been shown to work, being able to take advantage of this exploding ecosystem of modular content, not textbooks, but things you can kind of remix and individualize.
We’re very excited about the idea of taking those things and the best parts of companies like Google where a lot of the technical team is from, and around that technology core actually building a school system, from the ground up.
Part of that hard tech route for us is we run eight lab schools. There aren’t a lot of ed tech companies that have the resources or the insanity to actually run a bunch of schools and put their own kids in it.
We don’t see exactly how you would develop something that is comprehensive and flexible without actually going through the pain of running schools yourself and validating for others that there’s a reason to build their whole experience on top of, at least in part, your platform.
It is the long-term that allows us to be ambitious. We’re really inspired by the Bill Gates quote that, “Humans tend to overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in 10.” We see the education space is chronically falling into that for very good reason.
A life of a child, a year is a long time. You’ve go to do it quick, but the result of always trying to do it quick is we haven’t seen the kind of major non-iterative jumps that that field required. We’ve concluded our research phase and now we’re in this focused development phase, building out a platform and starting to serve not just our own schools, but partner schools that we don’t run across a diversity of different education models.
It’s not about a set of standards or certain curriculum or content. It’s about key pieces of enabling technology to make personalized education initially possible, over time more optimal, and ultimately easy enough that the average school in the US and abroad can actually operate in that way.
This is against the backdrop of, again, a complete absence of R&D in the space at whole. In K-12 in the US, the former White House estimates less than two-tenths of one percent of total expenditures is on R&D. That’s about one billion dollars a year. That is absolutely insanely too low. Unfortunately, it’s the cycle where there isn’t a lot of R&D, so you’re not seeing breakthroughs.
There isn’t really the justification to put more into R&D. The R&D expenditure that there is, is spread around in very, very small chunks.
What we see as the possibility in the future to be part of a model agnostic platform where you’re still allowing schools, counties and districts to make the very important local choice of what to focus on and how to teach. Everyone can be part of a network, and there can be an actual network effect where education quality gets better, the more people are receiving education within that ecosystem.
Frankly, AltSchool will be in one such ecosystem, but we would hope that there are a few. You think about you have the choice of Android or you have the choice of iOS, but wow is it different than back in the Linux days when you’d basically have to build a computer yourself and make it work.
Our mission is to enable every child to reach their potential. That is a mission that is almost universally shared among schools. But to be working directly on making the best education the one that the most kids get rather than the fewest kids, is a very, very unique opportunity, and something that we hope more people have the resources to work on directly in this fashion.
It’s not possible, again, unless we think you take this non-iterative step that requires, in this space, doing a lot of research and development for very many years before you just start to apply the solution. For those in the room who have the ability to direct capital, it’s something that we hope much more capital will be directed in the education space in taking this kind of approach.