Knewton pioneered adaptive-learning technology and amassed more than $157 million in venture capital, but lately the company has weathered through the loss of publishing partners and the departure of its outspoken founder.
To turn things around, this week Knewton announced a new CEO, Brian Kibby, who plans to move at “lightning speed” and execute a new strategy.
Kibby has spent much of his career working for major textbook publishers—having served as president of McGraw-Hill’s Higher Education Group and a senior vice president at Pearson Education before that. He pushed adaptive learning as a key strategy at McGraw-Hill, but he left the company about three years ago and became CEO of a major transportation and logistics company, MV Transportation, excited by the chance to be a CEO and work in another field where tech is making a big impact.
He described education, though, as “obviously my love,” and where he spent the vast majority of his career. “I got called by a recruiter about three months ago, and he mentioned adaptive,” Kibby says. “I said, if it’s Knewton, I’m very interested, but if it’s not Knewton, I’m not.”
“What’s attractive about Knewton,” he continues, “is that it is the most recognized personalized-learning brand in the world.” He claims that awareness will help the company move much faster than others to solve the big problem of improving outcomes in education.
Kibby hints there is a new plan in the works—one that he would talk more about in a few months. As it is now, the company focuses on providing adaptive-learning technology to partner companies, rather than offering a product to individuals. (Knewton briefly offered a tool for consumers, but that fizzled.) Kibby says in the future “we’re going to work with partners and directly with customers.” He would not elaborate further except to say that “this is both a continuation and something altogether new at the same time.”
Earlier this year Knewton’s biggest partner, Pearson, pulled back and decided to rely far less on the company’s technology. And Knewton’s founder, Jose Ferreira, had been criticized by some for inflated promises about what the product could do. That led one prominent edtech consultant and blogger, Michael Feldstein, to say that Knewton was “selling snake oil.”
In an interview this week, Feldstein said that it will be difficult for any new CEO to get Knewton back on track.
“At the time of Knewton’s formation, there was an opportunity for them to be a kind of Amazon Web Services for adaptive learning in education,” says Feldstein. “Today there are many vendors building varying levels of adaptive products, and I don’t think anybody at this point would outsource their core value proposition to just any company just because they came along and said, ‘this is really hard and we can do it and you can’t.’ [Knewton] was the first to market, they had a big lead, and they completely squandered it.”
He said he was not familiar with Kibby in particular, but said that picking someone with a background in textbook publishing had pros and cons. “If they’re planning a direct-to-market strategy, they have a better chance of succeeding with someone who spent their career [in the publishing world],” he says. “The downside is that, in general, the textbook publishers have not been hotbeds of innovation and they are not known for moving at lightning speeds.”
Kibby says that he believes that Knewton’s “star is still bright,” calling Ferreira “brilliant.”
“Oftentimes,” he adds, “you have startups who are begun by visionary leaders and you have to bring someone in to execute on that vision.”