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The 2014 Knewton Symposium: Designing the Future of Digital Education

Posted in Ed Tech on August 6, 2014 by

Our team just returned from San Francisco, where Knewton hosted the 2014 Knewton Symposium: Designing the Future of Digital Education.

Last year’s Symposium focused primarily on higher ed in North America. This year’s event took a wider perspective, bringing together international leaders from K-12, higher ed, startups, and government to discuss the challenges and opportunities of digital education. Topics ranged from blended learning models to the burgeoning international ed tech landscape to women in technology. The highlight of the conference was Tuesday, when Knewton Founder and CEO Jose Ferreira engaged Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a spirited conversation on foreign policy, domestic affairs, and education.

The discussion started with Jose revealing that this was his first interview — ever. “I probably should have started with something a little less ambitious.”

He and Secretary Clinton discussed numerous topics — from Vladimir Putin’s motives to the complexity of being secretary of state in a globalized world to reforming the U.S. political system. On the heels of Knewton’s announcement of a partnership with Sesame Workshop, Secretary Clinton also discussed her strong support for early childhood education.

The Symposium was hosted at the Fairmont San Francisco.

The hotel has served as (temporary) home to President John F. Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Nat King Cole, and many others; in 1945, the charter that created the U.N. was penned there by President Harry Truman and other world leaders.

We also brought together some of the city’s finest dining. Knewton is full of foodies, so we take this stuff seriously. Greg Castells, former sommelier at the French Laundry and current president of Martine’s Wines, hosted a wonderful wine tasting, while Tim Hollingsworth, former chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, masterminded an unforgettable dinner on Monday night.

Below is a more detailed recap of the Symposium panelists and speakers.




Online Learning at Scale


  • Alan Drimmer, chief academic officer of Apollo Group
  • Renata Engel, associate vice provost of online programs at Penn State
  • Mark Alexander, senior vice president of content and curriculum, Grand Canyon University

Moderated by: David Liu, Knewton COO

The panelists discussed how universities can design physical spaces to accommodate online learning, and what steps their own institutions are taking to spur innovation. While there will always be strictly online and strictly brick-and-mortar learning experiences, the university of the future must seamlessly blend the two.

Digital Learning Gap and STEM


  • Debbie Sterling, CEO of Goldieblox
  • Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise and former director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education

Moderated by: Kristen Weeks, Knewton senior business development manager

Debbie Sterling spoke with refreshing candor about the role of women in technology, while Karen Cator added policy perspective from her time at the helm of the DOE’s Office of Educational Technology. Knewton is committed to supporting women in technology, and we were thrilled to hear these inspiring women talk about their experiences in the field.

Digital Learning Gap panel

A Global Perspective — Digital Readiness


  • Dr. Christoph Grau, chief digital officer, Macmillan
  • John Martin, CEO, Sanoma Learning
  • Mark Brown, director of the National Institute for Digital Learning

Moderated by: Charlie Harrington, Knewton director of business development

Featuring perspectives from European publishing, higher ed, K-12, and language learning, this transatlantic panel was one of the most popular at the Symposium. The panelists agreed: Europe has caught up with America and is more than ready to embrace new technology.

A Global Perspective

Investing in Ed Tech


  • Deborah Quazzo, founder and managing partner, GSV
  • Michael Moe, co-founder and partner, GSV
  • Brian Napack, senior advisor, Providence Equity

Moderated by: Jose Ferreira, Knewton founder and CEO

Somehow, this was the first joint panel for Deborah and Michael, the cofounders of the ASU GSV conference (one of our favorite events!). Brian added a lot of candor and humor, and a vigorous conversation ensued.

The OER Impact


Moderated by: Sara Ittelson, Knewton director of business development

The spirited discussion sparked by this panel shouldn’t have been surprising, given the audience: OER enthusiasts, publishing stalwarts, and everyone in between. For more on the panel, check out Jose’s latest blog post.

OER panel


Andy Rosen, CEO of Kaplan

Throughout his career, Andy Rosen (a former colleague and mentor of Jose) has steered huge innovations in digital education, from founding the first fully online law school in the U.S. to developing Kaplan University. His provocative talk argued that Knewton is important for the world — and offered three reasons why Knewton might fail. (We think we’ve got ‘em covered.)

Andy Rosen

Mohammad Qayoumi, president of San José State University

There’s a mantra in Silicon Valley about failing fast. But while that may be well and good for consumer web apps, it’s not so simple when it comes to mandatory, credit-bearing courses. Ed tech organizations must hold themselves to a higher standard. In this session, President Qayoumi offered insight into San José State’s high-stakes experiment with Udacity and MOOCs.

Bhavneet Singh, president and CEO of Pearson English and Informal Learning

In this session, Bhav spoke with Jose about unbundling — and possible parallels between education and the media industry. Bhav was formerly the managing director and executive vice president of emerging markets at Viacom.


Luciano Possani, innovation director at Kroton

Brazil is right now a hotbed of education innovation, with an extremely large and active ed tech market. Luciano Possani, innovation director of the largest private educational company in Brazil, provided an overview of the latest developments.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University

It was an honor to hear President Crow talk about ASU’s many initiatives and in particular their recent partnership with Starbucks. The idea of a major fast-food corporation paying for their employees’ college educations — with the full understanding that those employees will almost certainly graduate out of their jobs — is remarkable. We can only hope that others will be inspired to follow suit.

Michael Crow

Ben Schrom, head of product at Google Apps for Education

Ben discussed Google Classroom, the first Google product to require external product testing (other Google products go through rigorous internal testing). Google realized that to design a successful learning application, they needed to get feedback from real classrooms.

John Ittelson, associate executive director for CA Community College Online Education Initiative and professor emeritus of CSU Monterey Bay

John, one of the many teachers/professors at the Symposium, discussed transcripts and student records. Why haven’t they changed in the past century? We’re still profiling grades and general course information, instead of skills and competencies.