Michael O’Ryan, Online English teacher and Educator at Acadsoc
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Silicon Valley is awash with futuristic technology companies that have their primary goal as transforming the world through software and robotics. One of the leading industries that these companies are geared towards reforming or transforming is the educational industry. There seems to be a lag in the advancement of the classroom environment. With textbooks becoming obsolete and the class ratios increasing on the students’ side, there needs to be a direct effort in making sure that the attitude between student and education remains one that is important, based on the power of education.
In the year of 2014, the Altschool was founded by Max Ventilla, a previous Google executive. The school was established from education reform – providing a technological approach to the school environment. This includes complete access to computers, robotics, full access to 3D printers, customised apps and cameras[i], to provide a technological approach to learning. With backers such as Mark Zuckerberg, one can almost assume that the school would be an instant success, but it has not operated without its challenges. Many key players in the tech industry such as Bill Gates, are investing millions of dollars into start-ups in Silicon Valley that seek to merge the innovative advancements of technology, with the demands of the classroom.
To find answers to questions that arise as a result of challenges faced, parallels can be drawn from online educational companies such as Acadsoc.
Education is not one dimensional, and therefore students respond differently to certain aspects of education. Some respond positively to repetition, some react to verbal exchanges, and other respond best to practicality. Even though this can be attested to by teachers around the world, schools still adopt the approach of ‘one-size fits all’[ii]. Altschool’s advantage is that it uses technology to create an environment where the student can operate optimally and to his/her full capacity.
The access to computers and tailored applications means that students can harness their potential using technology that is designed to achieve that specific outcome. Students who have an aptitude for practical activities can do quizzes on the computer, students who respond better to verbal interaction can watch videos and do comprehension exercises. This means that the students can achieve the same level of learning using different approaches, tailored specifically for them, in the same classroom, using the same amount of time. Imagine a student who is sick and is not able to attend class in the usual way, they can still be able to log on into the virtual classrooms, complete activities and be up to date by the time they are able to physically be in school. This means that the overall organisation and assessment can be up to date.
Altschool’s absolute advantage over the conventional schools exists in the form of accessibility. This is because, through technology, a student still has access to learning material and classrooms in a virtual space. It is difficult to introduce a new program, especially to students who are teens who have been exposed to a specific way of learning throughout their foundation phases. Owing to this, Altschool seeks to merge its technological approach with qualified teachers to help facilitate the integration between technology and student. As a result, students can attend class wherever they may be. As mentioned above, students respond differently to different types of learning – the teachers still have a role to play by adding that human dynamic to the classes. Students may not be able to express their feelings and frustrations to machines that is why the school knows that teachers are an integral part of their system.
For any organisation, it is essential to understand what you stand for. There is a cloud of uncertainty when we look at Altschool both as a school and as a business. As a school, the organisation is not achieving the results it has set out, and as a business, it is not profitable – as evidenced by the closures of four of its campuses. The initial scrutiny comes from the parents themselves. In the year 2014, one year after the school was founded; Altschool lost an average of between two to three students per class that ranges from anything from fifteen to twenty-five students. The loss comes from the view that parents are paying a tuition fee of up to $30 000 only for their children to not be monitored adequately. What monitoring is required? Well, in the case of learning disorders, they are not exclusive to the conventional classrooms. Students can suffer from learning disorders even when operating computers, and if this goes unmonitored, the parents may very well be throwing their money away.
In an environment where students should be interacting with like-minded peers, the constant use of laptops means that the sharing of ideas is virtually non-existent, as students can spend up to half of their day facing their laptops. Socially, this creates students who are reserved and living in their own bubble, taking away from all the benefits human interaction has.[iii] Owing to these circumstances, parents feel like their children are being used as guinea-pigs as the company continues to develop itself and find its direction. One observation is that students would be served better if they were volunteers during a beta phase – to allow for these types of outcomes.
The company has already licensed its software to four schools, and they have taken a software development approach to their going concern. For them, this justifies the closure of so many other campuses. For funders such as the Peter Theil Founders’ Fund and Andreessen Horowitz, that is good news – but for students and parents alike, it leaves so many questions unaccounted for. The sustainability of online education exists in companies such as Acadsoc, where the company is driven by one goal that is perfected by keeping everything that they do focused on that goal. Acadsoc seeks to provide quality education over an online platform to students who are mainly in China. From the teachers that the company works with to the software that the company adopts, it is all geared to achieving one specific goal – quality education online. That is how the company will continue to be sustainable and continue to enjoy its success. For an organisation like Altschool to become sustainable, they need to have a defined goal that they will work towards.
One vital question that they need to answer is the following: Is Altschool a tech company that uses education as a strategic business unit or is Altschool an educational organisation with technology as it a strategic business unit?
Technology: Public Education’s Savior?
We cannot discount the value of technology in the educational spectrum. Many schools are trying to use tablets to stay connected and available to their students at all hours, but their expertise has its limits. The role of tech companies in Silicon Valley, however, is not to try and flip the script entirely, but to learn from the needs of the students and teachers as a whole. That way, tech companies can develop products that will be integrated easier into the classroom and shape the new age of learning. Technology is vital; the development of online libraries already has so many benefits, imagine online classroom archives. There is so much to learn from other companies that use technology to further the cause while still maintaining their profitability and sustainability, merging technology and the human teacher – Acadsoc is one of those companies.
Altschool has something really good that they are brewing. Their fault only lies in them being the typical tech start-up, which is trying to find a profitable way of achieving their goal. That means that they will step on toes and even disappoint their clients from time to time – what they need is a clear goal of what they are hoping to achieve and then work in that direction. Given the right type of dedication, they can turn all their obstacles into a platform for elevation – while becoming a leader in educational innovation in Silicon Valley.