AltSchool Hub

Education as a 21st Century Good

Posted by Max Ventilla

May 22, 2014 4:57:00 PM

21stCenturyEdFor centuries, the best schools have been defined by scarcity. Stanford made headlines last month for its lowest acceptance rate in history, five percent. At the K-12 level, the country’s top private schools are also known for their incredibly low acceptance rates.

This is not a concept limited to education. In decades past, those who strove for the best would work hard to avoid what the ‘masses’ were doing. Every aspect of their lives -- food, clothing, entertainment, transportation -- featured possessions and services that could only be enjoyed by the elite few.  

Industries’ ability to scale has changed all this. Today, scarcity increasingly fails to define what is “best.” The same Oscar-winning movies are downloaded into palatial estates and cramped apartments. The same iPhones are used by middle school children and billionaires. The privileged few may get to experience things sooner (e.g. attend a movie premiere at a festival or get the latest $499 iPhone instead of the $99 past generation model), but they are not getting something fundamentally different. Creating an exceptional experience at scale enables organizations to develop world-class products that suit the needs of all.

As production becomes increasingly scientific and digital, products actually get better with scale through network effects. As markets become massive, producers invest in quality at scale and consumers benefit from a larger variety of options. By using a phone that hundreds of millions of other people use, a user gets access to a platform of applications that simply wouldn’t be built for a phone that only served a thousand uber-rich customers. The same goes for other innovative, modern products, either online like Gmail and Facebook or offline like Priuses and best selling novels.

Large and open markets foster a kind of natural selection that drives iterative improvements: the better a product or service is, the more people use it. The more people use it, the better it becomes. As the network grows, we learn more about what works (and what doesn’t). Information from the network pressures the system to evolve to meet the changing needs of the people using it. Furthermore, as demand increases for each successive product, the producer can invest more in improvement.

In contrast to those leading 19th century goods characterized by scarcity, our leading 21st century goods increasingly win out through scale. Consumers flock to versions of an item used by 200,000 people, rather than 200, because everything about it improves with wider distribution.

The education that we have in this country is still regrettably a 19th century good.

AltSchool is advancing an alternative model for education as a 21st century good.

We built AltSchool to get better with scale. As our micro-school network grows from hundreds to thousands to millions of enrolled students in the years and decades to come, AltSchool will transform to provide a continuously higher quality learning experience for all. This works for the same reasons as with other goods:

1) Every class improves as additional classes are added to the network: We test new ideas in our classrooms and share what we find with other classrooms in our network. We know that classrooms are unique and what works for one might not work for another, but with a big enough set, we can detect patterns. If the same projects are working well for a classroom in San Francisco and another in New York, those teachers, once individual workers, find benefits to collaborating on projects or teaching strategies in the future.


2) Mass customization gains efficiencies with a growing population: As more teachers create playlists and more students use them, AltSchool will better understand which playlists work best for which students. With more student trajectories, we’ll let students who exhibit similar interests, learning styles, or goals benefit from playlists that are increasingly similar.

3) Micro-schools have the ability and pressure to evolve: Schools today have a hard time improving because educators can’t tell what’s working until long after particular practices have been put into place. Even when causal relationships are established, school systems have a built-in bureaucracy and a year-long cycle that inhibits change at a reasonable rate. This is why, for the most part, schools have not evolved much in the past hundred years.

AltSchool course-corrects on at least a weekly basis so we can address what is suboptimal and double down on what shows positive results. We do not have an entrenched layer of administration staff at each micro-school, either. Instead, each classroom is independently led by a team of educators. They exchange information daily with each other and with our in-house team of designers, engineers, and researchers to improve the school experience.

Natural selection is at work at AltSchool, and it is shifting our view of education in fundamental ways. While nobody can see the future, Altschool is preparing our students for the world of tomorrow by keeping up with their ever changing goals and opportunities today. By changing ourselves, we not only best serve our students; we also model for students what it means to be flexible, to take risks, and to constantly reflect.  

Topics: AltSchool Innovation, Thoughts from Our Founder