Originally published: FastCompany.com June 28, 2019
When entrepreneur and former Googler Max Ventilla cofounded education startup AltSchool in spring 2013, he had big plans. He wanted to create a toolkit for personalizing learning by building not just software but physical schools, too. Even with just 20 students in his first AltSchool location, in San Francisco, Ventilla’s vision for individualizing instruction captured the imagination of top-tier seed investors, including First Round Capital and Collaborative Fund. By mid-2014, he had raised $33 million. By the end of 2017, he had raised $140 million more.
In the early years, AltSchool expanded what it called “lab schools” at a rapid pace, adding locations in New York and scouting sites in cities like Chicago. But operating schools is complicated, particularly when your goal, in part, is to reinvent the very idea of school. The company retrenched, consolidating its ambitions into just four school sites. And now, it is making a more formal break.
Going forward, AltSchool’s four lab schools will be operated by a new partner, Higher Ground Education. AltSchool, in turn, will rebrand itself Altitude Learning this fall and refocus resources on the development and expansion of its personalized learning platform, used today by 40 districts and schools representing 300,000 students. In addition, Ventilla and his fellow cofounder, Bharat Mediratta (also an ex-Googler), will graduate to board roles, paving the way for Ben Kornell and Devin Vodicka, two leaders with deep education backgrounds, to take the reins.
“I think historically we were in a position that every startup is in—you take what you have and you represent where you’re going,” Ventilla says of the transition. “But I think now we’re in a place where we have real results. We have schools nationwide that you can talk to, that you can visit, that you can see what the platform is doing. That’s what we need to be leading with going forward: the results. That’s much more compelling than a more general notion of what technology can do or how Silicon Valley can help, or what two former Googlers can contribute to education.”
In its next iteration, the company will follow a more traditional education playbook, in terms of sales strategy, and expand the services it offers in conjunction with its core learning platform. Teacher training, for example, will become a priority. And content, which at one time the company avoided, will now be made available.
Vodicka, a former superintendent who will serve as chief impact officer, says teachers in particular want exemplars, something to start with so they’re not building content from scratch.
“We have pulled in exemplars that our lab school educators have created into a common shared library, along with a number of open education resources like Engage New York,” Vodicka says. “There’s a starter kit, if you will, that teachers can use during the initial phases, so that they can understand how adaptive content can really work in this learner-centered environment. And then over time, we’re working with them to be more effective learning designers so that content be contextualized in a way that’s appropriate and local to their model.”
This is one of the central challenges of personalized learning: Meeting the needs of each student in the context of a particular school environment and pedagogical approach, without asking teachers to create thousands of tailored lessons. And it is a large part of the reason that AltSchool has been deliberate in seeking out a diverse set of early platform customers, from private religious schools to charter schools to public schools as far afield as Alaska. Of the new contracts for the coming school year, half are public schools.
As the company shifts gears, Ventilla remains committed to the belief that education is overdue for large-scale change, abandoning our current model for a more individualized approach. “Every school can make this shift to learner-centered,” he says. “What it looks like above the waterline can be very different, one school to the next. And the process can be slow. It just needs to start.”