Knewton to Provide Adaptive Technology for Pearson Content

NOT JUST TEST PREP ANYMORE: Jose Ferreira has a big vision of what his startup, Knewton, can do for education. He takes a big step closer today with a freshly inked partnership with curriculum heavyweight, Pearson.

The specifics of today's deal are this: Pearson will move the content of two series of college-readiness products for the north American market--MyLab and Mastering series--onto Knewton's "adaptive engine." The first integrated products should reach the market in mid-2012, says Greg Tobin, Pearson's president of math, English and student success for Pearson Higher Education.

The deal signals both the increasingly important role that analytics will have in mainstream curriculum content--and the pivotal role that Knewton wants to play across the full education spectrum, from elementary to post-secondary education. "We want to power everyone's content," says Ferreira simply. It's a Google-class ambition.

Much startup energy is going into lacing analytics into curriculum. "This is a great moment to use the kinds of tools that have been used well by other industries to improve processes in education," notes Steve Schoettler, a co-founder of Zynga who is running stealth edtech tools startup, Junyo, which is just opening its webpage today. "We talk about 'MAUI,' or measure-analyze-understand-improve," says Schoettler. The more--and better--data a system has, the better it gets at highlighting trends.

More data is exactly what Knewton is seeking through its partnership with Pearson, which says it has 9 million U.S. students enrolled in its products.

Here's how the partnership will work: Pearson will tag its content at what Knewton calls an "atomic" level of information. As a student moves through the material--successfully answering this, dawdling here, flubbing that--data on his or her progress will be reported back to Knewton. As it amasses data on how hundreds of thousands of students work through the content, Knewton will blend that data with psychometrics on student populations, improving its ability to identify how students respond to different materials and creating unique recommendations (both of conceptual material as well as presentation types) to help students navigate successfully a course. Here's a Knewton video describing its adaptive learning engine.

The first products from the Pearson-Knewton collaboration will be based on existing Pearson content. Executives from both firms say that as students use the products, it might point out the need for additional curriculum development. "Building content is what we're good at," says Tobin. "As Knewton identifies gaps, we'll be quick to fill them," he adds.

Pearson executives reckoned that moving their content to Knewton would accelerate their transition into personalized learning. "Our first alternative was to build it ourselves," says Jason Jordon, senior vice president overseeing Pearson's digital strategy. (The Pearson K-12 product, SuccessMaker, employs some adaptive learning techniques as well.) What helped clinch the deal for Knewton was the progress it demonstrated in a partnership with Arizona State University to create an adaptive college algebra and math programs. ASU brought Knewton close to 10,000 student users; the Pearson deal will likely increase that by an order of magnitude by the end of 2012.

The Pearson-Knewton alliance is starting with college-readiness materials. "Students [using these materials] tend to be weaker and so personalization has a magnified effect on the results," notes Tobin. But the MyLab series (which include products such as MyMathLab, MyReadingLab, MyWritingLab and MyFoundationsLab) is already migrating to high schools. Pearson began actively marketing the products to high schools about two years ago. Although Tobin declined to offer adoption numbers, he says growth has been strong.

Pearson's federation of divisions operate with some autonomy so Knewton will have to strike separate deals with other parts of Pearson to expand use of its platform. Both Pearson and Knewton have tried to protect themselves by putting some "exclusive" clauses into the partnership, constraining each other from collaborating with named competitors for some period of time. The deal also involved Pearson taking an equity stake in Knewton (part of its previously announced $33 million round).

Both partners have a stake in seeing the effort succeed: Knewton will collect a fee as Pearson sells licenses for products built on the Knewton engine. Pearson, in turn, will get access to the data Knewton collects and use it to guide future curriculum development.

By late 2012, Ferreira hopes Knewton will have automated the process of tagging content. An automated tagging process would make it significantly easier for any content developer--from a teacher to an organization--to move its content onto Knewton's platform. Ferreira envisions a scenario where Knewton provides an iTunes store-like service, offering up a dazzling array of content nuggets that can be mashed together. Content creators could get paid whenever someone chooses to use a piece they contributed.

Exactly how all those chunks will work together, however, brings up a classic information technology dilemma: content delivered through the iTunes marketplace works smoothly together because Apple wields a big stick and enforces standards. (The more "open" Android marketplace, by contrast, has had a more staccato development.) On the other hand, Apple's tight control of iTunes materials has left some developers chaffing.

More technology tools--and from more vendors--are clearly in the works. Schoettler says that Junyo aims to be potentially a good partner with anyone--from teachers to developers--seeking to learn about how people learn. "There are a lot of people with shared goals," he observes--namely to accelerate learning.

Of course, the history of edtech is pockmarked with moments of intense hope followed by lackluster results. But a confluence of factors--from educators wanting more data, to policy makers and parents wanting results, to better tools at lower prices--may make this time different, Schoettler says.

Certainly the bets are increasing: from Palo Alto where Schoettler and cofounders Matt Pasternack (former TFA and School of One contributor) and Kim Jacobson (x-Oodle) are ramping Junyo quickly--to New York City where Ferreira and his team of 70 are hiring and expanding.

"We will be a big platform," Ferreira predicts. "And it wouldn't be possible to do this without Pearson."

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