March 22, 2022

Mary Jo Madda: Who Is the Theranos of Education?

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Biotech company Theranos turned out to be a scam that could not begin to deliver on its big tech promises. At EdSurge, columnist Mary Jo Madda goes looking for the education equivalent. Some might argue she could find hundreds, but she settles for two big failed promises– Altschool and Knewton.

When I started pouring into Theranos coverage, I got an eerie and familiar feeling. I found myself identifying with those journalists who had covered Theranos’ initial rise to fame. Specifically, during my former edtech journalism days, I covered AltSchool—the brainchild of former Googler and Aardvark founder Max Ventilla.

As John Warner referenced in 2018, AltSchool sought to create “technology-infused schools that would revolutionize education;” in brass tacks, Ventilla and his team sought to create a network of microschools buoyed by a technology platform containing self-paced courses and curriculum.

Money came flowing. By 2015, the company had raised $100 million in venture capital from investors like Andreessen Horowitz and John Doerr—the fourth biggest fundraising deal of that year.

But like Elizabeth Holmes in biotech, Max has almost no experience in the field of education. He came from a purely technical background, becoming interested in education upon becoming a father. Kemp Edmonds, an investor and entrepreneur, observed AltSchool’s mission like this: “Here’s technology coming to save this industry with its incredible promises that often lack an understanding of how things work in unique and specific industries, pedagogies and dynamic jurisdictions.”

Despite Ventilla’s lack of experience, VCs had no issue providing huge amounts of capital, including Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, who invested through their Silicon Valley Community Foundation. In fact, all told, AltSchool raised $176.2 million—and yet, the company still charged students tuition, to the tune of $20,000 a year.

Like Theranos, AltSchool had a charismatic leader with strong Silicon Valley ties, a slew of press coverage (including in TechCrunch and Fast Company), and big, overarching promises regarding the “edtech revolution.”

Yet, fast forward to 2022, and AltSchool no longer exists.

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