Image Source: Facebook

August 9, 2016; New York Times

Facebook has partnered with the nonprofit charter school network Summit Public Schools to develop a free learning software system that aims to transform the traditional student-teacher dynamic in public education.

The innovative Summit-Facebook system, called the “Summit Personalized Learning Platform,” gives students a full view of their academic responsibilities for the year and allows them to set their own pace on projects, with the intent of equipping students with self-management skills that will help them succeed in college.

Though the concept is on point, speaking as it does to the progressive concepts of the value of intrinsic motivation and self-management in learning, the methods and vehicles of its introduction may seem a bit suspect to those who see both the presence of the Gates Foundation and the proliferation of charters and online charters as part of a trend to undercut and privatize the public education system.

Facebook announced the partnership with Summit Public Schools in September of 2015, mentioning plans to rebuild their software to create a new experience for the student:

Students start by working with teachers to set long-term goals (e.g., “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.

This new technology will challenge the traditional classroom hierarchy in the U.S., requiring each school to provide one-on-one mentoring to help students adapt to this new environment. Summit Public Schools plans to introduce this new software system to 120 schools this coming fall. Since about 2011, the Summit charter network has been using technology to personalize the student experience.

What concerns us is that Facebook’s choice to roll this new software out through a private charter school organization headquartered in Silicon Valley will only widen the rift between charters and traditional public schools. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a strategic partner and funder of Summit Public Schools, and has been a major advocate and supporter of the charter school movement in Washington and California—which have failed to show significant improvements when compared to traditional public schools over the last twenty-five years. Nonprofit Quarterly has reported extensively on the dangers in charter schools diverting funds from district schools while enrolling fewer at-risk children.

We would love to hear from educators and education advocates about this new development and its implications. —Aine Creedon