Facebook Takes a Step Into Education Software

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook, which transformed communication with its social networking service, now wants to make a similar impact on education.

The Silicon Valley company announced on Thursday that it was working with a local charter school network, Summit Public Schools, to develop software that schools can use to help children learn at their own pace. The project has been championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, and one of his top lieutenants, Chris Cox.

“We’ve seen that there’s an opportunity to help apply our skills to the future of education, and we all wanted to find a way to help make an impact by doing what we do best — building software,” Mr. Cox wrote in a blog post announcing the initiative.

Eight Facebook employees have been assigned full time to work on the project, which began quietly last year after Summit’s chief executive, Diane Tavenner, asked Mr. Zuckerberg for help improving the tools developed by Summit’s lone software engineer.

“It’s really driven by this idea that we want to put learning in the hands of kids and the control back in the hands of kids,” Ms. Tavenner said in a telephone interview. The software, she said, allows students to work with teachers to create tailored lessons and projects. Teachers can also administer individualized quizzes that the software can grade and track.

The platform, which is separate from the Facebook social network, is now being used by nine Summit schools and about 20 others. Ultimately, Ms. Tavenner said, “our motivation is to share it with everyone and anyone who wants it,” including other charters and public school districts. The software would be free for all users.

Facebook and Summit said that they adhered to the student privacy practices recommended by the federal government, and that Facebook could not use student data for its other businesses.

Critics were skeptical of such commitments.

“Facebook does not have the greatest reputation when it comes to privacy,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit group that has criticized technology companies, contending that theyviolate student privacy.

Although the effort is still small, Facebook said it was making a long-term commitment to education. That ambition echoes the company’s other big save-the-world effort, Internet.org, which aims to bring Internet access to the billions of people who do not have access now.

Educators are increasingly talking about the importance of tailoring lessons to individual student needs, often championing technology as a potentially transformational force. But even supporters warn that teachers need assistance to use new software effectively, and that the evidence is mixed on whether technology supports better student learning.

“You can’t expect that we’re just going to create the perfect platform and plunk it into every school and assume that every student is going to be comfortable knowing how to use it,” said Rebecca E. Wolfe, who directs an initiative focused on personalized learning at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit education policy group.