A Is For Adaptive

Personalized learning is poised to transform education. Can it enrich students and investors at the same time?

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Crispin for TIME

Sitting at a computer in her school library in the far western reaches of the Phoenix suburbs, Taylor Beattie logs on to her digital dashboard to find something she has never seen before. Taylor's eighth-grade class has not yet studied units, but the program knows she is ready. The first question comes immediately: "Franz is writing Christmas cards for friends. He wrote for 21/3 hours and wrote 70 cards. How long did it take him to write each card?" After some quick calculations, Taylor, 14, picks answer E, one of five options on the screen. Her choice zips through Amazon's massive data servers in the cloud to an algorithm programmed by a team of engineers in New York City that takes into account the time it took Taylor to answer the question, the answer itself, her answers to hundreds of other questions and the answers of hundreds of thousands of other people to similar questions, to determine the next question on her screen. The entire process takes milliseconds.

That math program is a product from Knewton, a New York City--based education-technology start-up with deep pockets and bold claims about its potential to revolutionize how students learn. The more Taylor and her classmates at Festival Foothills Elementary use Knewton's program, the better the company's algorithm gets at predicting how they will best perform. Knewton's goal is to be able to tell not just what students do or do not do well but also what time of day they learn best, whether they're likely to pass a quiz, their final grade in the course and even how they will score on the SAT. If all goes according to Knewton's plan, the information it gathers will be used to form a learning profile, a sort of anonymous permanent record that travels with a student from school years through college and on to employment. Think of it like the statistics on the back of a baseball card (though with a string of numbers in place of the player's name), there for all to see--and analyze.

"There's going to be one company in the world that does this," says Jose Ferreira, Knewton's high-motor founder and CEO. "People are going to insist on having their profile that knows how they learn travel with them across schools, across teachers, across grade levels, across countries. There will be one company, and I think it's going to be us because we're so far ahead now."

Knewton is part of a wave of companies marketing "adaptive learning" technologies, which promise to use data to personalize education and eliminate the one-size-fits-all curriculum. The concept has been embraced by education reformers who see predictive data analysis as key to solving one of America's most persistent problems. And it has attracted investments from heavyweights in Silicon Valley, who are betting that the reformers are right--and that the solutions will be lucrative.

But all of this promise comes at a cost to individual privacy. Like Facebook, Knewton has built its business on the reams of data it gathers from its users. It's too soon to tell if Knewton will become essential for students learning, say, algebraic equations, but it is clear that the more students use its programs, the more money the company stands to make.


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