Making the Case for a New Kind of Classroom

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Making the Case for a New Kind of Classroom

Brian Kenny: Each year the Economist Intelligence Unit and Pearson Education conduct a global study of educational systems to rate countries in terms of education's attainment and cognitive skills. In 2015 the United States ranked 14th out of 40 countries studied, a drop of three points since 2011. Today we'll hear from senior lecturer John Kim about his case entitled AltSchool: School Reimagined. I'm Brian Kenny, your host, and you're listening to Cold Call.

John Kim teaches in the MBA program at Harvard Business School, but before that he founded and managed several firms in the education sector. John, welcome.

John Kim: Thank you, Brian.

BK: So I'd like you to start. First of all, this case is like a mash-up. We've got business and engineering and technology and education all coming together in interesting ways. Can you set the case up for us?

JK: If you think about what's happening in the United States today, technology is infiltrating every part of our life, from having personalized music playlists to now talking about self-driving cars, or at least technology-assisted cars. But when you think about public education especially, it harkens back to the day of the industrial revolution. There is a group of entrepreneurs, in fact many more each year coming out thinking, “I want to reimagine how people learn, how students learn, and what school looks like.” And AltSchool is just one prominent example of an entrepreneur who is trying to do that.

BK: And who's the entrepreneur? Tell us about the protagonist in this case.

JK: The protagonist in this case is a guy named Max Ventilla, and Max comes from an unusual background. He was an entrepreneur coming from Yale. He was very successful early on, sold his company to Google, and then he became the head of personalization for Google.

Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he had a life-changing moment. He had kids and started looking for schools for his kids, and realized what I said before: that schools looked kind of like they did 100 years ago. He felt that there should be something somehow different, thinking about personalization as a way to intrinsically change the way students learn and how teachers teach, and also reimagining some of the challenges of what stood in the way of many schools in our country changing (such as the size of the school). So he's imagined this network of what he calls micro schools, and AltSchool is early, but has gotten a lot of prominence because it's actually raised over $130 million in venture capital. It's this idea of a new type of school founded by a new type of entrepreneur thinking about social good and education, but bringing his technology background into it.

BK: It sounds almost too good to be true, right? We've heard about other attempts to do this kind of thing, but the case goes on to explain in pretty good detail what their approach is.

JK: It's unlike anything you've seen. If you think about schools today, they tend to be big boxes with lots of grades in them, with a playground. I'm talking now about elementary schools, configured into grades separated by age groups. What he's configured are small, what he calls “micro schools.” They are small in nature. They are in storefronts. One of the actual impediments to school building is that they're large, and they have to be specially constructed. What he's done is to change that, being able to go into a regular retail space. He's also gotten rid of the grade levels. In a very strange way, he's gone backwards to this notion of the one-room schoolhouse.

BK: Little House on the Prairie.

JK: Little House on the Prairie, and kids of all different ages and abilities being in that one room, that's what he envisioned. Everything inside this school is very different by using a lot of technology as a way to differentiate and personalize the learning. Every child who comes in has a personal learning profile, and the technology is able to gauge where you are and then essentially serve up the lessons that you need to learn. They’re also trying to put a lot of control in the hands of the student. So, it’s more, “you tell me when you're done with something,” as opposed to the teacher deciding that you're done learning a topic.

BK: It sounds almost like the Montessori approach?

JK: Yeah. In fact, that was one of the critical questions as we were thinking about this is: is this any different? I think the jury is probably still out on that. He's also put technology into all parts of the classroom. In fact, a little bit like the Harvard Business School classroom, he has cameras everywhere that record facial expressions of students, as well as the teacher, to give you instantaneous feedback as to how you're doing.

BK: So teachers who are listening might be cringing at the thought of that, but talk about the experience for teachers at these schools, because it's quite different. Full disclosure, my wife is a second grade teacher in the greater Boston area. And what I read in this case sounds unlike anything she has in her day-to-day experience as a teacher.

JK: That's a terrific question. A critical piece of the whole equation is: what should the role of the teacher be? And Max's point of view is that the entire organization needs to be organized and constructed to support the teacher. So in many ways, as opposed to the technology supplanting or replacing what the teacher would be doing, the vision for him is that this is a tool that can help to improve and make teachers more effective, more productive. The company, even very early on, has had hundreds and thousands of teachers applying.

BK: Interesting.

JK: He's made it very clear that the organization is there to support the teacher, not the other way around.

BK: And to compensate in a way that they aren't normally compensated.

JK: That's right, both in terms of compensation and in terms of autonomy, what they're able to do, the type of work, the environment that they're put into. He's really tried to invert what you may think of as traditional teaching roles and how school districts today are formulated.

BK: And by virtue of some, if I read it correctly, some stock shares. That gives them skin in the game in a way that they wouldn't ever have in a public school system.

JK: That's right. He's really made them part of the entire venture, and I think this is not only interesting because it's his vision, but there are prominent venture capitalists who have backed other types of venture companies thinking that this could be possible. And they're supportive.

BK: I also found it very interesting that if you look at the organizational structure of AltSchools, a preponderance of the personnel take the form of engineers and technologists. So he's got to invest in R&D in a way that schools typically don't.

JK: That's right. He calls it a full stack approach, and this is a terminology that's used in other types of companies as well as; as opposed to starting on an incremental basis, you actually fully staff a team of engineers and product development people, which, by the way, is an expensive approach.

BK: You quote Max in the case as telling the investors that it could take years and years for him to make any money. So it costs, at the time the case was written, about $21,000 per student per year. But he has plans as part of his scale-up to make that more affordable because another criticism could be that this is an elitist approach to education.

JK: That's right. Currently the company has opened up schools in the Bay Area in California. He's opened up his first school on the east coast in Brooklyn, and they charge somewhere around $20,000 plus for this. They're all private schools, what we think of as independent schools. Now his long term goal is that we can take this model and that it can be served as the prototype or as a model for a broader array of schools like charter schools or public schools. I think the critics would say, “geez, this is really targeting a fairly small group of the population.” I think Max would argue that if it works here, I don't see why it can't work for everybody.

BK: Right. John, thank you very much for being here today.

JK: Thank you for having me.

BK: You can find this case, along with thousands of others, in the Harvard Business School case collection at HBR.org. I'm Brian Kenny. Thanks for listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

Subscribe to “Cold Call” on iTunes, and iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud.

Related Reading

Upgrading School with a Startup Mentality

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Making the Case for a New Kind of Classroom

Brian Kenny: Each year the Economist Intelligence Unit and Pearson Education conduct a global study of educational systems to rate countries in terms of education's attainment and cognitive skills. In 2015 the United States ranked 14th out of 40 countries studied, a drop of three points since 2011. Today we'll hear from senior lecturer John Kim about his case entitled AltSchool: School Reimagined. I'm Brian Kenny, your host, and you're listening to Cold Call.

John Kim teaches in the MBA program at Harvard Business School, but before that he founded and managed several firms in the education sector. John, welcome.

John Kim: Thank you, Brian.

BK: So I'd like you to start. First of all, this case is like a mash-up. We've got business and engineering and technology and education all coming together in interesting ways. Can you set the case up for us?

JK: If you think about what's happening in the United States today, technology is infiltrating every part of our life, from having personalized music playlists to now talking about self-driving cars, or at least technology-assisted cars. But when you think about public education especially, it harkens back to the day of the industrial revolution. There is a group of entrepreneurs, in fact many more each year coming out thinking, “I want to reimagine how people learn, how students learn, and what school looks like.” And AltSchool is just one prominent example of an entrepreneur who is trying to do that.

BK: And who's the entrepreneur? Tell us about the protagonist in this case.

JK: The protagonist in this case is a guy named Max Ventilla, and Max comes from an unusual background. He was an entrepreneur coming from Yale. He was very successful early on, sold his company to Google, and then he became the head of personalization for Google.

Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he had a life-changing moment. He had kids and started looking for schools for his kids, and realized what I said before: that schools looked kind of like they did 100 years ago. He felt that there should be something somehow different, thinking about personalization as a way to intrinsically change the way students learn and how teachers teach, and also reimagining some of the challenges of what stood in the way of many schools in our country changing (such as the size of the school). So he's imagined this network of what he calls micro schools, and AltSchool is early, but has gotten a lot of prominence because it's actually raised over $130 million in venture capital. It's this idea of a new type of school founded by a new type of entrepreneur thinking about social good and education, but bringing his technology background into it.

BK: It sounds almost too good to be true, right? We've heard about other attempts to do this kind of thing, but the case goes on to explain in pretty good detail what their approach is.

JK: It's unlike anything you've seen. If you think about schools today, they tend to be big boxes with lots of grades in them, with a playground. I'm talking now about elementary schools, configured into grades separated by age groups. What he's configured are small, what he calls “micro schools.” They are small in nature. They are in storefronts. One of the actual impediments to school building is that they're large, and they have to be specially constructed. What he's done is to change that, being able to go into a regular retail space. He's also gotten rid of the grade levels. In a very strange way, he's gone backwards to this notion of the one-room schoolhouse.

BK: Little House on the Prairie.

JK: Little House on the Prairie, and kids of all different ages and abilities being in that one room, that's what he envisioned. Everything inside this school is very different by using a lot of technology as a way to differentiate and personalize the learning. Every child who comes in has a personal learning profile, and the technology is able to gauge where you are and then essentially serve up the lessons that you need to learn. They’re also trying to put a lot of control in the hands of the student. So, it’s more, “you tell me when you're done with something,” as opposed to the teacher deciding that you're done learning a topic.

BK: It sounds almost like the Montessori approach?

JK: Yeah. In fact, that was one of the critical questions as we were thinking about this is: is this any different? I think the jury is probably still out on that. He's also put technology into all parts of the classroom. In fact, a little bit like the Harvard Business School classroom, he has cameras everywhere that record facial expressions of students, as well as the teacher, to give you instantaneous feedback as to how you're doing.

BK: So teachers who are listening might be cringing at the thought of that, but talk about the experience for teachers at these schools, because it's quite different. Full disclosure, my wife is a second grade teacher in the greater Boston area. And what I read in this case sounds unlike anything she has in her day-to-day experience as a teacher.

JK: That's a terrific question. A critical piece of the whole equation is: what should the role of the teacher be? And Max's point of view is that the entire organization needs to be organized and constructed to support the teacher. So in many ways, as opposed to the technology supplanting or replacing what the teacher would be doing, the vision for him is that this is a tool that can help to improve and make teachers more effective, more productive. The company, even very early on, has had hundreds and thousands of teachers applying.

BK: Interesting.

JK: He's made it very clear that the organization is there to support the teacher, not the other way around.

BK: And to compensate in a way that they aren't normally compensated.

JK: That's right, both in terms of compensation and in terms of autonomy, what they're able to do, the type of work, the environment that they're put into. He's really tried to invert what you may think of as traditional teaching roles and how school districts today are formulated.

BK: And by virtue of some, if I read it correctly, some stock shares. That gives them skin in the game in a way that they wouldn't ever have in a public school system.

JK: That's right. He's really made them part of the entire venture, and I think this is not only interesting because it's his vision, but there are prominent venture capitalists who have backed other types of venture companies thinking that this could be possible. And they're supportive.

BK: I also found it very interesting that if you look at the organizational structure of AltSchools, a preponderance of the personnel take the form of engineers and technologists. So he's got to invest in R&D in a way that schools typically don't.

JK: That's right. He calls it a full stack approach, and this is a terminology that's used in other types of companies as well as; as opposed to starting on an incremental basis, you actually fully staff a team of engineers and product development people, which, by the way, is an expensive approach.

BK: You quote Max in the case as telling the investors that it could take years and years for him to make any money. So it costs, at the time the case was written, about $21,000 per student per year. But he has plans as part of his scale-up to make that more affordable because another criticism could be that this is an elitist approach to education.

JK: That's right. Currently the company has opened up schools in the Bay Area in California. He's opened up his first school on the east coast in Brooklyn, and they charge somewhere around $20,000 plus for this. They're all private schools, what we think of as independent schools. Now his long term goal is that we can take this model and that it can be served as the prototype or as a model for a broader array of schools like charter schools or public schools. I think the critics would say, “geez, this is really targeting a fairly small group of the population.” I think Max would argue that if it works here, I don't see why it can't work for everybody.

BK: Right. John, thank you very much for being here today.

JK: Thank you for having me.

BK: You can find this case, along with thousands of others, in the Harvard Business School case collection at HBR.org. I'm Brian Kenny. Thanks for listening to Cold Call, the official podcast of Harvard Business School.

Subscribe to “Cold Call” on iTunes, and iTunesU or follow us on SoundCloud.

Related Reading

Upgrading School with a Startup Mentality

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