What If You Could Learn Everything?


Can software save education, or will it give those in power more control? Knewton, an education technology startup appears to be selling the moon. What if they are not, and this is the beginning of bright future in public education?

via The Daily Beast

Imagine every student has a tireless personal tutor, an artificially intelligent and inexhaustible companion that magically knows everything, knows the student, and helps her learn what she needs to know. “‘You guys sound like you’re from the future,’” Jose Ferreira, the CEO of the education technology startup Knewton, says. “That’s the most common reaction we get from others in the industry.”

When I first met Ferreira four years ago, this kind of talk sounded like typical Silicon Valley bluster from another scruffy, boyish founder of a technology startup. Today, he can back up the kinds of breakthroughs he says his company can deliver: several million data points generated daily by each of 1 million students from elementary school through college, using Knewton’s “adaptive learning” technology to study math, reading, and other fundamentals. Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor, and an early investor in Knewton, told Knewton’s staff recently that the company has two key characteristics he looks for in a deal. “Before they happen, everybody thought it was impossible. Afterwards it’s too late for anyone else, because they’ve already done it.”

Adaptive learning is an increasingly popular catchphrase denoting educational software that customizes its presentation of material from moment to moment based on the user’s input. It’s being hailed as a “revolution” by both venture capitalists and big, established education companies.

Starting this fall, Knewton’s technology will be available to the vast majority of the nation’s colleges and universities and K-12 school districts through new partnerships with three major textbook publishers: Pearson, MacMillan, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And Ferreira’s done all this even though he says neither his investors nor his competition, to say nothing of the public or the press, really understand what Knewton can do.

But here’s the vision. Within five or 10 years, the paper textbook and mimeographed worksheet will be dead. Classroom exercises and homework—text, audio, video, games—will have shifted entirely to the iPad or equivalent. And adaptive learning will help each user find the exact right piece of content needed, in the exact right format, at the exact right time, based on previous patterns of use.

In an age of swelling class sizes, teacher layoffs, and students with a vast array of special needs and learning styles, some reformers hail these software systems as a savior that could make learning more customized and effective and teaching more efficient. While battle lines are sharp in K-12 school reform over issues from charters to the Common Core national curriculum standards, digital innovations have fans across the political spectrum for their power to engage students and bring the classroom into the 21st century.

Here’s what Ferreira thinks this software-powered learning can do. “Right now about 22 percent of the people in the world graduate high school or the equivalent. That’s pathetic. In one generation we could get close to 100 percent, almost for free.”

Like a lot of technology entrepreneurs, Ferreira has a personal beef with the existing education system. “I found school very boring and frustrating,” he says, his low, quick voice barely audible over the roar of air conditioners on the roof deck of Knewton’s new Union Square digs in Manhattan. The company is hiring as fast as it can. Clad in flip-flops, a T-shirt, and shorts, Ferreira presides over an office stocked with an espresso machine and several brands of beer. On the day I visit, employees have brought in bags of kale for a communal lunch.

“The factory model of education is a gargantuan bureaucracy. Some kids are good fits—I wasn’t. The system gives you bad grades and tells you you’re stupid. You don’t think, if this kid’s not a good fit it could be the system’s fault.”


  • http://www.facebook.com/adamas.macalz Adamas Macalz

    Imagine every student has a tireless personal tutor, an artificially intelligent and inexhaustible companion that magically knows everything, knows the student, and helps her learn what she needs to know.

    These already exist, and they can be found in the Goetia

    joking aside, this is the kinda shit I wish they had when I was a kid. The public school system was a horrible fit for me.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    I think I’ll just leave this here for your consideration . . . .


    • Calypso_1

      Sweet – haven’t seen one of these in ages.

  • Howard Beale

    it’s possible but there’s no profit motive for management of the corporations that would produce the and maintain the systems.

    Sorry Joe Rogan, the chip in our heads will lead us to consume the goods of our corporate overlords sell us. Same with this proposal, it will teach kids how to make Nike shots faster.

  • mannyfurious

    One of the problems with the utopian view of technology is that it fails to understand that technology is not democratic. By that I mean that, by and large, advantageous technologies are only available to those who can afford them. So they’re only advantageous to a select portion of the population. I grew up in poverty and I work primarily with people in poverty and even after all these years, most of the families I work with don’t own a computer. Many are still using VCRs to watch movies. Most don’t own mp3 players, etc.

    I get that the “vision” is that these technologies will be available in schools themselves, but again, as long as we’re slashing taxes on the richest Americans and allowing corporations to get away with not paying taxes at all, where is the money for this supposed to come from? And do we really think that, one, poorer school districts are going to get this kind of technology, and two, even if they do, are they ready for it? You’re asking a bunch of kids, who, as I said, don’t even own computers to be able to understand why a tablet is supposed to teach them something. Which brings up another issues: are we still going to be teaching students meaningless, worthless nonsense so they can answer a multiple choice question? If so, I don’t think the problem is in the messenger or in a lack of technology, but in the message itself. It’s been said before, but it’s foolhardy to expect students from the culture of generational poverty to grasp and understand why they “need” to learn shit that is only comprehensible to those from a middle class culture.

    • krole13

      You should check out this short story it hits all the points you’re trying to make. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profession_(short_story)

    • krole13

      Read the short story Profession by Issac Asimov; not sure why it didn’t let me post the first time.

      • mannyfurious

        Nice. I’ll definitely give it a go. Thanks.

    • echar

      Well said Manny. There may be some selected lower income that get access, but the most probably not. The diamond Age by Neal Stephenson comes to mind, or even Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

      As far as kids being able to use the technology, I think they are adaptable and could figure it out. As far as grasping why it is to be learned, isn’t that the experience of every public education kid? I know it was for me, I remember the “you’ll need this later in life” being reinforced consistently. I don’t remember the last time I used cursive, other than signing my name.