Personalizing Education and Empowering Students: An Interview with Facebook’s Adam Seldow

In May 2016, Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) hosted an Askwith Forum titled Engineering Personalized Learning: The Story of Summit Schools and Facebook. The discussion focused on a partnership between Facebook and Summit Public Schools, in which the partners engineered and developed a free, online personalized learning platform for Summit Public School students.

Following the forum, HAEd had the opportunity to chat with Adam Seldow (Ed.M.’03, Ed.M.’08, Ed.D.’10), Head of Education Partnerships at Facebook. He discussed his involvement in the development of the partnership, Facebook’s investment in the future of personalized learning, and the long-term benefits for students and teachers involved in this new era of learning.

What is your role and how does it fit into the partnership with Summit Public Schools and the development of the Summit Learning Platform?

My role is Head of Education Partnerships. I work with the K-12 engineering team, which is the team at Facebook that builds the Summit Learning Platform. I support them in helping to build out partnerships with organizations that can spread the word and support the implementation of personalized learning within schools in their regions. I also support the project by establishing partnerships with corporations, nonprofits and other organizations that help us to bring personalized learning to anyone in the world.


What does Facebook see on the horizon for the Summit Learning Platform in the next 5 to 10 years?

We’re going to grow the number of schools that we engage with and the number of schools that implement personalized learning. We’re keen on learning what works best for schools around the country and iterating the Summit Learning Platform to reflect the valuable feedback we receive from students, teachers, parents and administrators leading the charge.


How do you get teachers involved?

Initially, we’re looking to partner with schools that have a good sense of what they want to do in their classrooms and haven’t found the appropriate tools, curriculum or framework to implement it. This audience includes teachers who have some idea of personalized learning and are looking for a way to implement it. What we hope to do this year is learn a lot from these teachers because, to my knowledge, there are few programs that provide a proven model, a tool built specifically to empower students, and offer free support and training for teachers. There are a number of learning management systems which, in my opinion, tend to take the teacher’s teaching and help make it more efficient in different ways, but what we offer the teacher is a strong point of view in that personalized learning should include all the components that lead to changing the culture and empowering the students in the classroom. For a number of teachers out there, that is going to be a pretty significant change and in some cases a pretty heavy lift. I think in schools it’s going to take the one or two teachers who are prepared for this, who have been seeking this out, to set the example and to show other teachers that this is not only possible, but the results with their students becoming empowered and pursuing their own interests and growing as learners will be inspiring to other teachers in their school. We hope that that will lead to school-wide change.

To us, the opportunity is to learn a lot about how teachers approach this and what roadblocks they run into. I think we’re going to learn from our teachers who use it in their own classrooms, maybe without even having a conversation with the school leadership, what those points of contention are, what the challenges are in implementing it, and certainly what the challenges are in scaling it up in their respective schools.


What are you finding is the perspective of the student with respects to the Summit Learning Platform?

We visit schools quite often, and the feedback we get from students is that they are more keenly aware than ever about where they are in their learning for the year and where they have to go. There’s one view in the Summit Learning Platform that I think is most helpful both to me and to the students, it’s called the “This Year” view. It shows the student a chart of his/her entire year, including all of the courses the student is enrolled in, where exactly the student is within the term, what the student has completed and what’s left to complete, and how the student is doing across all of that, all in one view. It’s pretty powerful for a student to see that these are the things he/she can work on to achieve the goals that he/she has set out to achieve. Students can go at their own pace and learn through the content that’s important and engaging to them.

Additionally, the feedback I get the most is that these students are establishing pretty deep and important relationships with their teachers around both the academic content and habits of success. Learning strategies, mindsets, self-control, they are gaining all of the things we know in the workplace help us to do our jobs and more importantly, help us to succeed in life. I think these students are building those skills, those habits of success, and in conversations with their teachers, they’re learning how to build them in the context of their academics.


What are some of the benefits of public/private partnerships in the education space, such as the one with Facebook and Summit Public Schools?

From my perspective, the best thing is that we’re partnering with people who have developed this technology—the teachers in Summit Public Schools essentially developed this technology with one engineer and we’re fortunate enough to continue to improve it; also, we’re in partnership with them in that we get real-world feedback as part of our design and building process every day. We have former Summit teachers who sit right next to our engineers. In addition to that, we have the entire Summit Public School network who use the tool and provide us feedback every day; we’re also growing the network of schools outside of Summit in support of its mission to bring personalized learning to the world. In this partnership, we bring what we do best, engineering and building a platform, and Summit schools bring what they do best, which is being a pioneer in personalized learning, building this pedagogy, implementing it with the tools and scaling it.


In your opinion, what is Facebook learning from this partnership to better its sense of engineering or its mission to connect the world?

I think we’re getting great insight to how students really learn. Diane Tavenner and her team at Summit are absolute pioneers in thinking about personalized learning. I think we are privy to some of the most forward thinking in these areas. They’ve done a great deal of research and have had a lot of successes and failures along the way. I think we benefit from that daily in that we’re able to design a product that meets the needs of students in an already proven personalized learning environment. To be on the cutting edge with some of the deepest thinkers and tied into the network of these thinkers is certainly fantastic.


What are some recommendations for other schools and/or educational organizations looking to partner with the private sector? What are some of your key learnings for organizations looking to create partnerships similar to this one?

The most important thing is to seek out relationships that are mutually beneficial, where both sides can really bring their strengths to the table and work together in a complementary fashion. That’s what’s fantastic about our partnership. The skill sets that each of us bring to the table are very complementary. Facebook has engineering staff and is able to scale and build out platforms, and Summit Public Schools has chief experience and thought leadership in personalized learning. In order to bring a tool and a pedagogy to the world in hopes that we can empower more and more students, we really need both of those things: a savvy understanding of how to scale something intelligently and a deep understanding of students in a situation where they’ve practiced whatever it is on the ground for some time. In other partnerships, I’d recommend looking for those complementary skills and then capitalizing on them.


In your opinion, what is the secret sauce to the Facebook and Summit partnership? (Based on a question asked by Professor Dede during the original forum)

I don’t think there is any secret sauce. What I think we do well is we listen very carefully to students and teachers and their feedback. We try hard to incorporate that feedback into the Summit Learning Platform and continually learn and iterate on our side; we try not to assume that we have the right answers. We keep building and building and iterating; this continual improvement is what teachers expect of their students as well. Keeping that growth mindset has been important to us and the product is evolving at a pace that’s showing that. Additionally, focusing on student empowerment and focusing very deeply and carefully on building habits of success within the context of academics is something that also sets us apart.

To learn more about Summit Learning, visit summitlearning.orgTo read about and see more of the social conversation surrounding the Askwith Forum, visit here.


This interview was conducted and written by Michael Sanders, HAEd's Communications Advisor.