Knewton to Bring “Smart Learning” To Classrooms Nationwide

A partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will bring adaptive learning technology to nearly every school district in the country.

Knewton to Bring “Smart Learning” To Classrooms Nationwide

This morning Knewton announced a partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the giant K-12 education publisher, that has the potential to bring the power of data and analytics to nearly every school district in the country.


Knewton, a company Fast Company first covered in 2009, is a leader in “adaptive learning.” The much-hyped field of adaptive learning covers software programs for teaching math, English, science, or other subjects that constantly adjust to the student, giving them the right piece of content at the right time to help them achieve mastery of the subject as quickly and thoroughly as possible (Khan Academy‘s math program is another example). At its simplest, adaptive learning is like leveling up in a video game–the program gets harder as you learn.

But Knewton’s technology does more than that. The dashboard on the software program can tell teachers and parents “what your kid knows down to the percentile, how well they know it, and how they learn best,” explains founder Jose Ferreira.

“Maybe one child gets science concepts better with rich media. Or your daughter’s better at math than she thinks she is–she has a confidence problem. Or your son doesn’t just struggle with reading, he needs to review basic vocabulary,” Ferreira says.

To date, the platform has served 247 million personalized recommendations to students, and aggregates (anonymized) performance data from all its users, so that the people who produce the content can keep improving it.

Knewton-powered versions of online remedial math courses have improved pass rates, accelerated completion time, and reduced dropout rates at Arizona State University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “What I think really differentiates Knewton is that they benefit from all the information that all the other students consuming that content are telling them,” says Mary Cullinane at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The potential of “smart learning” in the K-12 classroom is that it could help teachers overcome large class sizes to give each student exactly what he or she needs and spend precious small-group or one-on-one face time to work on just the concepts that students are most struggling with. But before that vision is reached, there are many hurdles to be overcome, from training and supporting teachers to work effectively with the software, to basic connectivity and hardware costs.


Maybe the most thorny issue is privacy. Ultimately, adaptive learning involves a private company gathering and aggregating extremely detailed and sensitive information, not only about our children’s identities, but about their mental capacity–their aptitudes and their weaknesses. The FTC has a special law, COPPA, covering websites that collect information about children under 13. Knewton and HMH pledge to protect students’ personally identifiable information, but some of the details still remain to be ironed out.

Ferreira says, “We’re not ad supported, there’s no reason for us to sell it, we would never sell it.” Still, he agrees, “There’s a couple of privacy things we have to be extremely careful around.”

[Image: Flickr user Salim Fadhley]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.