Imagine if your teacher knew that you learned math best between 8:40 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. Or that after 38 minutes of studying history, you lose focus. Or that you learn science best through a mix of video and text.
Knewton, the education technology company, says it has created software to identify such preferences for K-12 subjects, and it made the software available for free to the public Wednesday in an ambitious plan to drive personalized learning to new heights.
The company has spent seven years and more than $100 million developing a sophisticated learning tool that relies on an algorithm that draws on millions of data points to tailor supplemental lessons for any student, in real time, said Knewton chief executive Jose Ferreira.
“It knows what you know and how you learn it best. It knows what you’re struggling with down to the atomic level,” said Ferreira, who was born in South Africa but grew up in Chevy Chase, Md. He studied philosophy and mathematics at Carleton College before receiving an MBA from Harvard.
Calling Knewton a “giant robot tutor in the cloud,” Ferreira said the software “plucks the perfect bits of content for you from the cloud and assembles them according to the ideal learning strategy for you.” He envisions it used by students as a supplement to classroom learning.
But some are skeptical that Knewton can deliver on its promises.
“I’m totally supportive of data-mining and personalized instruction, but it seems to me they are making unsubstantiated claims,” said Richard E. Clark, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Southern California and an expert on computers and teaching. “It’s a terrific idea. I think it’s possible, but I don’t think they’re doing it.”
Knewton has an open platform, which means any user will be able to upload lessons, content and tests. Clark said he was concerned that means Knewton has not validated the effectiveness of the lessons. “People get distracted by big data, and they don’t focus on how you go about teaching people,” he said.
Company officials said the content initially available Wednesday has been vetted by a team of teachers and education researchers. As users upload and share their own lessons and content over time, the materials that help students learn the most will be recommended more often to similar students, so a kind of automatic vetting will occur, Ferreira said.
Knewton has been licensing its technology to education-publishing giants such as Pearson and Houghton Mifflin, which overlay it with their content and then sell their digital learning packages mostly to universities but also to a small slice of the K-12 market.
Company executives want to make that same technology available as a free learning tool for K-12 students worldwide. “It really opens up the pool of folks who can learn on their own,” said David Liu, chief operating officer and a veteran of AOL. “It can be used by anyone in the world.”
Knewton has initially loaded the software with math, English, history and science lessons and will add content regularly, Ferreira said. He hopes the open nature of the platform means the content will continually grow.
That’s different from competitors such as Khan Academy, a free online tutor, which offers lessons from a large yet relatively stable library of content that is not designed to be tailored to individual students.
By tabulating every keystroke, noting every right and wrong answer, and determining whether a student is hesitant or confident in responding to problems, Knewton can figure out not only what a student understands, but how he or she thinks. It can predict when a student will struggle with specific material, Ferreira said, and deliver lessons designed to improve the student’s skill in that weak spot.
For teachers, Knewton helps solve the problem of personalizing lessons for an entire classroom. “The teacher gets real-time data and the ability to manage a class and different paces,” he said.
Still, all that data collection has raised some concerns among advocates of student privacy.
Knewton executives say they will not sell student data and will share it only for educational purposes and with the consent of a student or that student’s parent. The company also encrypts its data and takes other measures to ensure its information is secure and inaccessible by others, Ferreira said.