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.”