The Summit Personalized Learning Platform

The organization of development teams can teach us a lot about how to address privacy and security issues.

August 10, 2016
Bill Fitzgerald Director, Privacy Initiative
Director, Privacy Initiative

CATEGORIES Privacy Evaluation Initiative

While attending ISTE in Denver, I had the chance to meet with some of the team working on the Summit Personalized Learning Platform. While discussing the technology, I also had a chance to learn more about how schools needed to work with their staff to plan for the rollout of the platform. During this conversation, the tech receded into the background behind more human concerns. For a school to work in the project, staff within the school needed to show a willingness to challenge their assumptions about their teaching, and about how to support students. It also became clear that a high level of thought had gone into building both the platform, and using the platform in schools.

It is easy to overlook the planning required to do tech well, and we can all learn from looking at the processes used by development teams. Frequently, companies are unwilling to share details about their development process, and we all lose because of that reticence. After talking with some of the team on this project, I asked if they would be willing to share some insights and lessons learned on this build, and they graciously agreed. I prepared ten questions, and the rest of this post is an unedited response to these questions from the Facebook team that works on the Summit’s Personalized Learning Platform.

1. For people unfamiliar with the project, can you explain the background and goals of the work?

Originally developed by teachers at Summit Public Schools, the Summit Personalized Learning Platform is an online tool that empowers teachers to customize instruction and meet students’ unique needs. It helps students connect their long term goals to their daily actions. Students move at their own pace to learn skills, apply those skills to real world projects and reflect on their learning.

In 2014, Facebook’s engineers started working with Summit’s teachers to improve the Summit Personalized Learning Platform so it could be used in more classrooms. In the 2015-16 school year, Summit launched Summit Basecamp, a free program that helps public schools bring personalized learning -- and the Summit Personalized Learning Platform -- into their classrooms.

Thanks to overwhelming interest, there will be more than 100 schools participating in Summit Basecamp during the 2016-17 school year. And, individual teachers can now try out the Summit Personalized Learning Platform in their classrooms by visiting

2. In this project, software developers have worked directly with educators. What are some key lessons that developers have learned from educators? What are some key lessons that educators have learned from developers?

By working closely with educators to improve the Summit Personalized Learning Platform, we've learned a couple important lessons. First, classroom time is precious and teachers have a ton on their plates -- this isn't something you can really appreciate until you see it up close. That means reliability in the classroom is even more important than in a traditional consumer setting. The Summit Personalized Learning Platform needs to provide a consistent, predictable experience and work all the time. We've also seen how technology is just one of many tools that great teachers use. For the Summit Personalized Learning Platform to be successful, it must strengthen the connections between teachers and students. We know we're on the right track when teachers tell us that what we're building helps them teach the way they've always wanted to and customize instruction for every single student.

We get a lot of feature requests from educators. One thing we've helped them understand is the importance of re-framing these requests as problems to be solved. By thinking more holistically about these problems, we can come up with solutions that often reach well beyond a standalone feature. Finally, we've helped educators appreciate that it takes time to build a great tool and the importance of looking at the big picture personalized learning experience we're working to power. They've seen how if we're thoughtful and deliberate in our approach and what we prioritize, we end up creating a Platform that's more powerful and useful.

3. In this project, what significant privacy issues have been identified, and how has the project team worked to address them?

Personalized learning will only succeed if students, teachers and parents trust the technology that makes it possible. Again, this is where the educator perspective is so valuable -- they care deeply about the privacy of their students so the Summit Personalized Learning Platform reflects that same care. From the outset, we knew that we had to be extremely thoughtful about access to student data, allowing it only for the educational purpose of the Summit Personalized Learning Platform and to improve Platform.

Summit knows that parent involvement is key to personalized learning. So, we've built features into the Summit Personalized Learning Platform that help teachers easily create accounts for parents. The Platform gives parents and teachers a clear window into their students' progress which helps them provide better support and guidance inside and outside the classroom. Parents, legal guardians and students can access and review their personal information through their accounts. They may also request that any personal information be corrected or deleted through the student’s school or teacher, who will make any appropriate changes themselves or submit requests to Summit.

Summit permits a small team at Facebook to access student data only as necessary to improve the tool as well as provide related educational services like professional development and training. All Summit and Facebook employees who work on the Summit Personalized Learning Platform undergo training and are subject to strict privacy and security controls to protect student data. There are no ads in the Summit Personalized Learning Platform and student data isn’t used for advertising or the creation of profiles for advertising.

4. In this project, what significant security issues have been identified, and how has the project team worked to address them?

Most security issues in educational technology are not new. The trick is to build good security practices in from the beginning using well-tested systems and following general best practices. For example, we use OAuth for user authentication -- it's very well tested and there is no reason to invent a new solution that might be buggy. Similarly, Summit encrypts all student data -- in transit and at rest -- and stores the data on AWS, one of the most reliable and trusted hosts. We know this data is sensitive and this is one of the places where we were really able to benefit from Facebook's depth of experience. The Platform has been reviewed by our security team and the servers are constantly monitored for unusual activity.

We also emphasize the importance of protecting student data to everyone on the team. We have strict limits on access to student data to those who need it to enable and improve the Platform. Each member of the team goes through extra privacy training and meets with the project lead who emphasizes the importance of protecting student data.

5. With hindsight being 20/20, what is one choice or decision made on this project that has turned out perfectly?

Early on, Facebook decided to work on the Summit Personalized Learning Platform using short development cycles informed by lots of teacher feedback. This has proved to be a good decision, because it keeps us focused on our mission -- helping bring personalized learning to more classrooms. Let me give you an example. After we built a new feature that helps teachers view their students' recent progress and deliver better guidance, we spent almost 2 months meeting with teachers to get their input and discover what we missed. Then, we made a bunch of small changes to the feature. These changes led to an experience that helps teachers get more out of the limited time they have to meet 1:1 with their students.

6. With hindsight being 20/20, what is one choice or decision made on this project that has needed to be revisited?

Today, the Summit Personalized Learning Platform integrates with Google Apps for Education and runs best on Google Chrome using a laptop. This was Summit's starting point because it's how they originally operated the Platform within their own schools. As more teachers start using the Summit Personalized Learning Platform, we'll need to support an array of web browsers, online document services and devices.

7. Part of the work on this project has included direct work with educators to help support them before a rollout in their schools. Can you describe that process, and how that support structure is seen as critical to the success of the project?

Summit Basecamp is a free program that provides teachers and schools across the country with the resources they need to bring personalized learning into the classroom. Summit convenes all Summit Basecamp schools for two weeks of summer professional development to ensure schools are set up for success for the school year. And, every partner school has access to a Summit mentor who has firsthand knowledge of personalized learning and deep understanding of the systems and tools that make it possible. These mentors work closely with the team at Facebook to help ensure both a smooth rollout of the Summit Personalized Learning Platform and that we're providing the right ongoing support.

Summit also incorporates teacher learning materials into the Summit Personalized Learning Program to get teachers up-and-running and help them to dive deeper into personalized learning instruction. The Teacher Guide provides a broad overview of personalized learning and the Platform, as well as specific guidance on each of the Platform features. Outside of the Platform, a virtual personalized learning community is taking shape -- this community will connect teachers new to the Platform with experienced personalized learning educators.

8. What structures are in place around how the product team is organized, with how your team meets, or with how your team builds features, that incorporate security and privacy concerns into the daily work of the project?

Protecting students and their data is core to our daily work. All of the work is directed by Summit, and they are focused on protecting the privacy of their students. We know our work for Summit and the Platform's success hinges on trust, so we take a number of steps to integrate privacy and security into every level of our work:

We meet regularly with a cross-functional privacy team with expertise in areas like law, policy and communications. This team helps conduct a privacy review of every feature. These reviews usually start early in the development process -- typically, before anything is built -- to discuss goals and identify privacy considerations. We work collaboratively and generally resolve issues by consensus.

We also have a dedicated security team at Facebook that works closely with the Summit and Facebook teams to help ensure product and engineering decisions protect people's data. This includes working with us on design and then auditing and testing critical parts of the code. The team also reviews integrations with third-party service providers to ensure that they employ reasonable and comprehensive data protection and security protocols.

9. What advice would you give to startups or younger companies looking to build a culture of privacy and security within their team?

Make sure that everyone understands that teachers, parents, legislatures, and the public are concerned about student privacy and protecting student data. Good security and privacy are essential for any educational technology to succeed.

We have a cross-functional privacy team that educates and advocates for privacy and security. At smaller companies where dedicated privacy experts aren't available, consider designating someone on the team to represent the people who will use what you're building. This person could be a teacher, a parent, or someone else on the team, as long as they understand that their job is represent how parents, teachers and students would want their data treated.

10. Any closing thoughts, or questions that I should have asked, or points that should also be included?

In a personalized learning classroom, teachers have the tools they need to customize instruction to meet students’ unique needs and interests, as well as the time and support to build strong relationships with students. Personalized learning empowers students to become self-directed learners -- they set goals for their learning, reflect on their progress, and build habits and mindsets to help them succeed in college, career and life.

While technology has a role to play in helping personalize learning, it's only a tool. Teachers are leading the shift to personalized learning, and we'll keep supporting them through our partnership with Summit Public Schools.

Image Credit: Backcountry Skiing by Simon Steinberger, released under a CC0 Public Domain license.

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