Reaching 10 million students by 2014. Understanding that a pupil is not absorbing science content because he has a problem in math. Foreseeing that a class will have difficulties by the third week of a course. Noticing that your daughter knows more of math than she thinks she does, and her weakness is lack of self-confidence, not learning. With great numbers, accomplishments and promises, Knewton, one of wolrd’s most important adaptive learning platform, is constantly improving their services and expects more for the next future: they are adding humanities to a comprehensive math and science foundation, and are about to launch a retail platform.
“When the retail platform opens up early next year, anybody, anywhere can add content – for free – into Knewton. Once somebody put it once, it’s available for everyone”, says its co-founder José Ferreira, on a visit to Brazil on April to talk about Knewton for Brazilians. Porvir had the opportunity to interview him on the scope of adaptive learning for the future of education:
How Knewton in being used today?
There are two ways to use Knewton. There is an enterprise platform and a retail platform. Enterprise allows any institution or publisher to power its own content and its own user experience. We hook in APIs that allow us to understand their student data and we send back recommendations and analytics. This platform is currently available. Earlier next year, maybe later this year, we’ll be launching a retail platform that allows anyone without have any legacy software – they are not businesses, they are teachers or parents or students or a school – to find any content or subject they like.
What kind of content do you have? Do you produce any?
It’s other peoples’, partners’ or free content that is available in internet.
Mostly science and math?
It’s about everything. We have everything except foreign languages. A lot of the humanities are being added and will be available very soon.
How does your system work? What is the ‘knowledge graph’?
The systems reduces content into little parts. It analyses how students are doing, what their proficiencies are and exactly what they know. A knowledge graph is just a list of all the content in any course of study. Students’ adaptive learning in Knewton is cross-disciplinary. For example, if there is a concept in science you’re not understanding because your math isn’t strong enough, we know that. We can grab some of the content in the math portfolio to help your science homework. If there is homework tonight that you don’t understand, we know that you’re not understanding because you never mastered some of the concepts built up to the things you’re learning tonight. We can grab you that content and add it to your homework before you get more advanced stuff. We know when you’re going to fail, we can prevent you from failing without you even realizing it.
When a school decides to use Knewton, how does the platform change the work inside the classroom?
As much or as little as the school wants. The system is designed to allow schools to have a better textbook. Kids come to class better prepared, and teachers and administrators get information about the student in a way thy never had before.
How does it work for teachers?
Teachers that used to have, at the beginning of a semester, 30 or 100 strangers in their classes, now have an incredible amount of data on what exactly that students know. We can tell things like: “this group of students is going to struggle in week 3”. We can give teachers data about what their classes know or don’t know before he walks in their classroom in the first day. The teacher can ignore that, but the information is there.
What about the parents?
Parents will be able to get information they never had before. “Here is what is happening with your child in his/her homework tonight” or,“your daughter is better in math than she thinks she is. She has a confidence problem.” We can tell things like that. “Your son learns science best visually.” Or even, “After 28 minutes, your son gets bored”.
How are students best engaged?
Texts and reading are always the fastest way of learning something, but it is not engaging for every child. Even when it is engaging, trying something different is better. No one wants to eat the same dinner every night, even if they like it. Video is slower than text. A little bit of video in a longer text gets students to learn things more deeply. Games are slower than videos. Games are slow in terms of concept acquisition, but what we see with games – and video fails with that – is that it helps struggling students. For the least interested, if you gave the material in game format, you can have them interested just enough so they reach a basic competency. Then they can acquire things in a more traditional way.
How is the data from some 10 million users actually used?
The more students we get, the more powerful the system becomes. For every concept you ever learn, you can go find anyone who has ever learned this concept through us, regardless in which country they are in. Cell division is the same in Portuguese as it is in English. Of those people, who is really similar to you? Who has a similar learning style? [We can discover that] They’re learning this type of concept best this way, with this media and additional text. Maybe you learn analytical things best in the morning and abstract things best in the evening. We go find who are similar and ask: “for that group, what work the best?” We can take the combined power of data pool – of what is gonna be one million soon and ten million for long – and find the optimal strategy that is proven to teach in the best possible way.
You say you’ll reach 10 million people. How?
The minimum is 10 million people. We work with publishers that bring us students. We have a relationship with Pearson, which reaches 10 million students. We announced a relationship with Triumph Learning, for 15 million students. Those students are not on board yet because it takes a while, but they’re all coming. And there are many we haven’t announced yet.
Some people say the SAT will be useless in the future because all information you might want from a student will be in the platform. Is it correct?
It’s not our goal to replace standardized tests. We will be able to predict the score very accurately, but it’s a different thing. We’re not dealing with all that security issues, we’re not trying to authenticate things. We are not spending time and energy on that. But it’s true that we will be able to predict if you will get in.
How does Knewton is help kids to develop 21st century skills?
What Knewton is doing is creating a student profile that a student can carry with him for the rest of his life. The first time he touches any of our products, a profile is created that he controls. The profile gets smarter and smarter. All his data is there, all predictions about how he’s gonna do in this piece of homework. It also gives him the best recommendation for the next thing he’s studying. When the retail platform opens up early next year, anyone, anywhere can add content into Knewton. Once someone adds it, it’s available for anyone, for free.
Will this content be open?
Everything will be open. We’re seeding our retail platform with a lot of content already. Once we launch it, anyone will be allowed to add content of any kind they would like.
Is everything in English?
We’re getting a lot of interest from different countries, one of which is Brazil. We’re beginning to think about creating a Portuguese and Spanish-language versions.
How do understand credit and assesment in online education?
We’ve had students who finished a semester’s worth of class with an A in 14 days. You can’t keep them in their seats for the rest of the semeter, because they will get bored and you will be wasting your resources. This means things will have to be retaught to transfer credits. Those conversations are happening already.
How is the curriculum changing?
Curriculum is going through some changes. Bigger learning companies are not providing just textbooks, but technologies, services and training. They don’t think of themselves as just curriculum providers anymore and they should not. Their business model will likely be challenged by free content.
How is the ideal school of the future?
Schools are a thing, but also very expensive. They’re so expensive that most kids in the world don’t get access to basic education. About 55% of the world school kids finish primary education and 22% finish secondary education. Those numbers are shockingly low. We don’t get shocked because we got used to that. But in the Age of Technology, in the Age of Internet, we can do much better all of a sudden. Where kids don’t have schools, in very poor areas, or where they have schools, but they don’t get the class they want. For instance, they want to learn English or Chinese or more Math – they can get those online.