Resetting Education: Adaptive learning to the rescue

Faith Merino · July 16, 2012 · Short URL:

Knewton's adaptive learning technology platform turns the one-size-fits-all approach on its head

U.S. high school students aren’t faring so well in the global arena when it comes to educational performance.  In 2010, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released data from its international tests, which were administered to 15-year-olds in countries participating in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  The test scores measured literacy, math, and science skills and comprehension—and the U.S. was planted firmly in the range of mediocre-to-bad. 

To be specific, U.S. high school students came in average for reading, average for science, and below average in math.  The United States was outperformed by China, Korea, Hong Kong, virtually all of the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Estonia, and Poland, among others. 

And that’s an improvement from the 2003 data, in which U.S. high schoolers came in average in reading and below average in both math and science.

One of the highlights to come out of the PISA rankings was the fact that Finland has been a quiet little educational powerhouse, producing extraordinary results across all subjects.  Since then, Finland has been the topic of educational conversation for what they’re doing differently.  Education became the cornerstone of the country’s economic development plan some 40 years ago, and the policies Finnish lawmakers have implemented are fairly simple: teachers are selected from among the top 10% of students graduating with a Master’s degree in Education, class sizes are small, all students receive free meals and healthcare, and—probably the most surprising of all—they don’t administer standardized tests.

So, naturally, it’s ironic that Finland has scored so high on PISA’s standardized tests.

A Crisis

Are these things that U.S. educators could do as well?  Yes.  But there’s a lot of infrastructure to shift around, and change takes time.  But time is of the essence, since high school graduation rates aren’t getting any better.  The Editorial Project in Education Research Center puts the 2007 graduation rate (the most recent year for which data is available) at 68.8%.  This is down from 69.2% the year before.  Interestingly, the U.S. high school graduation rate peaked in 1969, when 77% of students completed high school.  Since then, it’s been steadily declining.

“We’re in a crisis. People have been lulled to sleep,” said David Liu, COO of edtech company Knewton.  “It’s like the matrix—you just don’t know there’s a problem until someone shakes you.”

Founded in 2008, Knewton is taking a different approach to solving the problem of wilting test scores.  The company has developed a unique adaptive learning technology platform that tailors a lesson to each individual student.  The platform uses algorithms to continually assess a student to determine the correct pace, as well as where the student is struggling or excelling.  The more a student engages with the platform, the more accurate it becomes at identifying his needs and strengths, to the extent that it can even determine how the student learns best (i.e., the student might learn best when he’s presented with two questions instead of four, or when playing games, etc.).

The technology not only identifies and adapts to the myriad ways in which students learn; it also maps out how concepts relate to one another so that it can deliver the right lesson at the right time.

Liu likens it to the process of building the Google search engine. 

“We’re building personalized content selection around the individual student using a lot of different data inputs,” said Liu.  “That’s where machine learning comes into play.  We take in extreme amount of student data that usually drops to the floor.”

Personalized learning technology may be the future of education

“To meet the needs of the diverse student population, the education system must provide a more personalized, rigorous, and collaborative learning environment that moves from teacher-directed, one-size-fits-all instructional strategies toward a learner-centered model,” researchers from the Alliance for Excellent Education urged in a recent report.  The Washington D.C.-based education reform group believes that digital learning is the key to personalizing education.  “Technology allows educators to increase the use of data on a regular basis and to provide different students with learning experiences that take place at different paces, times, and locations.”

Knewton’s aim is to distribute its adaptive learning technology so that other companies and organizations can build their own platforms with it.  Some 20 universities and K-12 schools have launched successful pilots of Knewton.  Arizona State University is using Knewton’s platform to remediate entering freshmen to prepare them for basic college-level math, and they’ve been seeing some strong results.

Getting results

Fully one-third of new college students must take some sort of remedial course, according to a recent report from the Alliance for Excellent Education.  And those students are already at a disadvantage: only 27% of students enrolled in remedial math and 17% enrolled in remedial reading go on to earn a Bachelor’s degree, according to National Conference of State Legislatures

After implementing the Knewton platform for its remedial students, ASU reported a 12-15% increase in the pass rate.  When professors implemented Knewton’s recommended best practices, pass rates climbed upwards of 90%.  Additionally, the use of Knewton’s platform was associated with a 50% decline in dropout rates, and half of the 2,500 students in the pilot completed the course four weeks early.

Liu says that there have also been pilots among some K-12 schools, but the data isn’t in yet.  He says the company focused first on higher education due to the higher cost and the higher expectations.

In 2011, Knewton was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.  Previous Technology Pioneers have included the likes of Twitter, Mozilla, and PayPal. 

In November 2011, Knewton announced that it was partnering with Pearson to release a wave of new personalized learning products.  The first suite of MyLab/Mastering programs was announced in January.  The two companies will be releasing 40-50 programs powered by Knewton’s adaptive learning platform to up to 1,000 schools across the country.  Liu says the company expects to have one million students using the platform by the first quarter of next year.

“Just because we’re in the same class doesn’t mean we learn the same way,” said Liu.  “Every human being learns differently.  We want to be able to move the students who understand ahead faster, and for the folks who are having issues, we want to remediate them.  It’s about learning outcomes and applying knowledge, not about getting a grade or taking a test.”

For more info on how YouTube is also reinventing education, read Resetting Education: YouTube and the Flipped Classroom.

Tune in Monday, July 30, for the next "Resetting Education" story on social networking sites and the classroom.


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