A learning management system developed by one of the most high-profile, highly funded and overhyped K-12 education startups has found a new home.
First, a recap: In 2019, AltSchool, a San Francisco-based startup that simultaneously developed a network of “microschools” in tandem with educational software, sold the schools to Higher Ground Education, an operator of Montessori schools, services and learning centers. The company then rebranded to Altitude Learning, which continued to develop the technology, sell it to schools and provide implementation support.
Today, Altitude Learning is selling that software—a learning management system that lets teachers organize lesson plans, create and share playlists of content and educational activities, and assess and evaluate students—to Higher Ground Education.
Also making the move is a handful of product, design and engineering staff behind the tool, led by former Altitude CEO Ben Kornell, who will join Higher Ground. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed.
So what’s left of Altitude?
Devin Vodicka, who is taking over as its CEO, describes it as a “technology-enabled service organization” that helps schools and districts redesign their instructional models and provide professional development for educators to implement changes.
In other words, it will essentially be an education consulting firm.
“We’ve seen growing demand for our services that are independent of the technology platform, and this move enables us to lean more into those opportunities,” says Vodicka, who was previously Altitude’s chief impact officer and, before that, a superintendent at Vista Unified School District in Southern California.
Altitude’s services are based on a “learner-centered” pedagogical model that champions helping students develop agency over their learning, designing authentic learning experiences and assessments, and applying skills and knowledge to real life. Through its training and workshops, the company aims to help customers achieve these outcomes with the personnel and tools they already have in place.
Just as COVID-19 pushed classes online, it also drove Altitude to shift its in-person training and workshops over the web. But the pandemic also drove increased demand for expertise on ways to use technology effectively to support remote learning, says Katie Martin, the company’s chief impact officer. As a result, the company signed up new business from districts including Humboldt Unified in Arizona.
“With kids learning at home, it’s become more apparent the importance of helping them build agency. Kids don’t learn on their own,” says Martin. Some of the practices for which her team provides coaching—including leading small-group instruction to providing social-emotional support—will just be just as necessary after the pandemic is over, she adds.
Currently, the company works with about 120 schools and districts, according to Vodicka. About one-third are existing users of Altitude Learning’s learning management system. A similar number of customers came via Altitude’s acquisition of the U.S. business of itslearning, a Norwegian educational software developer. The rest are not tied to any specific education technology platform. Vodicka assures that the company will continue to support its customers.
Downsizing into an education consultancy is certainly not the high-flying vision that Altitude/AltSchool’s founders and investors had envisioned. Simply by nature of the $174 million in venture capital it raised from Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley bigwigs, AltSchool became one of the edtech industry’s poster children for hype, hubris and ultimately failure. The jury is out on whether building edtech or schools is more difficult; but doing both at once proved untenable.
The hope is that after this transaction, those pieces will become more sustainable as separate operations.
Higher Ground Education, which took over four microschools from AltSchool in the 2019 deal, is familiar with the learning management system. Already, the LMS hosts its curriculum and is used for teacher-training programs. Ray Girn, CEO of Higher Ground of Education, sees opportunities to expand its features to help parents learn about Montessori activities and pedagogies. “We plan to invest in its future development” so that the LMS becomes one of the technology backbones of Higher Ground’s Montessori schools and offerings, he says.
For Altitude, winnowing its team and services to focus on consulting services could also offer a path toward financial sustainability—something that has proven elusive. At one point, AltSchool was reportedly spending about $40 million per year.
“We will be profitable moving forward,” says Vodicka. “This is a positive development for us.”