Last week I visited AltSchool, the San Francisco-based education-technology firm that has begun its corporate life by operating a small number of private “micro-schools.” AltSchool’s CEO, Google veteran Max Ventilla, explained why his toddler of a startup—it began in 2013—began with baby steps. Other “ed-tech” companies have tried building broadly applicable technologies to achieve incremental growth. Almost all have failed. By beginning with small schools, Ventilla said, AltSchool can aim revolutionarily for the middle ground of teacher autonomy and accountability.
In other words, it can experiment. “We’re kind of flying the plane while we’re building it,” Ventilla said. This is a tried and true cliché of Silicon Valley product development. The old way, think Microsoft, was to tinker for years on complicated software and then ship it at once. The new way, think Facebook, is to iterate and then ship frequently.
The difference is that AltSchool is experimenting with the lives of children, not a better way of tagging beer-bust photos. The reason the plane-flying analogy amuses is that no one in their right mind would tinker with an airborne plane. Yet AltSchool asks parents to pay for the privilege of supplying their children as guinea pigs.
Some of what it is doing is fascinating. AltSchool has raised $133 million, and it has developed unique technology that borrows from current tech-industry memes. A student “playlist” shows all the topics and tasks accomplished. This not only allows a teacher to focus on unknown areas but also, cleverly, avoids wasting a child’s time rehashing completed material. A “parent portal” provides a stream like Facebook’s News Feed to keep parents up to speed on their child’s progress.
I’m intrigued by AltSchool, and my biggest gripe, which I shared with Ventilla, is that he’s not applying his energy, smarts, and vast amount of available capital to improve public schools, especially in San Francisco. He hopes the company’s “platform” eventually will be available to public schools.
Rebecca Mead’s meticulously reported feature in the current issue of The New Yorker, “Learn Different,” discusses this and many other pros and cons of AltSchool’s approach. I highly recommend it if you’re half as intrigued as I am.
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BITS AND BYTES
Ransomware targets Apple users. A malicious kind of software program that holds a computer’s data for ransom has for the first time struck Macintosh computers, according to cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks. The Internet scourge, which has become a common and lucrative attack for cybercriminals, typically targets computers running Microsoft Windows. (Fortune)
Uber has sexual assault complaints. Leaked screenshots of the ride-hailing service’s internal customer support portal appear to show thousands of tickets filed by riders involving sexual assault. Uber disputes the accuracy of the figures, writing that there have been five reported instances of rapes and 170 valid allegations of sexual assault. (BuzzFeed News)
Amazon to restore encryption. The online retail giant last fall quietly removed a feature that allowed customers using devices running the company’s Fire OS operating system to encrypt their data. After receiving a backlash for the move, the company said it would reinstate the option come spring. (Fortune)
Tinder and Slack toy with new features. Dating app Tinder is testing out a share button that would let would-be matchmakers send romantic prospects’ profiles to friends. Meanwhile, chat app Slack has begun experimenting with voice calling, and video is expected to be added soon. (Fortune, Fortune)
RIP ‘godfather of email’ and political dame. Raymond Tomlinson, a computer engineer who is credited with founding email, died from an apparent heart attack on Saturday morning. Former first lady Nancy Reagan also passed away on Sunday. (Fortune, Fortune)
Apple vs. FBI developments. Federal agencies’ conflicting views on encryption technology have left the Obama administration floundering without a clear stance on the matter. Apple’s top software engineer, meanwhile, argues in a Washington Post op-ed that what the government is asking the company to do would set iPhone security back several years. (Fortune, Fortune)
BASF crashes Dupont-Dow party? German chemical giant BASF is reportedly weighing the possibility of tendering a counter-bid for Dupont, the Delaware-based chemical company last set to merge with Dow Chemical at the urging of activist investors. BASF declined to comment on deal “speculation.” (Fortune)
Fortune’s Geoffrey Smith and Roger Parloff take you inside the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
In late 2008 a publication called Green Car Journal compared the five finalists of its annual Green Car of the Year award. “Fulfilling this growing desire for vehicles with better fuel economy and overall environmental performance is no easy thing,” it noted. “Rising to the top is the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI.” The car was the winner because its “groundbreaking clean diesel” engine managed to meet America’s “stringent tailpipe emissions standards” while also delivering “admirable fuel efficiency,” “satisfying performance,” and “a very reasonable” price.
That award was recently rescinded. The Jetta—like at least 14 other so-called Clean Diesel models sold by Volkswagen Group under its VW, Audi, and Porsche marques from 2008 to 2015—was actually the automotive equivalent of Piltdown Man. It was a hoax.
About 580,000 VWs in the U.S.—and almost 10.5 million more worldwide—weren’t really “green” at all … Read the rest on Fortune.com.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Trump and the Politics of Dominance by Jennifer Reingold
S&P Analyst Calls Stock Market Rally Geriatric by Stephen Gandel
Who Won the Democratic Debate? by Tory Newmyer
The Manning Economy Is Even Bigger Than You Thought by Ben Geier
Simple Ways to Add 2 Hours More to Your Days by Laura Vanderkam
Here’s What Tim Cook Can Learn From Starbucks and Whole Foods by Michael J. Silverstein
ONE MORE THING
‘Passive Wi-Fi’ could fuel the Internet of things. Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new type of wireless networking technology that uses 10,000 times less power than present systems. (Fortune)