Revolution in the classroom

A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo on display in this illustration taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on Dec 16, 2015.
A man poses with a magnifier in front of a Facebook logo on display in this illustration taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on Dec 16, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Facebook co-develops software that puts students in charge of their lesson plans

SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook and Summit Public Schools, a non-profit charter school network, are expanding a new way of learning in which students take the lead on their assignments.
 

Rather than have teachers hand out class assignments, the Facebook-Summit learning management system puts students in charge of selecting their projects and setting their pace. The idea is to encourage students to develop attributes and skills, like resourcefulness and time management, that might help them succeed in college.

Facebook and Summit, which has its headquarters in Silicon Valley, announced this week that nearly 120 schools plan this autumn to introduce the free learning system developed jointly by the social network and the charter schools.

"As parents and kids and teachers get access to this type of learning, I think more and more will want it," Ms Diane Tavenner, co-founder and chief executive of Summit Public Schools, said in a telephone interview.

The Facebook-backed platform is entering the public school software market when rival tech giants like Google and Microsoft have already established big footprints, in an attempt to build brand loyalty among students early.

 

  • 120

    Nearly this number of schools are planning this autumn to introduce the free learning system developed jointly by the social network and the charter schools.

    1,500

    More than this number of educators and leaders of public, private and charter schools are participating in the programme, called Summit Basecamp, this summer to learn how to use the Summit-Facebook system.

    19

    The number of schools that introduced the new learning approach last year. Among them, at least a few educators and administrators reported a steep learning curve.

In June, Google said more than 60 million students and teachers worldwide used Google Apps for Education, a suite of free products that includes Gmail and Google Drive for document-sharing. Many other schools use Microsoft productivity tools and Skype, the video-conferencing tool, in classrooms. Amazon also plans to introduce Amazon Inspire, a site where teachers can share free instructional materials.

However, the Summit-Facebook system, called the "Summit Personalised Learning Platform", is different. The software gives students a full view of their academic responsibilities for the year in each class and breaks them down into customisable lesson modules they can tackle at their own pace.

A student working on a science assignment, for example, may choose to create a project using video, text or audio files.

Students may also work asynchronously, tackling different sections of the year's work at the same time.

The system inverts the traditional teacher-led classroom hierarchy, requiring schools to provide intensive one-on-one mentoring and coaching to help each student adapt.

This summer, more than 1,500 educators and leaders of public, private and charter schools are participating in the programme, called Summit Basecamp, to learn how to use the system. Among the 19 schools that introduced the new learning approach last year, at least a few educators and administrators reported a steep learning curve.

BUILDING MOMENTUM

As parents and kids and teachers get access to this type of learning, I think more and more will want it.

MS DIANE TAVENNER, co-founder and chief executive of Summit Public Schools.

"There were many points where we weren't sure the Summit Basecamp model was what our students needed," said Ms Claire Fisher, principal of Urban Promise Academy, a public middle school in Oakland, California, which introduced the platform in its sixth-grade classes.

By the end of the school year, however, 31 per cent of the school's sixth-graders were reading at or above their grade level, compared with just 9 per cent in the autumn. That was a larger improvement in reading than students in seventh and eighth grades, which did not use the platform, Ms Fisher said.

Mr Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, and his wife, Dr Priscilla Chan, were the catalysts for the partnership. It is the couple's most public education effort since 2010, when they provided US$100 million (S$135 million) to help overhaul public schools in Newark, New Jersey, a top-down effort that ran into local opposition.

The Facebook-Summit partnership, by contrast, is more of a ground-up effort to create a national demand for student-driven learning in schools. Facebook announced its support for the system last September; the company declined to comment on how much it is spending on it.

Earlier this month, Summit and Facebook opened the platform up to individual teachers who have not participated in Summit's extensive on-site training programme.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Revolution in the classroom'. Print Edition | Subscribe