The “full stack” model is a growing trend among startups. As opposed to the traditional approach of selling or licensing technology to established organizations, the full stack startup builds and manages a complete end-to-end product or service, thereby bypassing incumbents.
So why take a full stack approach to education?
“You want to own the total outcome,” says A16z General Partner and AltSchool investor, Lars Delgaard. “We are building the world’s biggest private school system. To make that experience the one we want— one that is more affordable, better, and revolutionary— you need to have full ownership.”
In case you missed it, a16z’s podcast series hosted and moderated by Andreessen Horowitz, one of AltSchool’s investors, recently interviewed AltSchool CEO and founder Max Ventilla and Andreessen Horowitz General Partner Lars Delgaard. The pair discuss what it means to take a full stack approach to education, AltSchool’s plan for scale, and integrating technology in the classroom.
The benefits of full stack: questioning those “sacred cows”
AltSchool is building schools from the ground up. And in doing so, it is re-imagining every part of the education experience, from the admissions process to curriculum balance; from the school calendar to administration costs. “If you rely on other entities to do key parts of your approach,” says Max, “then very quickly that becomes the bottleneck for the changes that you would need to make elsewhere to really improve the experience.”
And some of those necessary changes include reversing “sacred cows,” or unquestioned ways of doing things, within the education system. Some of these “reversals” highlighted in the A16z interview include:
A New Approach to Class Assessments
“Today standardized tests are taken at the end of the year and sit on the shelf for months,” says Max. AltSchool views assessments as critical inputs for the educational experience— they shouldn’t be done away with altogether, but instead optimized and used in a way to promote continual improvements.
“Assessments should instead be close to real-time, non-invasive, as accurate as possible, and provides input to that teacher, student, and parents to make improvements on what’s working and what we can change.” When engaged correctly, assessments can empower teachers, students, parents and schools with actionable data to quickly understand and make improvements throughout the year.
Empowering Teachers Through Technology
A major challenge for teachers today is the time spent on creating individual lesson plans for the specifics of each class— what Max calls “bespoke, artisanal lesson planning.” And though timely, this artisanal approach is necessary to navigate the complexities of teaching to a unique set of students and within specific school schema.
One way AltSchool hopes to empower teachers is to provide them with a technological platform that makes it easier for them to share and use best practices across teacher networks. The goal is to create an operating system that makes all other elements of teaching easier, like communicating with parents and the administration, more effectively personalizing curriculum to each student, and sharing best practices with others.
“Teachers continually contribute to the product,” says Lars. “All the teachers have the platform, time, and incentive financially to spend time to figure out together the best [playlist] cards and education series. They continually share and build content with students so they can benefit from all the best teachers.”
Erasing the zero sum game realities of private schools: AltSchool’s “network effect”
Limited spaces available at private schools create uncomfortable competition between families. As Max notes, “if I get my daughter into a private school, I am literally stealing a spot from someone else.” The fact that spots are limited for students in private educational institutions, creates a “value in scarcity” model— that is, there is increased value placed on selective educational experiences.
Whereas many private schools are deliberately not scalable— much of the value they possess is in their scarcity— AltSchool is built to scale, and get better as it scales. According to Max, “When you have something that gets better as more people participate, then you continually keep pace with the change in the world at large.”
AltSchool’s plan is to continually expand its network of “micro-schools” to make AltSchool increasingly available to more and more families. And by simultaneously licensing technology that helps personalize education to other schools, AltSchool has the goal of providing every child with a personalized learning experience commensurate with what 21st Century education should be.
Want to learn more? Listen to the full 40-minute interview and feel free to leave comments below.