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Over the next week or so, The Hechinger Report will be publishing excerpts from Richard Whitmire’s book On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools are Pushing the Envelope. In this first installment, software engineer Ben Slivka — inspired by science fiction — dreamed of creating truly adaptive learning software.

CHAPTER 9: Sci-Fi-Inspired Software

February 2005: Bellevue, Washington

On Ben Slivka’s LinkedIn page you see a swarm of startups, the fruit of his labors as a talented software writer, all of it rooted in his training at Northwestern University as a mathematician and computer scientist. His biggest fame and fortune came from his fourteen years at Microsoft, where he worked on every big project, including starting the Internet Explorer team in 1994. But by 1999 Slivka became convinced that Microsoft had been taken over by “politicians” determined to ride out the Microsoft gravy train, choosing Windows over the web. Not the place for a software engineer of his ambition who believed in the future of the web. So he stepped off the train.

Richard Whitmire
Richard Whitmire

For a time—nine months to be exact—Slivka tried out Amazon. But he left in June 2000 for reasons that only a software purist can understand. Something about Jeff Bezos “being a good human being but his hearing isn’t so good.” In short, Slivka did not share Bezos’s vision. Slivka’s stock options from Microsoft had expired several years earlier, meaning he became wealthy, extremely wealthy, to the point where asking about his Microsoft cash-out (which I did) is considered “rude.” Point accepted.

What does someone in Slivka’s unique position do? He’s not a yacht kind of guy. Definitely wary of spoiling his kids with premature wealth. He and wife became, in his words, “accidental philanthropists.” But as Slivka worked his way through this new world one pathway became clear: education. So Slivka decided to launch a new company partly inspired on long-ago science fiction reading, such as Enders Game by Orson Scott Card and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson—books that weave futuristic education tools into the narrative. In The Diamond Age, a powerful interactive book lands in the hands of Nell, a street urchin, who then leads a revolution. The theme in short: interactive education tools can change the world.

Slivka agreed with school reformers who believe we are trapped in a century-old industrial model in which children are treated as widgets—light years away from what is possible in education. Traditional school reform didn’t seem to be touching that outdated model. But what if digital creations could leapfrog that system? “What if,” Slivka asked himself, “you could build this massively multiplayer online game—but instead of shooting things, you were mastering all of K–12 education—that would motivate kids and allow them to learn at their own pace and their own way?”

Such a powerful online system, Slivka believed, could transform education, reaching hundreds of millions and eventually billions of kids, far more than even the best teachers in the world could possibly reach. The software would track every move a student made in the program. When a child failed to learn a concept, the software would lead the child to a different place where the concept was presented in a way most suited to that child. It would be the ultimate in personalized education, enabling children to learn exactly what they needed to learn at exactly the ideal pace. It would be a real-world version of “the Primer,” the nanotechnology device that starred in Stephenson’s book.

What Slivka began thinking about in winter 2005 became an actual company the following winter, a startup that eventually became DreamBox. Not surprisingly, any gifted software engineer dedicated to personalized learning would, at some point in the future, come across John Danner, someone who as the result of learning a few big lessons from his year teaching in Nashville shared the same dream of personalized learning.

Reprinted with permission from Wiley. Copyright © 2014.

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