October 26, 2015

Uber for School?

Categories: Edtech, Educational Practice
close up of microchip

Disruptive innovation. Bleeding edge. Scalable solutions. The Uber for X. Silicon Valley is routinely ridiculed for the language of technology entrepreneurship and startup culture it has dispersed. Yet, the Silicon Valley vocabulary is fast becoming part of the language of education, and major tech companies are using their massive financial power to create their own new schools.

In the last few years, IBM has launched P-TECH, a network of “smarter schools” modeled on its Smarter Cities program. A former Google executive has established AltSchool, a chain of schools designed more like makerspaces than conventional schools. And, the widow of Steve Jobs of Apple has dedicated a huge philanthropic donation to a school redesign competition, XQ: Super School Project. Rather than tinkering in the margins of state schooling, Silicon Valley is setting out on a kind of creative destruction of the institution of education itself.

These innovations are, to borrow a phrase, the “Uber for School.” They are radically disruptive “startup schools” — new kinds of educational institutions that originate in Silicon Valley startup culture. These new schools are being designed as scalable technical platforms, underpinned by software engineering expertise; they are funded by commercial and venture capital sources; staffed and managed by execs and engineers from some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups and web companies; and proposed to reinvent, reimagine and rebuild schools in the image of Silicon Valley itself.

Smarter Schools

P-TECH (Pathways in Technology Early College High School) is a chain school model for high school education from the IBM Corporation. Its emphasis is on vocational education for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Many students are offered internships at IBM itself during the course of their studies, and to date, some of its graduates have continued to full employment with the company.

The model originated in 2011 at P-TECH Brooklyn in New York, through a partnership of the New York City Department of Education, The City University of New York, New York City College of Technology and IBM Corporation. It was the result of meetings between New York’s former Chancellor of Education Joel Klein and IBM’s then-CEO Samuel Palmisano in 2010, and conceived as a way of connecting education and employment, in particular to equip students with the same skills and degrees that IBM demands of its own employees. By 2015, it had expanded to around 40 schools. Barack Obama himself has visited a P-TECH school and declared it a successful model. The mayor of Chicago has ‘ordered’ 4 P-TECH schools for the city after meetings with the New York state governor. It has even been profiled in Wired magazine.

Notably, IBM has produced extensive documentation on the P-TECH model, including a development guide on how such a school should be established, funded, organized and run. P-TECH is also an outgrowth of IBM’s much wider “Smarter Cities” global program, and in particular the Smarter Education strand of it. Greg Linday claims it is intended “to build for schools what its operations center is for cities: a single system for collecting, aggregating and analyzing data from students and teachers alike, then writing algorithms to prescribe how to cope.” He claims that P-TECH is mobilizing a “software ‘infrastructure layer’ for schools, running behind the scenes to manage students’ digital textbooks and analyze their performance,” and that P-TECH “is a research project for gleaning best practices that can be codified into software or peddled by IBM’s consultants to other clients — in this case, schools.”

P-TECH schools ultimately act as laboratory sites and surveillance centers for IBM to test out its analytics capacities for Smarter Education, and constitute a talent pipeline for the tech sector, as well as a research site for the production and piloting of software products that might be patented and commercialized.


A different model to P-TECH is that of the “makerschool,” emerging in part from the growing homeschooling culture in California. The prominent example is AltSchool, set up in 2013 by Max Ventilla, a tech entrepreneur and former Google exec. It “prepares students for the future through personalized learning experiences within micro-school communities.” Its stated aim is to “help reinvent education from the ground up.” After establishing in four sites in San Francisco as a “collaborative community of micro-schools,” AltSchool expanded in September 2015 to Brooklyn and Palo Alto, with further plans for new schools in 2016. It has since hired executives from Google, Uber and other successful Silicon Valley startups.

The AltSchool chief technology officer, formerly the engineer in charge of the Google.com homepage and search results experience, has stated, “I am highly motivated to use my decade of Google experience to enable the AltSchool platform to grow and scale.” Elsewhere on the AltSchool site, the AltSchool “platform” is described as a new “central operating system for education,” a scalable technical infrastructure that can be transported to new sites. Its website refers to “technology-enabled models” that are transforming industries and institutions, such as Airbnb, and applies these ideals to education.

Setting up a new community of micro-schools, however, is not inexpensive. AltSchool originally raised $33 million in venture capital funding, with another $100 million investment in 2015, including donations from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. AltSchool is, then, thoroughly governed, managed, and financed through the discourses and material practices of Silicon Valley startup culture. Its operating system is modeled on social media. Its funding is almost exclusively generated through venture capital and tech philanthropy. Its engineering and design team are applying their social media expertise in data dashboards, algorithmic playlisting, adaptive recommender systems, and app development to the development of new ed-tech devices and platforms.

If you look closely at the photos on the website, you can read a sign on the wall of AltSchool HQ that reads “Be Altsome.”

Crowdsourced Super Schools

Finally, we have XQ: Super School Project. Set up in September 2015 with a $50 million philanthropic investment by the widow of Steve Jobs from Apple, the Super School Project is managed by the XQ Institute, part of the Emerson Collective, a philanthropic organization that claims to “invest in ideas and fuel innovation” through partnering with entrepreneurs. Its founder and president is Laurene Powell Jobs (one of the richest women in Silicon Valley, and the world’s ninth wealthiest woman) and its managing director is Russlynn Ali (a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education). There is serious financial Silicon Valley financial power as well as political power behind the Super School Project.

Conceived as a massive “democratic and crowdsourced” experiment in school design, the XQ Super School Project is an open competition “to reimagine and design the next American high school” in order to “deeply prepare our students for the rigorous challenges of college, jobs and life.” The project is soliciting proposals with the objective of partnering with winning teams to provide them with expert support, including the allocation of $50 million in funding for the five winning proposals to turn them into “real Super Schools.” The project is also crowdsourcing ideas for school innovation through the Twitter hashtag #RethinkHighSchool and is running a roadshow this fall to help shape proposals.

Despite being an open, crowdsourcing competition, Super School Project is designed with a number of clear constraints. For a start, it assumes that neuroscience is the best source for understanding learning processes. A paper on the “science of adolescent learning” provided on the website refers to “understanding and applying the fundamentals of brain science” to “empower young people to become agents of their own learning journeys.” It draws on neuroscientific claims about the malleability and plasticity of the adolescent brain, and about the brain-based nature of students’ “mindsets” for STEM subjects. In another paper on the skills for the 21st century, the Super School Project dismisses the so-called “old paradigm” (of following orders, being product-driven, 9-5 lifelong employment and domain specialization), and replaces it with the “knowledge economy” paradigm of co-creation, distributed leadership, flexibility, domain agility and creativity — this reads much like the mission of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning.

Brain science and the knowledge economy are two of the dominant discourses informing the Super School Project and, ultimately, act as design constraints for potential entrants to the competition. The project is ultimately concerned with shaping brains for STEM work.


Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge have influentially introduced the concept of “code/space” to describe spatial environments that depend on computer code for their functioning. The startup schools being developed by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are ultimately new kinds of educational code/spaces — an emerging form of “code/school.” Code/school articulates the kind of educational institutions that thoroughly depend on lines of computer code to function as intended and designed — schools that can only run on a scalable operating system.

But, Kitchin and Dodge also assert that understanding how code functions means looking beyond the lines of code themselves. It means examining the programmers who script code to accomplish specific goals; the professional and institutional cultures of coding in which code is written; the financial and business arrangements that fund it; the social and technical infrastructures in which it is embedded; and the management and governance structures that regulate it.

Moreover, it is the language of Silicon Valley which is now increasingly infusing education, and supporting the kinds of coding practices that will make startup schools operational. The Silicon Valley discourse of innovation, entrepreneurship, startup culture, makerspaces, crowdsourced solutions, platforms and philanthrocapital is becoming a new language for the future of schooling.

State schooling is, of course, not unproblematic. But, it is being problematized by the tech entrepreneurial sector according to the very discourse with its own explanations, arguments and solutions. If these schools scale, local and national governments will no longer have responsibility for schools; education governance will happen in Silicon Valley HQs, operationalized by software engineers, and financed by corporate, venture and philanthrocapital funding. Language, or discourse, generates practices, and has consequences. It makes some ideas and objectives seem possible, desirable and attainable, while silencing others.

As a final point, as startup code/schools are owned by big tech companies, any student data generated by these institutions will also belong to those institutions to use to conduct various analytics procedures — a significant example of the “capture model” of data collection that allows computers to track information in real time, identify particular human activities, and reorganize the data sets in ways that can be used for intervention. In this way, startup schools act much like the social media companies from which they are derived, whose business plans depend on the capture and analysis of customer and user data for the purposes of better profiling and prediction of individuals’ habits and social trends. At a time when emotional manipulation of users by Facebook and search engine manipulation of public knowledge by Google are becoming major concerns, the implantation of data analytics in the everyday functioning of code/schools — tracking and predicting everything from attainment to behaviour and emotions in classrooms — should itself be the topic of close scrutiny.

Smarter, crowdsourced, awesome startup schools are also surveillant, data-capturing, scalable venture capitalist schools built to run on the social, cultural, economic and political operating systems of Silicon Valley.

Banner image credit: JD Hancock