culturally responsive

What can we learn from 3 organizations’ approaches to integrate teaching and technology?

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Jan 14, 2020

In a blog post last fall, I called out an inconvenient truth facing K–12 blended learning. Blended learning still falls short as an effective, reliable, and convenient means to boost student learning. Those shortcomings keep it from becoming the norm across K–12 schools. 

What holds blended learning back? It’s success hinges on both new technology and novel approaches to teaching—two discrete variables that are rarely controlled by the same players. According to Modularity Theory, the most effective way to improve performance is to create an organization that can integrate across all the components that affect performance. In other words, blended learning needs organizations where educators and technologists work side-by-side to co-design technologies, school policies, and teaching practices for a particular system of schools. 

Yet few K–12 business models bring tech development and teaching under the same roof. States don’t give schools and districts big R&D budgets to do edtech development. Likewise, most edtech investors aren’t interested in businesses that involve running K–12 schools. 

Over the last few years, I’ve followed the work of three organizations pushing the boundaries of the prevailing business models for K–12 blended learning. Unfortunately, the pressures of sustainability and scale have pulled two away from their approaches. The third is staying the course, but struggling to find a solid fit within the K–12 landscape.

AltSchool — An edtech company that once had its own laboratory schools

AltSchool was a venture-capital-backed education startup launched in 2013 that aimed to build micro-schools as laboratories for K–12 innovation. With a network of private K–12 schools under its charge, it set out to co-develop a learning management platform in conjunction with new teaching practices, which it planned to eventually sell to other schools. But in 2017, AltSchool made a surprising pivot away from the private school wing of its business. It announced it was closing one of its campuses, consolidating others, and shuttering its plans to open additional sites. Then this year, the startup announced a more formal separation. It would put its schools under management by Higher Ground Education and rebrand its educational technology business as Altitude Learning

AltSchool’s struggled for a number of reasons beyond what I’ve described above. Nonetheless, its story serves as a caution sign for anyone trying to create a K–12 startup that spans technology development and school operations. The integrated strategy was the right direction to take for pushing the frontiers of blended learning. But the venture capital world’s expectations of fast growth and hefty returns just don’t jive well with the slow and complicated work of building and running schools.

Summit Learning — Once a public school system with an edtech R&D wing 

In 2013, Summit Public Schools, a west coast network of high-performing charter schools, made a bold gamble: to better prepare its students for life beyond high school it needed to give students more responsibility for their learning. Summit’s efforts caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg and he offered a team of Facebook engineers to help create a learning platform to facilitate Summit’s new approach to instruction. (If only all innovative school systems had tech billionaires as patrons!)

Yet fast forward, and Summit’s example also proves how challenging it is to push blended learning’s performance when edtech innovation and school operation happen at arm’s length. In 2015, Summit began sharing its innovations—both the platform and the training on its instructional practices—with schools across the US. These partnerships were a sensible way to scale the impact of Zuckerberg’s investment in Summit’s innovations. But they also marked a shift from integration to modularity that may have come too soon. Summit knew how to make its blended learning model work reliably in its own schools, but implementing Summit’s model successfully across its diverse partners proved hard to translate

Finally, the latest chapter in Summit’s saga demonstrates K–12 education’s powerful tendency to separate technology development from innovations in teaching. In late 2018, the wing of Summit that works with partner schools announced that it will formally spin-off from the Summit Public Schools network and rebrand as T.L.P. Education. Meanwhile, the engineering and technology development wing of the endeavor will live at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. These changes make practical sense for the sake of streamlining operations. But they also mean backing off of the frontier of well-integrated innovations.

New Classrooms — A clever nonprofit pulling key pieces together

New Classrooms, a nonprofit that partners with schools to personalize middle school math instruction, represents a novel approach to this integration dilemma. You might assume that to reap the upside of an integrated approach requires both operating schools and running a technology R&D lab. But New Classrooms bucks that pattern in clever ways. It has found that to push the boundaries of performance for a school system, you don’t have to integrate across all the facets of a school. You just need to integrate across the parts that have the biggest effect on student learning. 

New Classrooms found that many aspects of school operations could be left to schools themselves—such as enrolling students, building and maintaining facilities, hiring and providing benefits to teachers, developing whole-school schedules, and providing transportation. New Classrooms just needed to be able to control the aspects of school operation that affect its ability to improve student learning—things such as curriculum, staffing arrangements, teaching practices, and classroom layout and design. On the technology side, it didn’t need to custom-build every learning resource in its repertoire. It just needed to create a back-end system that could effectively monitor students’ learning needs, account for available teacher capacity, and then assign learning resources from a library of options in a way that aims to optimize students’ daily learning.

Nonetheless, this approach has surfaced other challenges for New Classrooms’ financial model. Districts’ budgeting and procurement processes were designed for purchasing textbooks, PD, and supplemental resources. Schools generally do not have budgets and policies for hiring external organizations to operate core instructional programs within conventional schools. Core instruction is generally in-house work, not a collaborative endeavor. As a consequence, New Classrooms faces an uphill battle finding partner schools willing to adopt its model. 

Is there an integrated path forward?

AltSchool, Summit Learning, and New Classrooms all serve as both notable pioneers and as tales of forewarning. Each found a way to initially break past the economic forces that tend to segregate edtech development and instructional innovations into separate organizations. Yet each has also struggled to maintain its foothold in the face of those economic forces. 

In the future, school systems or edtech ventures that figure out how to navigate the barriers to integration are the most likely to make blended learning mainstream. If they can work out the business model economics, they will be in the best position to create blended learning approaches that prove effective, reliable, and scalable. 

Government funding and K–12 philanthropy could help the situation. The field could use patient capital that can support model providers like New Classrooms and custom-built edtech solutions like Summit’s. Investing in integrated players is likely an expensive endeavor with a slow path to scalable impact. But not taking an integrated approach—continuing to build tech in isolation from school and teacher practices, or to adopt piecemeal tools into pre-existing instructional models—may have a greater net cost in the long run.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.