By Chris Cox, Chief Product Officer
Over the past year, a small team of Facebook engineers has been working together with a group of local educators on an exciting project — to create a classroom experience that’s centered around students’ ambitions that takes advantage of all the technology and information accessible to a kid growing up today.
When we first heard about Summit Public Schools a few years ago we, like many others, were impressed by their results. They are consistently ranked among the best schools in California, almost all of their graduates are accepted to at least one four-year college or university, and they achieve these outcomes while serving a very diverse student population that reflects the local community. They are just remarkable schools.
They get these results by pioneering a very different approach to learning. First, the classroom isn’t for lectures. Content and assessments are delivered online through teacher-created materials, and classroom time is reserved for teacher-led real-world projects and collaboration. Second, the learning experience for students is completely personalized to them, and they move along at their own pace. Students start by working with teachers to set long-term goals (for example “become an investigative journalist”, “go to a state school”, “learn to code”), then lay out a plan to achieve them over the course of many years. They can then visualize and track all of their coursework as a path towards these goals, connecting their daily decisions to their long-term aspirations. This means that every moment of each students’ day is motivated by what they want to be when they grow up. Alongside this, teachers can then check in on how their students are doing to give tailored feedback each day, and parents can do the same to view their kids’ progress at any time.
As we looked into why this was so effective, we saw that a lot of this was the culture of the teachers and school, but also that a lot of the magic was in the technology. First, the technology itself has the power to bring to life the daily work by putting it in context. And second, the technology frees up classroom time for teachers to do what they do best—mentor students directly—and for students to spend time collaborating with, and in some cases, teaching each other. We got in touch with Summit to see whether there was an opportunity for our engineers to help them. They told us that while this model was changing the way kids learn, the technology just wasn’t good enough. So what if we could build this together and then give it away for free?
We started by working together to rebuild their tool, called the Personalized Learning Plan (“PLP”), for Summit’s use in the 2014 school year. Last year, more than 2,000 students and 100 teachers spent the school year using it. For 2015, we’re supporting Summit as it partners with public schools who want to explore personalized learning through a small pilot program. We’ll use feedback from this program to improve the PLP so we can eventually offer it, for free, to any school in the US that wants it.
The small team at Facebook that’s partnering with Summit operates independently. The PLP itself is completely separate from Facebook and doesn’t require a Facebook account. Everybody working on the PLP is subject to strict privacy controls that help protect student data. Summit subscribes to the White House-endorsed Student Privacy Pledge, which means that the Facebook employees working on this project are required to handle Summit students’ data in accordance with the Pledge.
This is personal for those of us working on the team here at Facebook. Through our kids, our families and the teachers in our lives, we’ve seen that there’s an opportunity to help apply our skills to the future of education, and we all wanted to find a way to help make an impact by doing what we do best — building software. With Summit it’s starting to feel like we’ve found the perfect partnership. Together we look forward to offering personalized learning to any public school that wants it, and further out, to the day when anyone with an internet connection could have free access.