We pull up to a nondescript building in the middle of downtown San Francisco. There are no characteristic signs of a school anywhere in sight. No murals. No playground. No toys or sports equipment. The only indication we’d arrived at the right place was a sign above the doorbell reading, “AltSchool”. AltSchool is a collaborative community of micro-schools (founded by Google alumnus Max Ventilla) that brings together teachers, entrepreneurs and technologists to completely reimagine primary education.
“Basically any other industry in the world looks very different than it did 100 years ago,” says Kimberly Johnson, AltSchool’s Product Success and Training Lead, “except education.” Justin Mann, who worked on the operations team, winces as she says this. As a former teacher himself, he knows how hard teachers struggle to give students a meaningful education.
With the current educational model, teachers are forced to turn their focus towards preparing students for standardized tests. Those who want to connect with students more deeply — and take into account their individual needs — almost have to do so despite the system.
This is why AltSchool’s approach is so different. Classrooms are designed to look like a blend of open concept office and old-timey schoolhouse. They’re filled with students of mixed ages and grade levels, so they can interact more freely and learn from one another through play. The idea is that these kinds of interactions support children’s social and emotional development.
But the biggest difference is how AltSchool doles out lessons. Every kid receives a tablet loaded with the school’s custom learning software — a program featuring “playlists” of activities and exercises that teachers handpick based on each student’s interests and learning style. During class, teachers spend their time guiding students through these lessons, individually or in small groups. This method of instruction requires a lot more hands-on work, but the results are far more rewarding for both teachers and students.
To better understand how AltSchool can help teachers spend more time with students, and less time on administrative tasks, Mann and his team conducted a research study to find out how teachers were spending their time outside of the classroom.
It turns out, the bulk of their time was spent on email and in disparate chat groups, exchanging lesson ideas with other teachers and communicating back and forth with head office staff. Since the operations team were all on Slack, Mann thought he’d try using it with teachers.
“Slack is critical to our real-time support of classrooms and educators.” — Kimberly Johnson, Product Success and Training Lead
The results of the study proved that teachers are collaborative by nature. They want to work together to give their students the best education possible. They just needed a better way to go about it. This became apparent when they started using Slack.
In channels like #askamaker, teachers share ideas for lessons and activities. It’s not uncommon for these conversations to result in a teacher exchange, where teachers with a specific kind of expertise jump into another teacher’s classroom to help run a lesson. Now not only are students receiving a more well-rounded education, but teachers are learning from each other too.
Some students enroll in extra curricular classes (called co-curriculars) where they dive deeper into a subject like languages or computer science. These courses are taught by part-time teachers after school. Before co-curricular teachers begin their lessons, they check into the #cocurricular channel for notes and updates from day-time teachers. Not only do day-time teachers follow-up on a student’s progress with the subject, they also take the time to shed light on how a student is feeling or behaving that day, which allows co-curricular teachers to tailor their lesson approach so students can be more receptive.
More recently, AltSchool’s engineers have been tinkering with bots and integrations to alleviate teachers of time-consuming administrative tasks. They’ve even built their own bots, including a “Safety Team” bot that connects to the school’s 24 hour video security system and notifies teachers and staff when a new visitor is on the premises; the “BatteryBot” which alerts teachers to low battery levels on students’ tablets, and the “AltSchool” bot which reminds teachers to verify student attendance and instantly shares those records back with school staff.
Perhaps the greatest advantage in connecting all of AltSchool’s teachers on Slack is that teachers feel like they’re part of building something much bigger together. More than anything, that’s exactly what AltSchool is hoping to achieve.
We’d love to hear how your team uses Slack — send your story to us at email@example.com or get in touch on Twitter at @SlackHQ.
*This post has been edited to make some minor corrections