Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Knewton, A Big Name in Big Data, Bites The Dust

Adaptive learning. Computer-enhanced psychometrics. Personalized learning via computer. Knewton was going to do it all. Now it's being sold for parts.

Knewton started in 2008, launched by Jose Ferreira. By 2012, Ferreira led the ed tech pack in overpromising that sounded both improbable and creepy. In a Forbes interview piece, Ferreira described Knewton as "what could become the world’s most valuable repository of the ways people learn." Knewton could make this claim because it "builds its software into online classes that watch students’ every move: scores, speed, accuracy, delays, keystrokes, click-streams and drop-offs." How does this work?

Students go at their own pace, and the software continuously adapts to challenge and cajole them to learn based on their individual learning style. As individual students are correlated to the behaviors of thousands of other students, Knewton can make between 5 million and 10 million refinements to its data model every day.

This guy.
You will be unsurprised to learn that founder/CEO Ferreira has no real background in education. He has a BA from Carleton College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. He worked for Kaplan for a few years, then went into the money biz, first as a derivatives trader for Goldman Sachs and later working venture capital for Draper Atlantic. In between he was strategist for the John Kerry campaign; that may be because he's John Kerry's nephew. From venture capital, it was a quick step to Knewton.

It raises one question that I don't have an answer for. Ferreira obviously had nothing to do with the actual creation of the software that was Knewton's heart and soul. Whose work was Knewton? A puzzle for another day.

Ferreira had a gift for the colorful claim. In the Forbes article, we find the suggestion that "it will know what kids will get on the SAT, so they won’t have to take it." When he appeared at the White House's 2012 Datapalooza (the real name of a real thing), he claimed that Knewton would be able to tell students what they should eat for breakfast in order to get a good test score that day. In 2015, he told NPR, "We think of it like a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind and figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, down to the percentile." Their adaptive learning technology was going to end up in "every classroom in the country." It would customize educational content "down to the atomic concept level" and would not just be personalized, but "hyper-personalized."

The Knewton story is the story of yet another "innovative,"  "game-changing," "trailblazing," education technodisruptor that was given tons of breathless press-- it was, I kid you not, going to "solve the global education crisis." At Davos, Knewton was going to "take education by storm." Not a single writer or reporter paused for even a second to ask if this weren't all a bunch of bullshit.  (Michael Feldstein caused an online uproar by saying re the NPR piece that Ferreira was selling snake oil.) And the investors lined up to throw money at Knewton. From 2012:

In October Knewton raised $33 million from Pearson and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, reportedly at a valuation north of $150 million. The company had already raised $21 million from venture firms such as Accel Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners and First Mark. Says Thiel, an impassioned advocate for shaking up the college model: “We like companies that have breakthrough technologies but not disruptive technologies, which typically don’t work. Knewton tries to make the existing system better with a very powerful tool.”

Knewton partnered with several publishers, most notably the behemoth Pearson, once heavily committed to a digital ocean of learning, but more recently backing away from that sea.

People who actually know education have been unconvinced all along by thee over-promising and underperforming of Big Data and adaptive learning (when you have a few minutes, go ahead and read everything that Audrey Watters ever wrote).  But it has taken a while for thee wind to leave Knewton's sails.

Knewton tried a little side step and set aside its dreams of Big Brothering the world to become a player in higher education. In 2016, Ferreira stepped down, and the new focus became selling digital courseware to the higher ed market. That, apparently, has not worked out for them. The purchase price has not been divulged, but analysts think it's far below the $180 million in venture capital sunk into the company.

So another big time adaptive learning personalized learning company has promised big and failed to deliver.

As for Ferreira, don't worry. After he was out the door at Knewton, he was on to another start-up. He co-founded BakPax with two other guys who have no background in education. Did Ferreira learn anything about making audacious promises you can't back up? Well, here's what BakPax says it's about:

Bakpax reads handwriting and grades assignments for you. It gives you deeper insight into class performance and gives your students immediate feedback.

Sigh. You give the BackPax server your answer key, then you-- or your students-- take a picture of student papers with your phone and BakPax grades it. Right now it's free. At least, I guess, it doesn't pretend it can grade essays. In the meantime, other purveyors of personalized [sic] adaptive data mining learning stuff could learn a lesson from all this-- something about trying to stage an education revolution when you mostly just know about investing and data. They could learn a lesson. I'm betting they won 't.

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