Case Studies: AltSchool and Bridge International

Cite as:

Okune, Angela. 2018. "Case Studies: AltSchools and Bridge International." In Tech Philanthrophy and 'Entrepreneuring' Education in Africa, created by Angela Okune. In PhD Orals Document: Decolonizing the African University, created by Angela Okune. University of California, Irvine. October.

With AltSchools focused on education in the US and Bridge International focused on students at what the World Bank would label the “bottom of the pyramid” in the global South, these two edtech start-ups appear to have nearly opposing target groups and approaches. AltSchool charges 26,000 USD per year per student and emphasizes its “personalized” approach to learning, whereas Bridge emphasizes its “high quality, low-cost” education for the poor. Bridge’s business model assumes families are paying on average $7 a month, or $84 USD a year per child. Perhaps especially because these two companies have such seemingly different targets, an analysis of the two in tandem helps to shed light on the shared ethos and values which I explore as characteristic of Silicon Valley.

Angela Okune's Orals Documents in Brief

This essay is part of three orals documents submitted by University of California, Irvine Anthropology doctoral student Angela Okune i n partial...Read more

Shared priorities and approaches: Technocentricity and Scale

Both organizations tout technocentric solution to the global “education crisis.” In an interview with AltSchools’ founder, he noted, “AltSchool’s team has deep expertise at Google and Facebook with how do you use data in a secure way that protects privacy and creates truly transformative value.” [Angela Okune: Ironic, a bit given recent data issues for Facebook??] “We’re working with a couple of cutting-edge partners on research science [to determine] how you turn quick feedback about how a student did on an assignment, or what they got out of reading passage, into a prediction about how they’d do on a standardized test. If you don’t have to have kids taking these crazy standardized tests that get them completely freaked out and derail their education for a week but you can still predict their outcome on tests, that’s not a small gain. It can change a school’s ability to be rigorous and accountable and be humane.”

A central premise that greater use of algorithms, software, and hardware technologies will improve business and learning efficiencies goes unchallenged in edtech discourse. On their webpage, Bridge also states: “We re-engineered every part of the education system…to monitor progress, to make it as efficient, effective – and very affordable for the communities we serve.” Their solution, to provide scripted lesson plans, centrally developed and shared with teachers via tablets assumes that the problem with the quality of education lies with the teacher. The Bridge model improves the capacity of the teacher by backgrounding the subjectivity inherant in putting together and teaching a lesson plan; leveraging tablet hardware technology so that anyone who can read English should be able to more or less lead a Bridge classroom according to their model.

The AltSchool model similarly seeks to improve the capacity of the teacher through big data collected via various technologies. AltSchool founder stated: “When you have a real platform that supports a network and creates a network effect across any class of providers – from healthcare to entertainment companies – the effect is that everybody benefits from everybody else. If you [eventually] have 10,000 teachers accepting or rejecting recommendations every day or using the system to create better scores, that changes experience of educators; they’re now standing on the shoulders of everyone else.

Scale. Unsurprisingly, key to both business models is scale. Bridge is currently losing about $12 million a year because its low-cost model means it needs many more students to make money. There are 100,000 Bridge students currently. The company’s CEO seeks to educate 10 million children by 2025. Similarly, five years after opening AltSchool and despite charging about $30,000 for tuition, AltSchool’s losses are piling up as it spends at a pace of about $40 million per year. In an interview, CEO Ventilla said the startup is shifting its focus to selling technology to other schools. The aim appears to be less about setting up their own schools and more about selling their proprietary software. Ventilla broke the news to parents with an email saying the school there would close at the end of the year due to business “challenges and opportunities,” according to a copy of the message reviewed by Bloomberg. “We know this is tough news that will have a big impact on your family. But the moves are needed given AltSchool’s “strategy, path to growth and finances” he wrote.

The two organizations share funders and several members of their advisory board. Bridge International has raised $100 million USD from big name tech giants like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg (via the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative), as well as global development organizations like the International Finance Company, part of the World Bank, and CDC, the UK government’s international investment arm. AltSchools has raised $176 million USD from organizations like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Omidiyar Network.

Exporting Neoliberalism via Silicon Valley

Page 9 of this World Bank brief showcasing Bridge International emphasizes the shared values between Bridge International (a private for-profit tech start-up) and the IFC. The excerpt from...Read more

Privatizing public education

The private-public partnership model continues to gain traction as governments like Liberia work together with companies like Bridge to improve their education service delivery. But what are the risks of outsourcing basic free and public education to a Silicon Valley technology company that reports to its investors and seeks to make a profit? With the recent closure of several of the Bridge International schools as well as the AltSchools in the US, the instability and fickle nature of relying on a start-up to provide such an important public service as education becomes apparent.

Is public primary education really something that should be dependent on the success of private Western tech company business models? Instead of propping up American for-profit entities with the financial capital of Western tech philanthropic entities combined with the might of the IFC and development aid organizations, what if such investments were put into existing initiatives in-country and towards supporting of public government services.

Today, tech companies are “entrepreneuring” to get around the issues that were largely brought about when Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs in the 1980s gutted the capacity and functioning of many African public sectors including the public education sector. Instead of supporting citizen efforts to hold governments to account and boosting government’s own abilities to provide public services, these tech companies are further extracting profit.

World Bank. 2016. “Bridge International Academies.” 119876. The World Bank.

Angela Okune: This 2016 brief by the World Bank showcases Bridge International and its education model. The brief states that Bridge is "the first educational organization to address the problem of quality at scale, allowing it to invest heavily in research and technology and to focus...Read more

Santariano, Adam. 2017. “Silicon Valley Tried to Reinvent Schools. Now It’s Rebooting.” Bloomberg, November 1, 2017.

Angela Okune: This 2017 article raises important questions about AltSchool and highlights how the tech start-up has been pivoting with its business model. Originally focused on starting up physical schools, it appears they have pivoted to focus on their software and offering software as a...Read more