The unbundling of the school stack is underway. Historically textbooks were the only part of the K-12 bundle that could be segregated from the full-stack. Separated from the stack, these could sell across schools and thus scale up. That explains why many of the biggest education players like Pearson etc are textbook cos. 

What about other pieces?

Assessment is another that is clearly underway. In fact in India with the Board Exams, we have had a fully unbundled assessment stack for a long time! Many of the textbook publishers are also in the assessment market – they need to sell in to the same players (school systems) and they need to link it to what is taught in their text books. So these two unbundlings (ahem!) will proceed contiguously.

We are now beginning to see unbundling in the pedagogy stack as well. As an example take Teach to One, a pedagogical innovation in teaching Mathematics. The organization that created this, a non-profit called New Classrooms Innovation Partners, licenses out this program to about 30 other schools. Read more about the Teach to One initiative here

This isn’t the first time we have seen educational processes or technology transfer across institutions. Take the case of Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia etc. However what we are seeing with Teach to One is educational micro-technology (as opposed to a broad brush overarching philosophy) that attempts to guarantee specific outcomes.

Another interesting example of micro-technology – and with the possibility of licensing across institutions – is the use of Playlists, a tool developed by AltSchool, an innovative new player in the school space in U.S.  I came across AltSchool while listening to a16z’s podcast, released last week. It is worth a listen.

AltSchool’s innovation – Playlists – is best understood in terms of their business model, which is unique to the educational space. What they are doing essentially is rethink the school model in the context of a post-digital world.

I am capturing the salient points of the podcast and my readings about AltSchool from other sources here

  1. AltSchool plans to have a cluster of microschools in a city. Students and teachers are not assigned to any specific school but can move between them. AltSchool is presently only in the Bay Area & New York. Eventually they plan to eventually have 12 micro-schools in SF. They charge about $19K yearly (lower than other peer private schools ) and this is likely to go lower.
  2. Each of their schools accomodates about 150 students, not the usual 500 in 1-4 large flexible classrooms. A school will have say, 5-7 yr olds together in one classroom and 8-10 yr olds together in another. So unlike in a traditional school, where you have to give a classroom for a class / grade, here you can have the same space being used by 3 different classes or grades.
  3. Teachers make personalized learning plans called playlists for each student. Each playlist is a set of 10+ projects that he or she has to complete to achieve his curricular target for that week. There is a lot of effort by each teacher in customizing and adapting the playlist to best fit the student’s interests and objectives, e.g., “If a student is interested in mechanical things, his tasks will include projects like learning ratios, putting together a bicycle and then explaining to classmates about how it works.”
  4. These playlists are saved and thus can be used by a future teacher for a student with similar interests. I found this to be really interesting. In software programming, there is a very interesting observation about how the software of today is written above the level of a single device. Think Evernote, Dropbox etc as opposed to the older Word, Email etc., which were written for 1 device in mind. A similar rewiring is underway now in Educational Technology. For the first time, we are beginning to see Educational Technology operating above the level of a single student or school.
  5. Another educational innovation at AltSchool has to do with how they capture transformative moments – each classroom is fitted with a number of videocams that can capture breakthrough moments, which can be used for documentation and learning. “AltSchool has built audio hardware to better record in noisy settings, and Video is uploaded to an online CMS that both parents and teachers can access.
  6. The assessment model is completely different. There are no grades. Assessment is probabilistic. That is, it says, for example that if the student were to be assessed today there is a 50% chance he would be able to show proficiency in this subject.

Just as Teach to One is being licensed, I see opportunities for Playlists to be separated out of AltSchool – what is these Playlists were anonymized and made public. One playlist could be “Teaching Ratios to numerically-aware 8-yr olds” while another could be “Learning inductive thinking for 10-yr olds”. These could be modified (forked) or upvoted / downvoted. What you have is akin to an open-source library of distributions or even a music playlist.

Some of these playlists could be free while there could be some which require specialist knowledge to create (say for “teaching irony to kids with asperger’s” etc.). These could be priced. I see this akin to WordPress themes, where there are thousand of themes free, but there are some by top designers (like Khoi Vinh’s Basic Maths) that are priced. Similiarly you will have playlists by certain top educationists / instructors that are priced and licensed by schools.

To summarize, as technology enters the school stack, the unbundling of the school stack will accelerate. Within the pedagogy stack, the school’s pedagogical approach in the future will be a combination of certain existing standards (linked to its affiliations like ICSE, IGCSE) and licensing of microtechnologies such as Playlists, Teach to One etc.

Other aspects that could get bundled could be infrastructure — we see this today in some limited ways – schools across the world taking students to museums for day long visits, Cathedral (a Mumbai school) students dining at Bombay Gym. But the brave new world of a school that owns students but not buildings, and then licenses premises on a as-needed basis from other schools and infrastructure providers is some way away!


On a separate note, Would AltSchool work in India?

I am not sure our regulators will allow it – for one, how will they grapple with different class-sizes being combined? What about the lack of grades? Forget regulator, even parents would have a hard time dealing with the AltSchool model. 

I have two other observations to make

1. What makes AltSchool different from other schools is that it is designed above the level of a single school. It is designed to operate as a micro-school that is part of a 15-20 school network. In India, we think at the level of a school and making that school profitable. In the case of AltSchool, a particular school itself may never be profitable but the entire cluster may be profitable.

2. There are aspects of AltSchool like the personalized learning plan that schools can copy, but what works for AltSchool is the combination of all the elements in its business model – smaller schools, making students and teachers mobile between schools, playlists, combined classrooms, probabilistic assessment model etcThis is a strongly tech-led model – it is interesting to see AltSchool as how a16z (which funded AltSchool) would envision a school, just as Innova Schools is how IDEO or a design-led thinker would envision a school.

For more on AltSchool, read Fast Company’s take, and WSJ’s piece.