Why Facebook engineers helped this district build a personalized learning tool

By Bridget McCrea
October 7th, 2015

Volunteer Facebook engineers helped a district create something truly personal

facebook-summitBuilding any technology platform from the ground up can be a monumental task, but in the educational sector everything from tight budgets to a lack of support to spare technical resources can make the task that much more difficult. Four years ago, district leaders at Redwood City, California-based Summit Public Schools found themselves unsatisfied with commercial learning management-like systems and decided to develop a homegrown, online Personalized Learning Plan (PLP) platform to deliver content, assignments, and other materials online.

But they didn’t go it alone. Working with a small group of volunteer engineers from Facebook, headquartered only a few miles away, Summit became one of few U.S. schools to pick the DIY route instead of purchasing a pre-made online learning content platform from an outside vendor—an option fraught with challenges. Here, the district’s chief external officer Mira Brown discusses the impetus behind the project, the thought and work that’s gone into it, and the district’s plan to take its PLP nationwide.

What is the Personalized Learning Plan platform?

Mira Brown: Like all public school districts, we want our students to truly be college- and career-ready upon graduation. As part of that mission, we’ve always had a personalized learning model in place for our students — even before we started developing this platform. We called it the Personalized Learning Plan or “PLP,” and we see it as a critical part of ensuring that pupils are ready for college and/or careers. Through this model, we’ve made education and the overall experience very student-centric; we factor in every student’s individual short-term and long-term goals; and we engage students in deeper learning that’s connected to the real world (i.e., critical thinking skills and problem solving). These components served as a base for creating a PLP that’s truly student-centered.

Why did you choose to build the technology platform instead of simply buying one?

Brown: There wasn’t a tool or platform that could do everything we wanted to do, quite frankly. We needed something which could serve as the backbone for a very personalized experience and that could put kids in the driver’s seat by allowing them to access learning on a 24/7 basis. We also wanted a platform that could house all of the curriculum and learning resources, and then put all of that information at the students’ fingertips. We wanted to create that and make it a driving tool for the educational experience.

What were the first steps?

Brown:   When we started out we had one in-house engineer and a team of educators working on the project. That changed when we formed a partnership with Facebook and started working with a team of engineers to finish developing the PLP. We think Facebook took an interest in what we were doing because its engineers shared many of the same values, beliefs, and goals that we had. For example, we both respected the idea of creating something that truly enabled a personalized learning experience for every child. We also valued teacher, student, and family input in the design process. As a result, this platform was truly built by the community that’s using it. Finally, we both believed in the ultimate goal of building something that every teacher, school, educator, student, and family could access for free.

Can you share an example of how Summit works with Facebook?

Brown: It’s a very close partnership and we basically treat each other as peers. Some of the engineers are literally as passionate about the platform as our teachers are and it’s not unusual to see Facebook engineers in our classrooms. Most recently, a few of our students asked if it would be possible to integrate project calendars into the platform. We presented the engineers with that request, they answered the call, and starting this school year the calendars are part of the PLP. Now our kids are saying, ‘Hey, can we have one master calendar to work with instead of one calendar per project?’ The engineers are working on that now. This is just one small example of how well the partnership works and how the PLP is progressing.

Do you see the PLP as a work in progress at this point?

Brown: We hope that the PLP is always being improved upon and honed, so it’s certainly a work in progress. We have a whole roadmap of features and functionalities that we’d like to build into it — all with the goal of making it a tool that teachers, students, and families can connect and engage with.

What are the hard parts of building your own content platform?

Brown: With the opportunity to design, iterate, and consistently improve, I think the other side of that Rubik’s Cube is that it can also be challenging. When you have a tool that’s continually being improved, for example, the features themselves may change. As such, there has to be a comfort level among students, teachers, school leaders, and others that the tool is never ‘perfect.’ There’s always room for improvement, and in some cases it can feel sort of ‘messy’ as you’re building out new features and getting them into the system.

What’s next for Summit Public Schools’ online learning platform?

Brown:   Our goal has also never been to create the PLP solely for Summit’s use. Ultimately, the PLP will be free and open for any teacher, educator, or family to just pick up and start using. We have no date or timeline in mind yet for when that will happen, but we are running a small pilot program right now with some schools around the country that are ‘exploring’ our expanded PLP and using it as a tool. We’re probably a couple of years away from a time when all schools and educators can use our tool at no charge, but we’re working on it.

Bridget McCrea is a contributing writer for eSchool News.